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An illustration of the acronym "DEI" on fire. A gas can visible in the upper right-hand corner of the illustration is fueling the flames.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Getty Images

You’d be hard-pressed to find a higher education institution that does not profess a commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and Indigenization, expressed in mission statements, strategic plans and other high-level documents. While the acronyms and terms used at each institution may vary, commitments to the principles of diversity seem to have been universally embraced at universities across the globe (in Canada, the term “equity, diversity, inclusion and Indigenization,” EDI&I, is more common, while “DEI” seems to dominate in the U.S. and other contexts). Despite the visibility of DEI rhetoric, research shows that institutions have not only failed to live up to their professed DEI and Indigenization commitments but have also persistently resisted efforts to prioritize structural changes that would advance these initiatives.

In short, universities have both embraced DEI rhetoric and paradoxically deployed multiple strategies of resistance to implementing practices that could dismantle systemic inequalities. Based on our shared experience working within multiple higher education institutions and roles, we use the concept of institutional gaslighting to help identify and name four specific ways that universities gaslight and resist institutional transformation efforts. We call these strategies the slowdown, the pushback, the shutdown and the blowback.

Institutional gaslighting is a helpful concept here because it captures how the paradox of institutional commitment and resistance to DEI and Indigenization initiatives can be exhausting, confusing and frustrating for those working to pursue these structural reforms. Gaslighting is widely described as a gendered phenomenon in which feminized subjects are made to question themselves by those with more power, typically men. Institutional gaslighting draws from Black feminist scholarship to point to institutional strategies that sustain existing power structures and systems, even while leaders express commitment to change.

While the four strategies we discuss below aren’t exhaustive, we argue that they capture some of the main ways that universities manage to both embrace DEI rhetoric and maintain the status quo. In our longer article on this topic, we discuss these tactics in relation to our own efforts to conduct research that would support DEI initiatives within the university in two international contexts. This includes a diversity audit of the leadership pipeline at five Canadian universities and a study measuring bias among faculty members in their responses to prospective students.

The first set of strategies is captured by the title: the slowdown. The slowdown involves a range of discursive tactics communicating, “We can’t do that yet.” We mention the slowdown first because it can be one of the most common and powerful types of institutional resistance. The slowdown can take the shape of prolonged public or stakeholder consultation, endless environmental scans of programs, comprehensive reviews of policies, entrenched barriers to accessing data and requirements for approval from a large number of individuals and offices. Slowdown tactics are powerful because they can be framed as supportive, reasonable and necessitated by principles of peer review and faculty governance, yet they ultimately serve to delay structural changes, often indefinitely.

The pushback is a second set of gaslighting and resistance strategies that undermine the intellectual, methodological or ethical validity of research or initiatives aimed at advancing DEI. These strategies can best be captured with the phrase “you are doing it wrong.” Clearly, pushback and slowdown tactics overlap; what distinguishes pushback is the questioning of legitimacy. Pushback can convey a message that “diversity is important, but this is not the way to do it.” Pushback can come in the form of questioning methods or raising concerns about the rights of those implicated in research, including their privacy and consent. Pushback tactics may question the expertise or motivations of researchers and point away from DEI scholars and toward designated DEI committees as the legitimate experts whose approval is necessary for research to move forward.

The third set of strategies is called the shutdown. The shutdown as a tactic of resistance is captured by the phrase “we can’t do that, ever.” The shutdown captures forms of institutional pressure put on researchers or those raising DEI-related concerns or introducing initiatives to stop their work immediately. The clear message is that the work is not acceptable, appropriate or permitted. The message is often that it does not adhere to established policies, rules or norms in higher education (which were not built on DEI considerations). The shutdown can take the form of institutional suggestions or directives to stop, based on decisions that effectively discredit research methodology and/or findings. While there are overlaps among the various forms of gaslighting, shutdown tactics are distinct in that they are more definitively aimed at stopping a conversation, halting a project and delegitimizing research in ways that are silencing. The shutdown can also involve punishing those who speak out about DEI and Indigenization, for example, by imposing penalties on a committee member who draws attention to microaggressions or manifestations of oppression.

The final set of gaslighting strategies is called blowback. Blowback captures forms of harsh social pressure for scholars to abandon their DEI work and to stop talking about it. In short, blowback conveys the message “you need to stop doing that, and you need to shut up.” Unlike the shutdown, which refers to the institutional obstacles designed to stop research initiatives, blowback refers to the forms of peer or public pressures on scholars to stop what they are doing and to “pipe down.” Tactics take the form of threats, overt or perceived, that either one ends their work or there will be consequences for one’s career. Tactics may include “cooling effects” from colleagues resulting from their disapproval of the work, as well as forms of community and peer isolation. The frosting of professional relationships constitutes both shutdown of the work itself—work that is now seen as a barrier to collegiality—and blowback because of the isolating impact it has on those doing meaningful DEI work. Again, gaslighting tactics overlap. What distinguishes blowback is that it originates in peers or in community—not necessarily the administration—and that the focus is on punishing and threatening the individual researcher, questioning their legitimacy as a scholar and limiting the reach of their work.

Blowback tactics may also involve questioning and attempting to delegitimize the professionalism of individuals engaging in DEI work. Such tactics are expressed in accusations of being too “personally” or “emotionally” invested in a research project to lead it effectively. In some cases, scholars doing work related to structural change are cast as “troublemakers,” “difficult,” having an “ax to grind” or seeking only to validate their personal experiences through the legitimizing power of the institution.

We believe most people who have worked to advance DEI and Indigenization initiatives will recognize these institutional strategies of resistance. DEI initiatives—even when they are well resourced and supported by leaders—are often stalled, blocked or made impossible not by exceptional or unusual practices, but by the everyday processes of academic administration and faculty governance. This can leave those advancing this work exhausted, frustrated and burned out. Identifying and naming these strategies is, in itself, a form of resistance against institutional gaslighting and, we hope, can not only validate the experience of advocates but be a step toward dismantling institutional obstacles to DEI work. We argue that naming these strategies and identifying them as consistent tactics, rather than one-off responses, can enable better communication at the institutional level and responses that move beyond rhetoric.

Megan MacKenzie is a professor in the School for International Studies, Özlem Sensoy is a professor in the Faculty of Education, Genevieve Fuji Johnson is a professor in the Department of Political Science, Nathalie Sinclair is a Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Education and Laurel Weldon is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Political Science, all at Simon Fraser University in Canada.

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