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‘DEI is broken, and everyone knows it’: Differing interpretations of DEI complicate GSG elections

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The Graduate College
Louisa Gheorghita / The Daily Princetonian

After heated exchanges by graduate students over Slack complicated the contested election for the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Officer position, the election for the 2024–25 Graduate Student Government Executive Committee closed at midnight on Dec. 26.

The issue of how to interpret and implement DEI at institutions of higher learning was central to the election, mirroring nationwide discussions. A national spotlight on elite universities like Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania and their handling of campus speech about the war in Gaza has intensified conservative criticism of DEI efforts on campus from public figures like Bill Ackman, the hedge fund manager and Harvard donor who helped lead the effort that ousted former Harvard President Claudine Gay.


Receiving 289 votes, Caridad Estrada GS won the election, beating Teagan Mathur GS and Dr. Zachary Dulberg GS, who received 174 and 73 votes, respectively. The GSG election committee released provisional results via email on Dec. 27, with the final results set for ratification during their committee meeting on Feb. 6. 

The DEI officer position is a newer addition to the GSG executive committee, with it being first filled two years ago by this year's incoming president Amari Tankard GS. Including the DEI officer, only five positions were contested. The vice president position was also contested. Candidates anecdotally reported increased voter participation from graduate students in light of the discussions concerning DEI.

Discourse leading up to the election

Beginning right after the Oct. 7 attack in Israel by Hamas, Dulberg and other graduate students shared information and back-and-forth debate regarding the attack in the “general” graduate student Slack channel. The Slack workspace, managed by GSG since March 2020, mainly serves as a platform to share events and resources. As the volume of interactions concerning the conflict in Gaza increased, GSG opened a new “current events” channel for students to discuss.

Screenshots from the public “current events” channel reviewed by the ‘Prince’ — which has since been archived — show Dulberg engaging in heated exchanges with other graduate students about the Oct. 7 attack in Israel and subsequent events. At various points, Dulberg sent a series of reprimanding comments to the chat including: “Could try reading a book though, if you’re interested. I know it’s not your forte,” and accusing a student of being one of “Hamas’s ‘useful idiots.’” He wrote to another, “if you place all causal weight on the actions of others (called ‘externalization’ in the psychopathology literature, another predictor of mental illness…),” and said of one student, “He is projecting [his] trauma onto the world.”

Regarding the statement on externalization, Dulberg wrote to the ‘Prince’ that he was “drawing on [his] expertise in the treatment of mental illness to explain some of the psychological drivers of antisemitism” in the comment. He added that he deleted the final comment regarding a student’s trauma after he posted it in order to not “make points about antisemitism by relying on anyone’s personal history.”


“Faced with repeated instances of terror apologia and antisemitic blood libels directly after the worst massacre of my people since the Holocaust, I am frankly impressed that my comments were so measured, and merely sarcastic,” Dulberg wrote.

In an opinion piece published in the New York Post, Dulberg wrote that he compiled a list of comments from the Slack channel and sent them to “Princeton’s DEI Office” on Oct. 18, asking them “to discipline Princeton students spreading hate.” In email communications with the ‘Prince,’ Dulberg clarified that he contacted the Office of the Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity, which handles “questions or concerns involving issues of access, equity or campus climate.” 

Dulberg later contacted the office and requested to meet regarding “the problem of antisemitism more broadly.” In the New York Post article, he expressed frustration that the office declined, stating that “campus community members are not entitled to personal meetings.”

“As a matter of fairness, staff from the Office of the Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity does not meet with parties involved in disciplinary matters outside of the official process,” University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’

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Hotchkiss added that “Students have access to many support resources and conversation partners, including administrators in the Office of Access, Diversity, and Inclusion at the Graduate School and the Student Affairs team at the Graduate School, as well as confidential resources.”

Discourse in the Slack continued into the GSG election season as the nomination period opened on Nov. 7. Dulberg said he was motivated to run by the “increase in antisemitism that [he] observed after Oct. 7, and also the lack of action taken when [he] was trying to report those incidents to the DEI office, as well as the Graduate Student Government.”

DEI officer-elect Estrada said that students sent her screenshots of Dulberg’s activity in the public Slack, inquiring about how she would respond to the situation during the campaigning period. 

“A lot of people … came to me and said, ‘I haven’t voted in the whole time I’ve been here, but I’m going to vote this year, just because this individual is running,’” Estrada said. 

The GSG responded to Dulberg’s activity by temporarily suspending his Slack account in November. Dulberg wrote in his op-ed that GSG suspended his account for “stigmatization of mental health and religious affiliation.” In an email to the ‘Prince,’ the GSG confirmed that sanctions have been levied against multiple individuals for reported violations of community standards, although GSG declined to share the names of these individuals, per its policy. 

According to the GSG, violations include: “harassment, use of slurs, and shaming or insulting another community member for their positions and/or affiliations.” 

“Simply holding or expressing a belief or opinion cannot be sanctioned per the community standards, and no member of the Slack community was sanctioned for such content,” the GSG wrote.

Regarding the suspension, Estrada told the ‘Prince’ that, from her view, Dulberg “started feeling, as an individual, that he was being silenced. He felt like DEI, specifically, was failing him.”

Eventually, one graduate student requested and was granted a “no communication” order against Dulberg, according to his New York Post article. Later, a friend of Dulberg responded to a Slack message by that student. After Dulberg “liked” the response with a green check mark emoji, the Graduate School notified him on Nov. 29 that he was under investigation for violating the no communication order. The Graduate School placed Dulberg on academic probation on Dec. 13. Dulberg said that he appealed the decision. 

GSG polls opened on Dec. 5, and soon after, one graduate student posted a screenshot to Slack of Dulberg’s response to conservative activist Christopher Rufo’s Dec. 7 post on X. In the post, Rufo listed the pronouns pertaining to various employees from the Princeton DEI office and added, “Imagine this department governing what you can think, say, and do.”

“Trying to fix it!” Dulberg replied to the post.

Dulberg later deleted the initial post and replied: “To clarify — I am trying to fix DEI. I don’t actually have a problem with people choosing to display their pronouns.” In response to the screenshot in Slack, Dulberg commented that his post was “not an endorsement of Chris Rufo or his bad takes on pronouns” and restated his aim to “fix DEI in general.”

Interpreting diversity, equity, and inclusion 

Central to the DEI officer election was the candidates’ differing interpretations of DEI’s role at Princeton. 

“We’re all fighting for the same thing, [that’s] really what you would think, if you’re all applying for the same position,” candidate Mathur told the ‘Prince’ following the election. “But if you have a different interpretation [of DEI], that leads to tension.” Mathur’s campaign focused on equity and resource accessibility regarding general exam success rates and advisor-advisee relationships in the Graduate School.  

“You are so dependent on your advisor for support in many, many ways, Mathur said in an interview with the ‘Prince,’ noting that bias can affect treatment by advisors. “If there's one thing in your advisor’s head that's making them see you [as] less than…they might have this preconceived notion that you are not going to do well, and so they might already have set that person on a route of failure.”

On his interpretation of DEI, Dulberg wrote in his candidate statement that “DEI is broken, and everyone knows it.” He told the ‘Prince’ that the “principles [of] DEI really do separate people into identity groups. If you’re considered a member of a powerful or privileged identity group, rather than an oppressed one, then you just don’t get the same treatment.”

“What I’ve come to view is a kind of Orwellian doublespeak, where each of the terms mean the opposite,” Dulberg said. “Diversity actually means uniformity of thought. Equity actually means giving one-sided treatment, depending on your group identity. And inclusion means exclusion of people who don’t fit the criteria. I just want to put those words back into proper definitions, so diversity of perspective and thought, equality of opportunity for everybody, and real inclusion.” 

 Dulberg’s position on DEI represents what DEI officer-elect Estrada considers a “huge misunderstanding of what DEI is.”

“That’s really where I came up with what the goals of this position should be, from the types of conversations that arose from this individual,” she said. “If I wasn’t running against him, I very much think that the way I would have approached this position was going to be very traditionally what you would think has been done already in DEI. I really got to see what people were thinking and maybe were too afraid to say.” 

Estrada, a first-year graduate student, founded Princeton’s Caribbean Graduate Student Association (CGSA), planned a race and climate change Wintersession event, and has previously worked with the Graduate School’s Access, Diversity and Inclusion (ADI) Office to plan events. 

Estrada does not think DEI is “broken,” but recognizes room for improvement in fostering inclusion and educating students on the concepts of DEI central to her campaign. 

“[People] don’t know that DEI is there with many resources to help everyone,” she said. “But then when they see certain events happening in certain programs or communities for certain groups of people, they inherently feel already excluded.”

In his candidate statement, Dulberg wrote that divisions between identity groups on campus are “skyrocketing.” In response, Estrada told the ‘Prince’ that such relationships are being “enriched,” referring to the international nature of graduate student relationships and her intentions to unite students across different racial, cultural, and religious backgrounds through the CGSA. 

Recognizing the isolated nature of graduate student departments and cohort groups, Estrada said she plans to expand on current graduate student events such as the weekly happy hour to foster “diverse thinking” and “cultural competence” among students. 

“That’s something that doesn’t seem so big, but I’m more concerned about something that can be consistent and that can continue even outside of me,” she said. “Hopefully, in the next year or so, we can do a better job of highlighting that everybody is invited, making it a very open invitation for people to feel comfortable.”

Another major challenge facing graduate students is receiving centralized funding and support for DEI-related initiatives and events, Estrada said. Earlier this year, she sought funding to send graduate students to a conference for the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE). Estrada consulted an administrator in the ADI department, who told her to contact the undergraduate department that houses NSBE. 

Estrada told the ‘Prince’ that the program’s adviser only offered funding for undergraduate attendees. Ultimately, Estrada could only fund NSBE graduate students through her own department, Civil and Environmental Engineering, leaving out other engineering students who might have been interested. 

“From talking with other grad students, in my short time here, this was echoed — that there is this central lack of disseminating opportunities when it has to do with DEI,” she said. 

As far as takeaways from the election, Estrada said, “I think this was a positive experience, and that we saw a lot of student groups and students at Princeton as a whole come together because most students believe that DEI shouldn’t be torn down.”

“That’s the message that I’m personally going to take from this moving forward. I think the majority consensus is that people believe in this, and they want it to continue.”

Elisabeth Stewart is a staff News writer for the ‘Prince.’

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