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‘America Is Under Attack’: Inside the Anti-D.E.I. Crusade

In late 2022, a group of conservative activists and academics set out to abolish the diversity, equity and inclusion programs at Texas’ public universities.

They linked up with a former aide to the state’s powerful lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick,1 who made banning D.E.I. initiatives one of his top priorities. Setting their sights on well-known schools like Texas A&M, they researched which offices and employees should be expunged. A well-connected alumnus conveyed their findings to the A&M chancellor; the former Patrick aide cited them before a State Senate committee. The campaign quickly yielded results: In May, Texas approved legislation banishing all such programs from public institutions of higher learning.

Dan Patrick, lieutenant governor of Texas

Long before Claudine Gay resigned Harvard’s presidency this month under intense criticism of her academic record, her congressional testimony about campus antisemitism and her efforts to promote racial justice, conservative academics and politicians had begun making the case that the decades-long drive to increase racial diversity in America’s universities had corrupted higher education. Gathering strength from a backlash against Black Lives Matter, and fueled by criticism that doctrines such as critical race theory had made colleges engines of progressive indoctrination, the eradication of D.E.I. programs has become both a cause and a message suffusing the American right. In 2023, more than 20 states considered or approved new laws taking aim at D.E.I., even as polling has shown that diversity initiatives remain popular.

Thousands of documents obtained by The New York Times cast light on the playbook and the thinking underpinning one nexus of the anti-D.E.I. movement — the activists and intellectuals who helped shape Texas’ new law, along with measures in at least three other states. The material, which includes casual correspondence with like-minded allies around the country, also reveals unvarnished views on race, sexuality and gender roles. And despite the movement’s marked success in some Republican-dominated states, the documents chart the activists’ struggle to gain traction with broader swaths of voters and officials.

Centered at the Claremont Institute, a California-based think tank with close ties to the Trump movement and to Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, the group coalesced roughly three years ago around a sweeping ambition: to strike a killing blow against “the leftist social justice revolution” by eliminating “social justice education” from American schools.

The documents — grant proposals, budgets, draft reports and correspondence, obtained through public-records requests — show how the activists formed a loose network of think tanks, political groups and Republican operatives in at least a dozen states. They sought funding from a range of right-leaning philanthropies and family foundations, and from one of the largest individual donors to Republican campaigns in the country. They exchanged model legislation, published a slew of public reports and coordinated with other conservative advocacy groups in states like Alabama, Maine, Tennessee and Texas.

In public, some individuals and groups involved in the effort joined calls to protect diversity of thought and intellectual freedom, embracing the argument that D.E.I. efforts had made universities intolerant and narrow. They claimed to stand for meritocratic ideals and against ideologies that divided Americans. They argued that D.E.I. programs made Black and Hispanic students feel less welcome instead of more.

Yet even as they or their allies publicly advocated more academic freedom, some of those involved privately expressed their hope of purging liberal ideas, professors and programming wherever they could. They debated how carefully or quickly to reveal some of their true views — the belief that “a healthy society requires patriarchy,” for example, and their broader opposition to anti-discrimination laws — in essays and articles written for public consumption.

In candid private conversations, some wrote favorably of laws criminalizing homosexuality, mocked the appearance of a female college student as overly masculine and criticized Peter Thiel, the prominent gay conservative donor, over his sex life. In email exchanges with the Claremont organizers, the writer Heather Mac Donald derided working mothers who employed people from “the low IQ 3rd world” to care for their children and lamented that some Republicans still celebrated the idea of racially diverse political appointments.

Lagging achievement for African Americans and other racial minorities, some argued privately, should not be a matter of public concern. “My big worry in these things is that we do not make ‘the good of minorities’ the standard by which we judge public policy or the effects of public policy,” wrote Scott Yenor,2 a conservative Idaho professor who would come to lead the anti-D.E.I. project for Claremont. “Whites will be overrepresented in some spheres. Blacks in others. Asians in others. We cannot see this as some moral failing on our part.”

Scott Yenor, fellow at the Claremont Institute

In a statement for this article, Claremont said that it was “proud to be a leader in the fight against D.E.I., since the ideology from which it flows conflicts with America’s Founding principles, constitutional government and equality under the law. Those are the things we believe in. Without them there is no America. You cannot have those things with D.E.I.”

The institute added: “Repeatedly, and in public, we make these arguments to preserve justice, competence and the progress of science.”

Naming ‘the Enemy’

In recent decades, amid concerns about the underrepresentation of racial minorities on campus, American universities have presided over a vast expansion of diversity programs. These have come to play a powerful — and increasingly controversial — role in academic and student life. Critics have come to view them as tools for advancing left-wing ideas about gender and race, or for stifling the free discussion of ideas. In response, officials in some states have banned D.E.I. offices altogether. Others have limited classroom discussion of concepts like identity politics or systemic racism. A growing number of states and schools have also begun eliminating requirements that job applicants furnish “diversity statements” — written commitments to particular ideas about diversity and how to achieve it that, at some institutions, have functionally served as litmus tests in hiring.

But in early 2021, in the wake of the George Floyd protests and President Donald J. Trump’s re-election defeat, the Claremont organizers were on the defensive. The documents show them debating how to frame their attacks: They needed not only to persuade the political middle but to energize conservative politicians and thinkers, many of whom they regarded as too timid, or even complicit with a liberal regime infecting American government and business.

Thomas D. Klingenstein,1 a New York investor who is both Claremont’s chairman and a top Republican donor, offered a glum perspective in March that year.

Thomas Klingenstein, Claremont chairman and Republican donor

“Rhetorically, our side is getting absolutely murdered,” Mr. Klingenstein wrote to Dr. Yenor and another Claremont official. “We have not even come up with an agreed-on name for the enemy.”

One problem, Dr. Yenor reported to his colleagues, was that many lawmakers were reluctant to take on anything called “diversity and inclusion.” Terms like “diversity,” he argued, needed to be saddled with more negative connotations.

“I obviously think social justice is what we should call it,” he wrote. “We should use the term that is most likely to stigmatize the movement that is accurate and arises from common life.” While nobody wanted to seem in favor of discrimination, he argued, “social justice” could be “stigmatized so that when people hear it they can act on their suspicions.”

At the time, a like-minded activist, Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute, was popularizing an alternative catchall with his attacks on “critical race theory” — a once-obscure academic framework that examines how racism can be structurally embedded in seemingly neutral laws or institutions.

In short order, Republican officials and activists around the country set out to ban critical race theory — or anything that could be successfully labeled “C.R.T.” — from schools. But Dr. Yenor believed such bans were not far-reaching enough.

To combat leftism in America, conservatives would need to wage a much broader war. The Claremont group kept tinkering.

By 2022, as Claremont and allies like the Maine Policy Institute and a Tennessee group called Velocity Convergence rolled out early research, the approach had changed. Their public reports began to borrow from Mr. Rufo’s rhetoric, attacking “critical social justice” or “critical social justice education.”

When Claremont and the Texas Public Policy Foundation turned to the state’s public universities in early 2023, they circled back to “diversity,” but with a twist.

“Academics and administrators are no longer merely pushing progressive politics but are transforming universities into institutions dedicated to political activism and indoctrinating students with a hateful ideology,” warned a report on Texas A&M. “That ideology is Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI).”

A Donation Opportunity

“Woke” politics was not just a threat to American life. It was also a fund-raising opportunity. By spring 2021, as parents grew impatient with Covid school closures, or skeptical of “anti-racist” curriculums in the wake of the Floyd protests, Claremont officials had begun circulating urgent grant requests to right-leaning foundations.

“America is under attack by a leftist revolution disguised as a plea for justice” reminiscent of “Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution,” Claremont’s president, Ryan P. Williams,1 wrote in a draft proposal to the Jack Miller Family Foundation.

Ryan Williams, Claremont’s president

(A spokesman for the Miller foundation said that officials there did not recall whether the foundation had ever received the proposal, and that it had not made any grants to Claremont in recent years.)

Liberals dominated the world of higher education, the Claremont proposals said. What was needed was a frontal attack on public university systems in states where conservatives dominated the legislatures.

Claremont officials would partner with state think tanks, and with the hundreds of former fellows scattered through conservative institutions and on Capitol Hill. They would catalog the D.E.I. programs and personnel honeycombed through public universities. Then they would lobby sympathetic public officials to gut them.

In the proposals, Claremont set a first round of targets, in states including Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

“Our project will give legislators the knowledge and tools they need to stop funding the suicide of their own country and civilization,” Claremont pledged in an August 2021 draft proposal to the Taube Family Foundation.

The Wisconsin-based Searle Freedom Trust had separately agreed to fund a Claremont effort to inventory what it considered “C.R.T. courses” that had “metastasized throughout Higher Ed,” according to the draft proposal. Another proposal, drafted for the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation in May 2022, aimed to dissect how red states could disentangle themselves from federal funding and mandates that, in Claremont’s view, advanced social justice ideology. Related proposals went to at least eight foundations in total.1 (Representatives of the Taube and Rupe foundations did not reply to emails and phone messages seeking comment.)

I will finish polishing up the budget along with the rest of the proposal, almost all of which is previously-blessed language from the latest Scaife, Dockweiler, Darling, and Verheij proposals, and send that to you tomorrow.

Ultimately, according to one document, the Claremont organizers hoped state lawmakers across the country would pass sweeping prohibitions on teaching “social justice programming.”

As the project progressed, Claremont made plans to prospect for donors at a Dallas country club and at the Palm Beach home of Elizabeth Ailes, the widow of the Fox News co-founder Roger Ailes. Growing anger among older conservatives helped open the spigot. “The Searle kids don’t like wokery,” wrote Chris Ross, a Claremont fund-raising official, in a December 2021 email, apparently referring to adult children of the trust’s late benefactor, Daniel C. Searle. (A representative of the Searle trust disputed whether Claremont officials had knowledge of the Searles’ political views.)

Among other efforts, the Searle trust agreed to back a project examining critical race theory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The school had been roiled that fall by the cancellation of a science lecture by Dorian Abbot, a geophysicist who, like a plurality of Americans, opposed aspects of affirmative action in higher education.

The following year, a Utah scientist and renewable-energy consultant, along with his wife, kicked in $25,000 for the project.1 It had “really caught their imagination,” Mr. Ross wrote, because of their “ongoing concerns about their grandchildren and wokeism.” Secrecy was essential. “This work will be done more easily if the wokesters at MIT don’t see it coming,” he wrote.

This project really caught their imagination, not only because of their backgrounds, but because of their ongoing concerns about their grandchildren and wokeism. With the understanding that this work will be done more easily if the wokesters at MIT don’t see it coming, they have volunteered to stay quiet about the project until it is publicized.

Under the Banner of Freedom

The Claremont effort seemed to diverge from others on the right who had long urged academic institutions to renew their commitment to ideological diversity. In one exchange, some of those involved discussed how to marshal political power to replace left-wing orthodoxies with more “patriotic,” traditionalist curriculums.

“In support of ridding schools of C.R.T., the Right argues that we want nonpolitical education,” Mr. Klingenstein wrote in August 2021. “No we don’t. We want our politics. All education is political.”

Dr. Yenor appeared to agree, responding with some ideas for reshaping K-12 education. “An alternative vision of education must replace the current vision of education,” he wrote back.

State legislatures, he proposed, could strip “educational professionals” of the power to decide what to teach and even shorten the school day so that young people would spend less time in class. They might pass laws letting private citizens sue school board members with financial ties to the “education industry.”

At the same time, individuals and groups involved in the effort seemed to grasp that academic freedom could be a politically useful frame for their attacks.

In a 2023 exchange, Dr. Yenor and two associates discussed how to defend Amy Wax, a conservative law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Wax had drawn the ire of administrators and students there for once opining, among other things, that the United States would be “better off with fewer Asians and less Asian immigration,” and that Black people felt “resentment and shame and envy” over the “Western peoples’ outsized achievements and contributions.”

Filing a grievance claim against the university, Dr. Wax’s lawyer apparently asked David Azerrad,1 a professor at Hillsdale College, for a statement of support. Dr. Azerrad, in turn, sought his Claremont friends’ advice.

David Azerrad, professor at Hillsdale College

Dr. Yenor had experience with such situations. Two years earlier, he had faced Title IX complaints at Boise State University following a speech in which he argued that feminism had made women “more medicated, meddlesome and quarrelsome than women need to be.” Amid the uproar, Boise State officials defended the right of faculty to “introduce uncomfortable and even offensive ideas.”

Now, Dr. Yenor advised his friend Dr. Azerrad to aim his statement at a liberal audience — to defend Dr. Wax on the grounds that if she were fired, it would only embolden red-state lawmakers to fire controversial left-wing professors.

“But don’t we want this to happen?” Dr. Azerrad asked.

“Yes,” replied Dr. Yenor. “But your audience doesn’t want it to happen.”

In an email, Dr. Azerrad described the exchanges as “flippant banter” that “do not discuss substantive policy matters.” A spokesman for Claremont said that both Dr. Yenor and Mr. Klingenstein believed that “intellectual diversity and free speech are not ends in themselves but means to other important ends, including a vision of education.”

‘More Wholesome Policies’

Even as they sought to stigmatize and defeat left-wing ideas, academics and activists in the Claremont orbit seemed cognizant that some of their own views were outside the mainstream.

In a 2021 exchange among academics at Claremont, Hillsdale and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Dr. Yenor discussed edits to an essay he was planning to publish in First Things, a conservative journal. His editor, he said, wanted Dr. Yenor to be less “prudent” in his writing about homosexuality, encouraging him to voice ideas like — as Dr. Yenor characterized it — “Our sexual culture will not heal until ‘faggot’ replaces ‘bigot’ as the slur of choice,” or “Our sexual culture will not be healed until we once again agree that homosexuality belongs in the closet and that a healthy society requires patriarchy.” (“Since they are my views, I have tried to do that,” Dr. Yenor wrote. In the end, he settled for tamer language.)

In casual discussions with like-minded academics and activists, some those involved in the anti-D.E.I. effort mocked what they considered liberals’ obsession with hierarchies of oppression. Some evinced a frank dislike of gay people.

In an exchange last May, Dr. Yenor, two former Trump administration officials with Claremont ties and Ms. Mac Donald discussed a court case in India about same-sex marriage. Ms. Mac Donald1 — a fellow at the Manhattan Institute who last spring published a book titled “When Race Trumps Merit: How the Pursuit of Equity Sacrifices Excellence, Destroys Beauty and Threatens Lives” — was not formally connected to Claremont’s anti-D.E.I. efforts but corresponded frequently with those who were.

Heather Mac Donald, fellow at the Manhattan Institute

She speculated in the May exchange that it would be “fun to see” what liberals would say about Indians if the court conferred gay marriage rights but Indians refused to “go along.” “How will western elites explain the benightedness of yet another group of POCs?” In response, Dr. Yenor noted that “not tons of asian countries have SSM” but rather “more wholesome policies like prison” for gays.

Last spring, Ms. Mac Donald emailed some of the same people about news reports that a boyfriend of Mr. Thiel — nominally their ally in the rising “national conservatism” movement — had committed suicide after a confrontation with Mr. Thiel’s husband at a party. Calling the episode “a scandal,” she opined that gay men “are much more prone” to extramarital affairs “on the empirical basis of testosterone unchecked by female modesty.” She added mockingly that a friend had once tried to convince her “how wonderful Thiel’s ‘husband’ was.”

Neither Ms. Mac Donald nor a Manhattan Institute spokeswoman replied to emails seeking comment.

Dr. Yenor and his allies bristled at the conventions of academic life as overly solicitous toward female and nonwhite students. He sometimes shared routine emails from administrators at his home institution, Boise State, deriding them as examples of being “ruled by women.” On one occasion, he forwarded a Boise State email featuring a photo of a female computer science student with close-cropped hair and a plaid shirt. “Gynocracy update!” Dr. Yenor wrote.

Riffing on the woman’s masculine appearance, his friend Dr. Azerrad chimed in with a correction: “Androgynococracy update.”

In another email to Dr. Yenor, Ms. Mac Donald reflected on a further “curse of feminism”: the proliferation of “nannies of color” in her Manhattan neighborhood and the “bizarreness” of women entrusting their children to caregivers from “the low IQ 3rd world” while devoting themselves to making partner at a law firm.

Ms. Mac Donald, some Claremont friends and a conservative Canadian professor also discussed a routine in which the comedian Bill Burr took feminists to task for the low attendance at WNBA games. (“None of you showed up! Where are all the feminists?”)

When Ms. Mac Donald asked why the comedian hadn’t been “canceled,” Mr. Williams, Claremont’s president, pointed out that Mr. Burr was “married to a black woman, which helps.”

Ms. Mac Donald replied, “We are all just SO grateful if there is a black who does not overtly hate us.” She went on to rail against a libertarian podcast that praised former President George W. Bush for selecting Black people for his cabinet, “as if there is any talent required to make quota appointments.”

The Movement Grows

Since 2021, the network’s anti-D.E.I. campaign has spread to at least a dozen states, according to the documents.

In Tennessee, where Claremont partnered with Velocity Convergence, one of the anti-D.E.I. reports they produced reportedly circulated among Republican state lawmakers as they worked to pass a bill limiting how universities could teach or train students about “divisive concepts.” A spokeswoman for the University of Tennessee said in a statement that the report’s conclusions “seem to be based on subjective criteria, made-up definitions and the opinions of the authors,” who obtained information from online searches and public records but “made no attempt to understand the information through questions or interviews.” Tennessee’s governor signed the new law in April 2022.

Susan Kaestner, Velocity’s founder and a veteran Republican operative in the state, said that “the obsessive focus on diversity, equity and inclusion is effectively reducing viewpoint diversity on Tennessee campuses.”

Last year, Claremont organizers forged connections with the Arkansas Senate’s Republican leader. In Alabama, they partnered with a group called Alabamians for Academic Excellence and Integrity. Jeff Sessions, the former U.S. attorney general and a supporter of the Alabama group, was among those who provided funds for a Claremont report, “Going Woke in Dixie?,” that focused on Auburn University and the University of Alabama.

After it was released last summer, according to another email, Samuel Ginn,1 a wealthy Auburn alumnus and donor to both the school and Claremont, confronted the university’s president, Christopher B. Roberts, and pressed him to address the report’s findings.

Samuel Ginn, Claremont donor

“The president then told him, ‘Things will change,’” a Claremont fund-raiser wrote to Dr. Yenor and other officials there.

An Auburn spokeswoman said in an email that Dr. Roberts “has no recollection of the comment that was attributed to him.” Efforts to contact Mr. Ginn were unsuccessful.

Ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, the group also teamed with Republican political operatives and a think tank in Maine — where Mr. Klingenstein owns a vacation compound — to gather examples of “D.E.I. in action” in the state’s public universities and K-12 schools. Mr. Klingenstein suggested highlighting examples of putatively odd-sounding college courses,1 as another conservative group had done in a report about left-wing influence at Bowdoin College in Maine. (Among them were “Queer Gardens” and “Sex in Colonial America.” Bowdoin responded by defending its coursework and calling the report distorted and “meanspirited.”)

When NAS reviewed the Bowdoin curricula NAS highlighted courses such as “Queer Gardens, ” “Sex in Colonial America”. These were the sorts of thing that got peoples’ attention. How do we show a video of DEI in action?

After the group published a report on “critical social justice” in Maine’s K-12 classrooms, Mr. Klingenstein noted in one email that despite the need to reform public schools, the group faced difficulty figuring out what was “actually happening on the ground.” He praised the report but acknowledged it was “necessarily rather anecdotal.” Even so, the work could be wielded as a bludgeon. By fall 2022, the effort had expanded to include an advertising campaign against the state’s Democratic governor, Janet Mills. The campaign, funded by Mr. Klingenstein, was spearheaded by a national advocacy group called the American Principles Project, which in turn operated through a front group called Maine Families First.

Citing the Maine K-12 report, among other sources, ads from the group misleadingly claimed that Ms. Mills was “distributing pornography to our children,” referring to “Gender Queer,” a graphic memoir for young adults that includes sexually explicit scenes. (In fact, according to a report by Maine Public Radio, the book had appeared on one American Library Association list of gay-themed literature, a link to which could be found on the website of the Maine Department of Education.) All told, the group would spend nearly $3 million on ads attacking Ms. Mills.

‘Just the Beginning’

Ms. Mills went on to win re-election. But the anti-D.E.I. campaign has gained ground in more Republican-leaning states. Claremont has claimed credit for helping pass the most wide-ranging bans, in Florida as well as in Texas. Last January, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas issued an executive order banning “indoctrination and critical race theory in schools.” In North Carolina in June, Republican lawmakers passed a law barring public universities and other agencies from requiring employees to state their opinions on social issues, a move Democratic lawmakers said was aimed at D.E.I. programs more broadly. Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Kevin Stitt, issued a similar executive order in December.

Last year, Claremont officials also courted Mr. DeSantis, then a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination and the governor most closely associated with anti-D.E.I. policies. The institute dispatched Dr. Yenor to Florida to run a new office in Tallahassee, appointing him as its “senior director of state coalitions.” (On Sunday, Mr. DeSantis suspended his presidential bid.)

In early April, as Mr. DeSantis prepared to announce his presidential campaign, he visited Mr. Klingenstein. In an email, Mr. Klingenstein told Claremont officials that Mr. DeSantis had agreed to give Dr. Yenor access to his top political and government aides. Mr. Klingenstein also said he’d urged the governor to do a better job explaining to voters why “wokeism” was dangerous.

Appearing on the campaign trail in subsequent weeks, Mr. DeSantis began to offer a more expansive definition of the term — while mentioning “woke” so many times that some reporters began keeping count.

But as Mr. DeSantis’s presidential bid sputtered and conservative campaigns against left-wing education began to lose traction in some parts of the country, people involved in the anti-D.E.I. effort began to retool once again. In June, the American Principles Project circulated a memo detailing the results of several focus groups held to test different culture-war messages.

For all the conservative attacks on diversity programs, the group found, “the idea of woke or DEI received generally positive scores.” Most voters didn’t know the difference between equality and the more voguish term “equity,” oft-mocked on the right, which signifies policies intended to achieve equal outcomes for different people, not simply equal opportunities.

The memo was sent by an associate to Mr. Klingenstein and Mr. Williams, along with an undated draft speech apparently written for Representative Jim Banks,1 an Indiana Republican who founded the House Anti-Woke Caucus last January. (Mr. Banks’s spokesman did not reply to an email seeking comment.)

Representative Jim Banks, Republican of Indiana

For Mr. Banks and other Republicans, the controversies over antisemitism on campus this fall provided a fresh opportunity to make their case. With some student protesters defending or even valorizing the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks on Israel by Hamas, criticisms of campus D.E.I. programs began to gain more of an audience among liberals. In December, when House Republicans summoned Dr. Gay to Capitol Hill, along with the presidents of M.I.T. and the University of Pennsylvania, they argued that diversity programs were the root cause of antisemitic rhetoric on campus.

As the presidential election looms, Republicans are embarking on a renewed campaign against the higher-education institutions they have long criticized, now under the banner of eradicating anti-Jewish hate. The House Committee on Education and the Workforce is investigating Harvard and other schools, and the scope of the inquiry is expected to expand.

“This is just the beginning,” pledged Representative Elise Stefanik, the New York Republican whose questioning of Dr. Gay helped set in motion the Harvard president’s resignation. “Our robust congressional investigation will continue to move forward to expose the rot in our most ‘prestigious’ higher-education institutions and deliver accountability to the American people.”

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