Following George Floyd’s murder in 2020, diversity, equity and inclusion efforts intensified in both the corporate and academic spaces. But it did not take long for many of those initiatives to falter.

In 2023, the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions. Since that ruling, MIT made headlines by removing diversity statements from faculty applications. Harvard followed suit.

We asked Malia C. Lazu, author of “From Intention to Impact” and lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, what she thinks of these setbacks.

The cycle of pushback

In Lazu’s book, she identifies seven steps to successfully implement DEI. The stages, in simple terms, are as follows:

  1. Relief that there’s a way to solve the problem.
  2. Learning about the problem. 
  3. Taking action, starting with obvious and easy goals.
  4. Denying pushback, which can lead to compromises. 
  5. Realizing that the pushback is real. 
  6. Realizing that the pushback is actually bias.
  7. Moving through the pushback and bias regardless.

She said many institutions are stuck in stage four: They deny the existence of pushback, and as a result, inadvertently legitimize it. She offered the example of Claudine Gay’s resignation this winter.

“Harvard threw her under the bus and capitulated to donors,” Lazu said. ”Gay should have been protected with ferocity so that we could see what Black women do when they run large institutions.”

Lazu cites Harvard’s and MIT’s recent decisions to eliminate diversity statements as examples that show their inability to dismantle pushback. “They’re not recognizing that the pushback is bias, and therefore legitimizing the racism and the sexism,” said Lazu.

This cycle reinforces existing structures and allows the powerful to stay powerful, she added.

“These are white folks asking white folks to become more sexist, racist, homophobic,” she said. “Power is talking to power.”

Progress followed by pushback

In her book, Lazu outlines how former President Ronald Reagan’s pushback to affirmative action and social programs in the 1980s was a response to civil rights progress in the ’60s. This cyclical nature of progress and pushback is also present today.

Lazu said she thinks this current wave of pushback in academia is responding to changes made during Barack Obama’s presidency.

On the business side, she said there was such a strong response to George Floyd’s murder because there was no strong government response from President Donald Trump’s administration.

She explained that cultural change is a continuous struggle, and horrific things happen all the time. She explained how some figures, like Floyd, get a flash response, but there’s often fatigue following these movements — which is why progress can stall.

“If you only had to do this once, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass would have done it,” Lazu said.

Moving through pushback

It seems that for academic institutions to foster a more inclusive future, they need to find a way to move through this pushback.

She added that as a woman of color, seeing these institutions eliminating diversity statements and not supporting their Black administrators shows where their values truly lie.

“This donor is more important than people who look like me getting an education. That seems like a false equivalence to me,” said Lazu.

She then explained how these cycles of progress and resistance can be disheartening and exhausting, but that change will come from natural shifts. She said younger, more progressive-minded individuals are inheriting wealth, and they don’t want to donate to or attend schools that don’t align with their values.

“They are using their money to leverage power in a different way,” Lazu said. “These new generations of donors are asking for different things.”

If you want to know more about DEI and Malia Lazu’s book “From Intention to Impact,” watch this recent Forum Network’s video.