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DEI as neoliberal management strategy

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I can’t recommend this superb essay by Alexander Jabbari, a professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Minnesota, strongly enough.

The essay addresses the current controversy at Hamline. You will be shocked to learn that questions regarding the depiction of Muhammad in art have a very complex and diverse history in the Islamic religion, which itself turns out to be a very complex and diverse set of cultural institutions and practices. This is illustrated beautifully by a previous controversy:

A frieze on the north wall of the U.S. Supreme Court depicts Muhammad wielding a scimitar with his right hand and clutching a Quran in his left. Erected in 1931, the frieze became the subject of controversy in 1997, when a coalition of Muslim groups led by CAIR called for its removal.

The Supreme Court refused the request, noting that the sculpture of the prophet was “a well-intentioned attempt … to honor Muhammad.” His inclusion alongside other great “lawgivers” of history like Moses and Confucius had been intended as an inclusive gesture. Other American Muslims recognized this from the start; the executive director of the American Muslim Council called the depiction an honor and insisted that “you have to take it in historical context.”

Eventually, a fatwa on the matter was sought from the prominent Islamic scholar Taha Jabir al-Alwani. Al-Alwani held a doctorate in Islamic jurisprudence from Al-Azhar University, in Egypt, one of the world’s most highly regarded seats of Sunni Islamic learning, which al-Alwani taught for a decade at an Islamic university in Saudi Arabia.

A main principle within Islamic jurisprudence contends that acts ought to be judged by intentions (in Arabic, al-umur bi-maqasidiha), which is rooted in a well-known hadith or prophetic saying stating that “actions are according to intentions” (innama al-aʿmal bi-l-niyyat). Indeed, “intention” (niyya) is a significant concept in Islam. For example, proper intent precedes all acts of worship in Islam. It’s a fundamental marker distinguishing the performance of ritual ablutions, for example, from simply washing oneself.

Accordingly, al-Alwani considered not only the impact but also the context and the intent of the depiction. In his 28-page response, al-Alwani declared the depiction permissible, calling it a “positive gesture.” Alongside more technical justifications drawing from the Quran and hadith (the textual sources of Sunni Islamic law), he emphasized the positive value Western culture gives to pictorial expression and the importance of the inclusive message behind the frieze, concluding that it “deserves nothing but appreciation and gratitude from American Muslims.”

Is there a historical punchline to this enlightening vignette? There is:

Al-Alwani published his fatwa in the Journal of Law and Religion, sponsored, as it happens, by Hamline University. Following the fatwa, CAIR said they considered the matter closed.

Jabbari goes on to make a series of canny observations about the relationship between Hamline’s problematic finances and the functioning of its DEI bureacracy:

As Hamline’s net cash flow declined, by 77 percent in 2011-15, the university nearly doubled its debt in 2012 by building a $36-million university center in a bid to attract students. In 2016, the credit-rating company Moody’s downgraded Hamline’s bond rating to its lowest investment-grade rating. Faced with dwindling enrollment and retention, the tuition-driven university is now under pressure to keep students happy.

Universities have adopted a range of strategies to ensure students stay enrolled and continue spending money on tuition and campus life. Among these has been a managerial approach to campus diversity. . .

The DEI profession began as workplace diversity trainings aimed at protecting corporations from costly discrimination lawsuits, and it plays a similar role today. As such, it is woefully inadequate for addressing with nuance the racism, sexism, Islamophobia, and other real challenges students may face on college campuses and elsewhere. DEI offices tend to reduce complex issues to manageable problems with ready-made responses. The idea that intention (messy, subjective) matters less than impact (objective, measurable), for example, found enthusiastic embrace in the world of corporate HR and DEI, already obsessed with quantifiable metrics like “impact factor.”

Rather than improving overall campus climate, institutions like DEI offices wind up cultivating student fragility — something they need to do in order to justify their continued existence and funding. The more easily students are offended, the more the university needs a robustly funded DEI program to manage them. This vicious cycle plays out on college campuses across the country. Indeed, the Muslim students at Hamline resemble their non-Muslim peers at universities elsewhere. They assert themselves as consumers and ask to speak to the manager when unhappy with the service they’ve received.

That ethos of customer service has prevailed as universities are increasingly run like businesses. Ultimately, DEI is a management strategy, illustrated by the way the university skillfully pitted its “customers” (outraged students) against its “staff” (the adjunct instructor), directing conflict away from “management” (the administration). In years past, authoritarian Muslim states found similar utility in whipping up anger over international cartoon controversies in order to distract from their citizens’ domestic demands.

Precisely.

The irony here is that the prime justification for universities to exist at all is that they can produce the sort of deeply learned and nuanced response to this sort of controversy that those same universities’ DEI bureaucracies are designed to destroy.

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