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A cartoon depicts a row of hands holding different tools, including a hammer, a drill and a screwdriver.What makes institutions strong is using the logic of gift to coordinate the diverse talents of employees in a way that preserves the unity of mission. (iStock/elenabs)

The Supreme Court’s recent decision restricting race-based affirmative action at universities is part of a growing resistance to diversity, equity and inclusion (D.E.I.) policies. More than $8 billion a year is spent on D.E.I. training, and critics say that such programs foster a culture of groupthink, fear, resentment, entitlement, and an increasing distrust of leaders and institutions. Dozens of bills now before state legislatures would restrict public universities from establishing diversity, equity and inclusion offices; ban mandatory diversity training; and prohibit institutions from using diversity statements in hiring and promotion.

The pushback should not be surprising, given the staggering growth of D.E.I. programs over the past decade. As with any movement that has gained so much ground so quickly, we are obliged to ask: Is it making our institutions stronger or weaker?

As with any movement that has gained so much ground so quickly, we are obliged to ask: Is it making our institutions stronger or weaker?

This question is particularly important for Catholic hospitals, universities and other institutions that have implemented D.E.I. policies. These Catholic entities should be aligned with the broad concerns of the D.E.I. movement, but they should also be careful not to simply imitate their secular counterparts. One of the current challenges to Catholic institutions is a loss of confidence in the Gospel and its transformative power. The temptation is to find an easier gospel in slogans and on spreadsheets, measured by metrics copied from secular counterparts.

Take, for example, the meaning of the word diversity. A primary task of any institutional leader is the recognition ofthe diversity of gifts, skills and perspectives that can serve the mission of the institution. Pope Benedict XVI wrote in “Caritas in Veritate” that we respect the dignity of others “by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others” (No. 57). He called this the “logic of gift.” What makes institutions strong is using the logic of gift to coordinate the diverse talents of employees in a way that preserves the unity of mission. (We explore in greater detail the relationship between this gift principle and D.E.I in our recent article in the Business and Society Review.)

Diversity will thus differ according to the purpose of the institution. The kind of diversity present in a medical facility, an engineering firm, a multinational business, the N.A.A.C.P., or a Catholic or Jewish university should differ according to the gifts necessary for the mission of such institutions.

The D.E.I. movement often goes wrong—and unfortunately, many Catholic institutions do as well—when it fixates on metrics of identity, especially of race and gender. When institutions adopt aggressive diversity goals, there is a temptation to try to get more out of a metric than the metric can deliver.

When institutions adopt aggressive diversity goals, there is a temptation to try to get more out of a metric than the metric can deliver.

We wrote this essay drawing on our experience of serving on both for-profit and nonprofit boards. One of us recently attended a presentation from a corporate D.E.I. leader at which a participant asked a rather direct question: “Diversity of what?” The response focused on gender and race, with diversity goals defined thus: a workforce with 30 percent women; a 30 percent growth in underrepresented groups in the workplace; 30 percent growth in leadership diversity; and a 30 percent rise in financial giving to diversity and inclusion activities in the community—all to be accomplished by 2030. Such goals are increasingly common in Catholic institutions.

The problem with metrics, however, is they often oversimplify by measuring what is most easily measurable, though the best outcome for an institution can be far more complex. And when metrics are oriented toward low-hanging fruit, more important factors in an institution’s health can get lost. In Catholic institutions, for example, questions about the theological and philosophical meaning of the mission can be conflated with D.E.I. goals, which means the former can get muted or marginalized.

In his book The Tyranny of Metrics, the historianJerry Z. Muller argues that “the metric means comes to replace the organizational ends that those means ought to serve.” It is this inversion of means and ends that commonly disorders the judgment of Catholic institutional leaders, and ironically, this can undermine diversity itself. Fixating on narrow metrics of gender and race can fail to promote a rich notion of diversity in other areas.

Fixating on narrow metrics of gender and race can fail to promote a rich notion of diversity in other areas.

Take, for example, universities, which have traveled farther down the D.E.I. road than most other institutions. The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has observed that university faculty and administrators are happy to welcome people who don’t look like them—as long as they still think like them. The twist here is that diversity has become a code word for intellectual conformity. Under the influence of metric fixation, universities increasingly lack intellectual diversity and are ever more ideologically and politically homogeneous. They practice exclusion in the name of inclusion, and issue reprisals in the name of tolerance. Catholic institutions that replicate D.E.I. programs with little serious engagement of Catholic social principles such as the logic of gift, look no different than their homogenizing secular counterparts.

None of this means rejecting out of hand such terms as diversity, equity and inclusion. Such rejection will not help an institution, but neither will an ill-fitted D.E.I. department. We need leaders of institutions, especially Catholic institutions, who can define and order diversity as well as equity and inclusion within a deeper logic of gift. Otherwise these qualities of institutional life will become disordered, thus weakening the unique mission of Catholic organizations.

C. S. Lewis once wrote that “[y]ou can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” This ordering of first and second things is a hallmark of wisdom. When those who lead institutions put primary emphasis on “second things” such as metrics of proportional representation based on racial and gender identity, they bring about significant unintended consequences. These unintended consequences, including a lack of intellectual diversity and a de-emphasis on individual gift and merit, have contributed to the increasing pushback against the D.E.I. movement.

Whether the Supreme Court has correctly identified the problems with race-based affirmative action programs, and whether legislation to restrict D.E.I. programs on public campuses will make things better in the long run, are complex questions that will continue to be debated. Catholic institutional leaders can help in this ongoing debate if they place such terms as diversity, equity and inclusion within a deeper logic of gift that centers their Catholic mission. Without a deeper logic of gift, such institutions are left vulnerable to whatever ideological fashions are ruling the day, leaving them to marry the spirit of the current age only to find themselves widowed in the next.

[Read next: “Affirmative action is Catholic social teaching in action. We still need it.”]

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