by Thomas Barker | Fellow
The Academic Conversation is dedicated to clarifying issues facing technical communicators in university settings. Lately those settings have come under critical scrutiny for their commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI, also known as diversity, equity, and inclusion or DEI. In this article I use EDI). According to The Heritage Foundation, EDI initiatives are a bloat in the academy. Foundation spokespersons raise the alarm claiming that EDI programs divert university resources, turning universities and professors away from their true teaching and research path. Others make arguments for EDI initiatives under the warrant that universities must become places of inclusion for all.
Amidst this controversy, it is not easy for the average person to understand let alone judge. A clear, unalarmed eye in the judge is what is needed. As Aristotle once famously said, “It is not right to pervert the judge by moving him to anger or envy or pity–one might as well warp a carpenter’s rule before using it.” In this article I hope to true the rule for those who judge these EDI efforts.
Universities are our public, collective responsibility. How they are run is the purview of all people. For this reason, these claims deserve to be addressed. Are our universities off track in pursuing EDI goals? What can technical communication professors do to make sure they are serving all the public in the important work of helping citizens shape technology to human ends?
These important questions take center stage in this month’s column. I hope to show that those who claim that universities have run amuck with EDI, are missing the point. Also, technical communication practitioners can look to their scholarly traditions to guide them. Indeed, by looking at the kinds of arguments being made in technical communication scholarship, we can true the rule when it comes to evaluating university EDI initiatives.
We start by examining the arguments against EDI that claim it is not a valid direction for faculty, staff and students. Next, we examine what technical communication scholars assert as the purview of EDI, putting it into the context of trends in higher education. Finally, we look at how professors can true the rule for critics by encouraging even more EDI initiatives.
The Arguments Made Against EDI
A number of conservative think tanks, like the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute, have been focusing on issues in higher education. The Manhattan Institute defines EDI in the following way:
Any effort to promote as the official position of the administration, the college, the university, or any administrative unit thereof, a particular, widely contested opinion referencing unconscious or implicit bias, cultural appropriation, allyship, transgender ideology, microaggressions, group marginalization, anti-racism, systemic oppression, social justice, intersectionality, neo-pronouns, heteronormativity, disparate impact, gender theory, racial or sexual privilege, or any related formulation of these concepts.
The effort that these writers refer to consists of work by staff and administrative units who choose to use or are charged with using equity, diversity and inclusion principles to shape the university environment. The number of persons committed to this effort appears to these critics to be disproportionately large.
Writers for the Heritage Foundation look at universities and see EDI (they call it DEI) bureaucracies in higher education. From the 65 university websites they scanned, they cite nearly 3,000 people as having DEI responsibilities. Writers Jay P. Greene and James D. Paul make their case in this way:
DEI bureaucracies appear to increase administrative bloat without contributing to the stated goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Employing dozens of DEI professionals—in the form of chief diversity officers, assistant deans for diversity, and directors for inclusive excellence—may be better understood as jobs programs subsidizing political activism without improving campus climate. In light of these findings, state legislators and donors who fund these institutions may wish to examine DEI efforts more closely to ensure that university resources are used effectively.
Here we see how these writers encourage critiques of university effectiveness, warping the rule of those whose role it is to judge these institutions.
Legislators, boards of trustees, tuition-paying parents, donors, and other stakeholders can demand that universities produce evidence that their enormous devotion of resources to hiring DEI staff have been effective.
A demand for evidence of effectiveness is a legitimate request, especially where observers can look for measures of diversity, and numbers and responses of students from diverse backgrounds. Says the Manhattan Institute, “There is no reliable evidence to support the view that large DEI offices have a positive impact on minority students’ sense of belonging.”
To summarize, the argument in the Manhattan Institute article calls for “Colorblind Equality” that is based on assumptions of the abridgement of individual rights, and citations of legal precedent to encourage the push-back of people in the form of lawsuits.
The Argument Made For EDI
Technical communication academics who feel the need to address these critiques need look no further than scholarship in technical communication to see the bigger picture of EDI in their institutions. And then true the rule for those who critique this trend.
In reference to this trend, Jennifer Bay (2022), points out the importance of an infrastructure in higher education. In her research assignments she asks students to look to EDI practices in business and government as well as the university. Such a purview highlights an important point about university EDI work: it requires the building of an infrastructure. But what exactly does that mean?
Building an infrastructure means baking issues into all aspects of an institution. In Canada, for example, universities grapple with issues of Indigenous rights, responding to the experience of Indigenous persons (an important population in Canada). What researchers Gaudry and Lorenz found was that change requires an infrastructure. Some call it an environment. This experience shows us that what is good for equity-denied persons may be good for all. When you design with diversity as a goal, the benefits reach all. It’s like the canary in the coal mine: if the canary can breathe then everyone can breathe.
EDI work in universities, thus, takes on the scope of environmental transformation, looking for collective, fundamental changes rather than localized or individualized rights, the pursuit of which, some might claim, mainly enrich lawyers. The term for this environmental and socially relational kind of change that we see the technical communication and other scholarship is “social justice.” Researcher Natasha Jones, sees
…productive connections between technical communication and composition studies scholars seeking to re-frame and re-story the work of writing studies as a broader discipline, particularly scholars who are committed to more equitable, more accessible, more inclusive, and more socially just classrooms, academic organizations, and institutional programs.
Researchers Bennett and Hannah take the case further, noting that professors need to learn how to true the rule with their critics by pointing out the dynamics of system and infrastructure change in EDI. In the Table 1 I have laid out the differences between the arguments for and against EDI.
To answer our earlier question, universities are on track to remake themselves into more ethical institutions. But they change slowly. Why is that? Because, unlike many industries, they are comprised of critical, productive individuals for whom ideology and social responsibility make a difference. Universities are not blown about by popular trends. Higher education is the iceberg, not the ship. The justice goal of EDI seeks to change the environment, not the individual. Similarly, EDI is not a movement. Many responsible administrators identify with EDI work? Just a start if the goal is access with equity.
The work of equity, diversity and inclusion does not need an army or a bureaucracy; it needs voices, examples, mentorship, teaching, and engagement. These relationships elude customary outcomes measurement. Critiques of EDI efforts are welcome components of authentic, ethical change, but their influence must be resolved. Bennett and Hannah offer guidelines for how to true the rule in this way:
Ultimately, we hope that these guidelines help [technical and professional communicators] pursue ethical engagements that shift rights-based discourse within the workplace toward more robust understandings of access as a frictional, complex matter of social justice.
If we look again to Aristotle, the philosopher points out that in matters of justice, the law can only go so far.
As to whether a thing is important or unimportant, just or unjust, the judge must surely refuse to take his instructions from the litigants: he must decide for himself all such points as the law-giver has not already defined for him. Aristotle, On Rhetoric
We are all judges and all judged. In conversations about decision-making at the university, academic technical communicators, myself included, are being called on to understand and account for the policies that drive our work. Thankfully, technical communication scholars have worked out artful communicative approaches to true the rule when the law falls short.
Guidelines for Truing the Rule (adapted from Bennett and Hannah)
- Reframe EDI as a collective endeavor
- Move the discussion from “equality” to “equity”
- Frame EDI leadership as productivity
- Exchange standard notions of minorities with considerations of difference
- Recognize the connections among marginalized identities
Bay, Jennifer. 2022. “Fostering Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Technical and Professional Communication Service Course.” IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 65 (1): 213–25.
Bennett, Kristin C., and Mark A. Hannah. 2022. “Transforming the Rights-Based Encounter: Disability Rights, Disability Justice, and the Ethics of Access.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 36 (3): 326–54.
Gaudry, Adam, and Danielle Lorenz. 2018. “Indigenization as Inclusion, Reconciliation, and Decolonization: Navigating the Different Visions for Indigenizing the Canadian Academy.” AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples 14 (3): 218–27.
Greene, Jay P., and Paul, James D. 2021. “Diversity University: DEI Bloat in the Academy.” 3641. The Heritage Foundation. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED616086.pdf.
Jones, Natasha N. 2016. “The Technical Communicator as Advocate: Integrating a Social Justice Approach in Technical Communication.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 46 (3): 342–61.
Rufo, Christopher F., Ilya Shapiro and Matt Beienburg. 2023. “Abolish DEI Bureaucracies and Restore Colorblind Equality in Public Universities.” Manhattan Institute Issue Brief. https://www.manhattan-institute.org/model-dei-legislation.
Shields, Christopher. 2022. “Aristotle.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Spring 2022. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2022/entries/aristotle/.
Thomas Barker is Professor of Communication in the Graduate Program in Communication and Technology in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta. His research focuses on communication issues in public health, risk communication, and higher education. He has published in software documentation, risk communication, and higher education.