American universities and colleges are rushing to offer students degrees or certifications in so-called diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) when major U.S. corporations are reportedly laying off DEI-focused senior officers and thousands of employees.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death in 2020, American companies were under tremendous pressure from various stakeholders to do more for social justice and racial diversity in the workplace. One of the most vocal stakeholders in the corporate world is Larry Fink, chief executive officer of BlackRock, a trillion-dollar asset management firm. Weaponizing BlackRock’s enormous financial power, Fink has coerced many other American companies to adopt the “environmental, social, and governance” (ESG) agenda. For example, in its 2020 annual reports, BlackRock bragged that it had “voted against management more than 1,500 times for ‘insufficient diversity’” in company management.
Responding to these external demands as well as corporate executives’ eagerness to virtue signal, American companies rushed to hire DEI professionals, including adding Chief Diversity Officers (CDOs) to their top leadership. The Society for Human Resource Management reported in 2020 that DEI roles in the workplace increased by 55 percent following Floyd’s death. In a recent report titled “The Rise and Fall of the Chief Diversity Officer,” The Wall Street Journal found, “In 2018, less than half the companies in the S&P 500 employed someone in the role, and by 2022, three out of four companies had created a position.”
But since last summer, Big Tech companies such as Amazon and Twitter have led the way in laying off diversity professionals, followed by other well-known corporations such as American Airlines and Wells Fargo. A telling sign that corporations have less demand for DEI professionals was that “the number of CDO searches is down 75% in the past year,” according to the Journal. The attrition of DEI-focused employees has accelerated in the last six months, including the departures of high-profile CDOs at Netflix and Warner Bros. Revelio Labs’ 2023 report on the state of DEI shows, “Attrition rates for DEI roles have outpaced those of non-DEI roles at more than 600 US companies that laid off workers since late 2020, and have accelerated quickly in the last 6 months.”
Factors in DEI Downsizing
The gloomy employment trend among DEI professionals was driven by several factors. In a hurry to fill DEI roles, “some companies moved people into diversity leadership if they were an ethnic minority, even when they weren’t qualified,” essentially setting them up for failure and leading to a high turnover rate for DEI professionals, according to the Journal.
Even with well-qualified and experienced DEI professionals, many companies’ DEI initiatives made no one happy. Like the rest of America, DEI remains a contentious topic in the workplace. A recent Pew Research Center survey found employees’ opinions about DEI vary considerably along demographic and political lines. Only 30 percent of employees place great importance on so-called diversity in their workplace. Rather than creating an inclusive workplace, DEI trainings at some companies generated controversies, alienated certain segments of employees, reinforced stereotypes, and worsened the division of the workforce.
Despite limited return on investment, DEI professionals have been generously compensated; the average salary of a DEI director in the United States is $201,770. As U.S. economic growth is slowing down, mainly due to rising inflation and the Federal Reserve’s series of interest rate hikes, businesses have seen their revenues and profits drop significantly. For companies looking to cut costs, DEI-focused employees are an easy target because of their relatively high level of compensation while having little to show for it.
The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overthrew affirmative action also compelled companies to reevaluate their DEI initiatives. A group of Republican attorneys general warned some of America’s largest corporations in a letter that “[t]he Supreme Court’s recent decision should place every employer and contractor on notice of the illegality of racial quotas and race-based preferences in employment and contracting practices.” The letter went on to say, “We urge you to immediately cease any unlawful race-based quotas or preferences your company has adopted for its employment and contracting practices. If you choose not to do so, know that you will be held accountable.” Not surprisingly, some companies have tried to protect themselves from future legal challenges by scaling back DEI initiatives and laying off DEI-focused employees.
Yet even as corporations are cutting back DEI employment, there is a DEI “credentialing explosion” on college campuses. USA Today reported early this year that “[a]t least a half-dozen colleges across the country either offer DEI degree programs or soon will. … Dozens of colleges offer minors or concentrations with titles such as ‘diversity studies,’ from Texas State University to Michigan Tech to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. And more than 100 schools now offer programs categorized as intercultural or multicultural diversity studies, up from about 50 in 2012.”
Bentley University is the first university in the U.S. to offer the DEI Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science programs. For the 2023–2024 school year, Bentley charges an undergraduate student about $80,670 in tuition and fees. Colleges and universities, such as Bentley, justified their costly DEI programs by pointing to data such as the 123 percent increase in DEI job postings on Indeed.com between May and September 2020. But the 2020 spike in DEI job openings was short-lived, and the employment outlook for DEI professionals has since become pessimistic.
Students who commit to a four-year DEI program today will likely have difficulty finding well-paying DEI employment opportunities when they graduate saddled with student loan debt. Colleges and universities are notorious for mismatching the degrees they offer with the skills the market needs. Add the DEI program to the long list of overpriced, useless degrees that have enriched colleges and universities at the expense of students. If history is any indication, colleges and universities will suffer little or no negative financial consequences. When unemployed or underemployed DEI students demand student loan write-offs a few years from now, taxpayers will be on the hook to bail them out.