DEI: Correcting Inequity or Creating It? - TribPapers

DEI: Correcting Inequity or Creating It?

Dr. Skip Capone speaks on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to the Critical Issues Luncheon.

Asheville – On April 24, Leadership Asheville Forum held their monthly Critical Issues Luncheon at the Asheville Country Club on the topic “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Correcting Inequity or Creating It?” Legal expert Dr. Lucien “Skip” Capone discussed the history of formal Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, or DEI initiatives, criticisms and strategies to terminate the programs, and impacts on higher education in North Carolina.

Capone served as University General Counsel for UNC Asheville from 2010 until his retirement in 2015, following a distinguished career in the UNC system, the NC Attorney General’s office, and the Navy Reserves.

Leadership Asheville Forum board member Sophia Ungert introduced the speaker and acknowledged the controversial nature of the topic.

“DEI initiatives are facing bans across the nation,” said Ungert. “Critics say efforts don’t address inequalities, waste public money, and break anti-discrimination laws. Advocates say it remedies effects from decades of exclusionary policies and practices for underrepresented communities.”

Capone used his expertise to provide context and an overview of the recent changes in colleges and universities as DEI has come under increased scrutiny.

Capone noted that much of the controversy surrounding DEI comes from broader cultural wars and growing skepticism surrounding many American institutions. He stated that higher education was a “target rich environment” for controversy due to the competing ideas of academic freedom and public accountability.

Capone stated that providing opportunities for a diverse group of citizens was essential to a strong and secure country. He emphasized that “words matter in discussing DEI” and provided definitions of the concepts.

Diversity includes differences in ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status, physical ability, veteran status, or other identities. Equity is the process of ensuring that practices and programs are fair and available on an equal basis. Inclusion involves creating a culture where people feel comfortable and supported by an organization.

Capone provided an overview of DEI at the state level. The current policy of “equality of opportunity” was adopted in 2019 by the UNC Board of Governors and includes specific DEI initiatives the university system has started to increase accessibility. Tactics include annual reporting on data from each campus and training for educators and administrators, although Capone predicts changes in the near future.

“What we’ve been witnessing over the last couple years is a backlash against these types of programs and initiatives,” said Capone. In fights that frequently gain national media attention, politicians and activists frame DEI initiatives as racial discrimination in and of themselves or social engineering designed to recreate society.

Capone said much of the anti-DEI work involves changing the meaning behind commonly used terms, such as reframing diversity as “reverse discrimination” or inclusion as “denying freedom of association.”

DEI is also facing legislative and regulatory challenges nationally, with think tanks such as the Claremont Institute launching legislative strategies in states including Florida, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and North Carolina. Nationally, more than a dozen states have passed legislation eliminating training and staff for DEI.

North Carolina has enacted some anti-DEI legislation, including a statute banning “required speech” which prevents universities from requiring students, faculty, or administration to publicly express a certain view on a social policy such as DEI.

He shared the often contradictory results of recent lawsuits, such as the 2023 Supreme Court ruling issued in Students for Fair Admissions v. UNC Chapel Hill, which restricted the consideration of race as a factor in university admissions programs. Although the decision prevented universities from asking applicants about their race, it does not prohibit applicants from discussing how discrimination has impacted them. Capone said this lack of clarity has resulted in confusion in North Carolina and across the country on how to implement policies that don’t violate competing imperatives.

Capone said universities are looking for “race-neutral” ways of increasing the representation of underprivileged and underrepresented students. Tactics include relying more heavily on socio-economic status, emphasizing geography such as rural areas, providing mentorships for underperforming students, and implementing remedial education programs to build skills.

Capone said that universities must look for ways to address DEI that survive controversy while also effectively serving students. “But, even though [DEI initiatives] survive legal scrutiny, there’s no guarantee they’ll survive political scrutiny.”

Capone expects additional regulations to come out of the current North Carolina legislative session and is following developments closely in the context of national trends. “I would not be surprised if we enacted the same kinds of laws you’re seeing in Florida, Texas, and other states.”