November 25, 2022 Reading Time: 4 minutes

Roughly one century ago, “progressives” set out to take over American education. They wanted to extirpate the individualism that had always been the hallmark of the people’s character, so that they would be receptive to the collectivism and central control that progressivism calls for. The best way to make that happen would be to instill their precepts in young minds.

The progressives (I will not call them “liberals” even though that’s common parlance today; the progressive project is the exact opposite of true liberalism) have been extraordinarily successful in their goal of dominating our educational institutions. For many decades, they made slow-but-steady progress, as more and more teachers and professors of a leftist bent were hired. Traditional academic norms, however, held most of them back from going too far and blatantly turning their classes into propaganda for their pet beliefs. The American Association of University Professors held to the idea that faculty should teach their subjects and not deviate into matters of personal opinion.

Those norms have been eroding. They began to give way in the 1970s, and have been receding ever since. Increasingly, new faculty members have been emboldened to put a political slant on their teaching. Many were upfront about it. One professor, Donald Lazere, even wrote a book entitled Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias.

Having absorbed progressive beliefs throughout their own education, many faculty members now see their roles as “change agents” rather than as objective scholars. Many courses that were formerly politically neutral (English, for example) have been turned into indoctrination camps where the readings and assignments have an overwhelmingly leftist bias. Faculty are able to do that because most college administrators are on their side. Just like the faculty, administrators have been steeped in progressive activism. Very few are willing to clash with faculty (and students) who want to politicize their schools. Quite often, they take the lead in doing so.

At the University of Tennessee, for example, the administration has demanded diversity plans from all the academic units of the university. Perhaps more alarmingly, the diversity, equity, and inclusion mania has been brought into the U.S. Naval Academy.

The DEI fixation prevents academic leaders from standing up for academic freedom when students who say they’re offended demand that professors be punished, as has occurred at University of Pennsylvania Law School regarding Professor Amy Wax. They are also eager to demand that applicants for faculty positions or advancement submit diversity statements,” which amount to loyalty oaths to a set of ideas—an requirement utterly at odds with the concept of the university as a place for free inquiry.

With the divisive and anti-educational DEI entrenched at so many colleges and universities, it seems that there is an opportunity for some “product differentiation.” Why shouldn’t those schools that stick to education, and eschew DEI, trumpet that fact to prospective students, families, and financial supporters?

That is what Professors Dorian Abbot of the University of Chicago and Ivan Marinovic of Stanford University propose. Colleges and universities that are not beholden to DEI should declare themselves for MFE: merit, freedom,  and equality. Writing in Newsweek, they state, “We propose an alternative framework called Merit, Fairness, and Equality (MFE) whereby university applicants are treated as individuals and evaluated through a rigorous and unbiased process based on their merit and qualifications alone.”

What MFE would mean is that students would be admitted only because of their academic and personal achievements, not because of their ancestry or family connections. It would also mean that school personnel would be similarly chosen on merit, with no favoritism for applicants because of their race or other immutable characteristics, and no favoritism for those who espouse certain political beliefs.

At DEI institutions, individuals applying for faculty positions often have to declare their support for the DEI agenda by submitting a “diversity statement.” Those statements make it possible for the decision-makers to cull out anyone who is not an advocate of that agenda. If, for example, a chemistry professor said, “I believe in treating all students equally and am completely colorblind, in that I do not take race into account in my teaching, grading, or interactions with students,” that would ruin his chances at DEI schools, no matter how stellar his teaching and research might be.

On the other hand, MFE schools would announce that they have no ideological litmus tests and hire and promote faculty purely on the basis of achievement.

Furthermore, the DEI agenda adversely affects students. At DEI schools, students have to watch what they say, lest they find themselves under investigation by the school’s “bias response team,” for having said something deemed offensive by another student. They also may be compelled to take courses that have scant knowledge content but are intended to impart DEI beliefs such as the existence of “white privilege.”

A school that had embraced MFE would have no such obstacles to freedom of speech and would not try to indoctrinate students with politicized courses. 

As matters now stand, most colleges and universities are partially to wholly in thrall to DEI. It is divisive and destructive, but has swept through most schools with little opposition since those who don’t like it fear being “canceled” by DEI zealots.

Can DEI be stopped? Robert Maranto, Michael Mills, and Catherine Salmon observe in this article on The Hill, “you can’t beat something with nothing,” and suggest that MFE is the something that might beat it. MFE, they point out, “accords with public opinion” since “Seventy-five percent of Americans believe that gender, race or ethnicity should not factor into educational admissions decisions.”

DEI has mostly conquered through stealth, and its advocates fear to engage in debate over its tenets and effects. What currently protects schools that embrace it from competition is the fact non-DEI schools don’t have a shorthand way of communicating that fact. MFE would be exactly the way to do that. 

Colleges and universities that have resisted DEI could proudly declare themselves to be schools dedicated to Merit, Fairness, and Equality and explain why that matters. Students who want education without any ideological overlay would gravitate toward MFE institutions. Also, education supporters who don’t want to waste their money backing schools that are undermining the foundations of the nation would look for MFE schools.

One more thing—MFE schools not only deliver better education, but can do so at lower cost because they don’t waste resources on “diversity” administrators.

Colleges and universities that have succumbed to DEI ought to be at a big competitive disadvantage versus those that just offer worthwhile education. Let us hope that MFE catches on.

George Leef

George Leef

George Leef is director of editorial content for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. He holds a bachelor of arts degree from Carroll College (Waukesha, WI) and a juris doctor from Duke University School of Law. He was a vice president of the John Locke Foundation until 2003.

A regular columnist for, Leef was book review editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education, from 1996 to 2012. He has published numerous articles in The Freeman, Reason, The Free Market, Cato Journal, The Detroit News, Independent Review, and Regulation. He writes regularly for the National Review’s The Corner blog and for EdWatchDaily.

He recently authored the novel, The Awakening of Jennifer Van Arsdale (Bombardier Books, 2022).

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