Navigating DEI Backlash: Lessons from the MIT Case

MIT campus from the air.One of our clients asked for our thoughts this week on the latest move in the ongoing backlash against DEI.

On May 20th, a conservative group filed a complaint with the US Dept of Education Office of Civil Rights against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for excluding some students from the university’s “CRWN” networking, mentoring, and development program.  The complaint alleges the program discriminates against men and people who are white because it only allows undergraduate women of color to apply.

Our client asked: “Our legal team is following this one closely. Any thoughts? Or feedback on how other organizations are reacting to this news?”

Great questions.

First, we all know this is another example of misunderstanding the goal of programs that target members of historically excluded groups. The MIT program’s mission is “to inspire undergraduate women of color to move confidently as visionaries, grounded in excellence, empathy, and support for one another.” The program has community, personal development, academic success, and professional development components. The community component, for example, states “encouraging support for one another, creating space for women of color (WOC) to connect, share experiences, and be themselves without the pressure of assimilation and being hyper aware of themselves.”  Programs include group mentoring with graduate student women of color, self-care events, mental health check-ins, book clubs, study sessions, bootcamps, peer support, resume workshops, and other professional seminars and workshops.

It’s common knowledge that in corporate and academic America, historically marginalized women have very few spaces where they can build community and where they’re not in the minority. Voices of WOC are often drowned out, their ideas and approaches often dismissed. In these spaces, WOC tend to have to navigate discrimination and obstacles more often than other genders and races (many studies/examples exist – including this one). In addition, society in general has contributed to diminish WOC’s sense of confidence (via the media, seeing the race and gender of people who lead most companies, institutions, and government, messages from TV, movies, etc.). These experiences have likely followed many of these WOC-students throughout their young lives up through their experience at MIT.

In addition, since human beings tend to gravitate towards people who look like us and remind us of ourselves, WOC have a diminished chance of being mentored in an environment in which they are the minority and tend to hold less power.

The above justifies support for WOC, especially in life- and career-building environments like college. As we say in many of our programs at LCW, equity is about proving people the resources and support they need to succeed, whereas equality is providing everyone the same resources and support. But does everyone need the same things? Does everyone have the same experiences? Clearly not.

Also, just because you might have programs that are directed at certain identities (e.g., women) does not mean that those identities are privileged or that there are no programs for other identities. I‘m willing to bet that there are probably numerous similar programs or opportunities that are open to and geared towards ‘everyone’ at MIT. 

It’s also important to train talent management folks, senior leaders, and hiring managers that it’s about valuing diversity, not about excluding certain identities.  If you value diversity, you strive for non-homogeneity in your ranks, including your most senior ranks. This is a business strategy that is not illegal, or even discriminatory. If most of your leaders are currently white men, it is reasonable to want to increase the number of (obviously qualified) women and multicultural leaders – not because those identities are privileged, but because you want a heterogeneous workforce to reflect your communities and to derive the benefits of a diverse workforce. We need everyone – including people who are white and of course men of all backgrounds – to achieve our diversity and inclusion goals!


This HBR article written by NYU law professors earlier this year offers some very concrete and useful advice on how to approach training and programming in today’s environment:

  1. “Upshifting” (shifting from “cohorts to content”). Instead of limiting participation in DEI programs to members of particular cohorts, organizations can open participation to people of all demographic backgrounds who are committed to the content of the program. On May 22nd, MIT added the following language to its CRWN website: “While our program is designed to support and celebrate undergraduate women of Color, participation is open to all students regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, and national origin.”
  2. “Downshifting” (shifting from “cohorts to character”). Consider a candidate’s identity only where it speaks to their individual character. In the 2023 Supreme Court decision, which held that race-based affirmative action programs in college admissions processes violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, the court noted that universities could still consider “an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.” The same applies to employers – you could invite job or promotion candidates to submit an essay describing how their race and other aspects of identity have affected their lives. The employer could then consider those individual experiences when deciding which candidates have displayed resilience, determination, or other important leadership qualities.
  3. “Side-switching” (shifting from “cohorts to cohorts”). Shifting from cohorts protected by laws such as Title VII to cohorts that are not protected in such ways (for example, advancing socioeconomic diversity), provided the organization is not using the new cohort as a proxy for a protected one.

It’s important for DEI initiatives to be inclusive and considerate of the perspectives and needs of all employees, regardless of their race or ethnicity. This can involve fostering open dialogue, providing opportunities for diverse voices to be heard, and actively engaging with communities to understand their concerns and priorities.

It’s true that focusing solely on differences can sometimes lead to feelings of disconnection or even division. However, DEI is ultimately about recognizing and valuing the unique perspectives and experiences that everyone brings to the table, while also striving for equity and inclusion for all.

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