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UCLA diversity requirement threatens academic freedom, trust in academia

A recent article in Real Clear Investigations reported on a decision by the University of California, Los Angeles to require all professors applying for a tenure-track position — as well as any seeking promotion — to submit an “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion” statement as part of their portfolio.

Guidance from UCLA’s Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion is intended to explain what this requirement means and why UCLA determined that these statements must accompany the evidence of teaching, research, and service that traditionally go into such decisions at every university in America. Unfortunately, the guidance is cause for alarm, and has the potential to seriously threaten academic freedom at UCLA.

UCLA’s FAQ-formatted guidance begins with the question, “Should equity, diversity, and inclusion figure into faculty hiring and promotion?” Its answer, of course, is yes, and it cites the university’s Academic Personnel Manual, Section 210-1-d, which states that “[c]ontributions in all areas of faculty achievement that promote equal opportunity and diversity should be given due recognition in the academic personnel process, and they should be evaluated and credited in the same way as other faculty achievements.”

Indeed, the guidance cites this language throughout as justification for the newly mandatory statements. Yet the language cited dates back at least to 2015, and substantially similar statements about how candidates’ work in this area should count for hiring and promotion date as far back as 2005. These statements weren’t mandatory then, so why are they now? Even today, the manual itself does not actually specify that candidates must have done work to promote “equity, diversity, and inclusion” — it merely says that if candidates have done that work, it must be counted in their favor.

One needn’t be a rocket scientist to see the distinct difference between counting “equity, diversity, and inclusion” work in a candidate’s favor and mandating all candidates to provide evidence of this work with their application. It’s one thing to tell candidates that their work in the areas of equity, diversity, and inclusion will be credited to them and make sure these do not go unrecognized by departments. It’s entirely another to indicate to candidates that their mandatory EDI statement is going to be awfully lacking if they happen to spend too much time pursuing teaching, research, and service goals that may be both worthy and excellent, but which simply don’t move the needle in the direction of equity, diversity, or inclusion. Or to set up a process where faculty interviewers can’t help but hold this against them.

Speaking of which, what does UCLA mean by equity, diversity, and inclusion? For those who might suspect that these terms are politically loaded, UCLA offers little if any evidence to the contrary. While the definitions provided are not themselves explicitly partisan, one searches in vain for an example of work toward these goals that includes activity with which people on the left side of the political spectrum would be uncomfortable, either in the guidance itself, in a document from the Office of the President to which it refers, or in the example EDI statements supplied to give candidates an idea of what the university is seeking. If you doubt this is likely to be used an an ideological screening tool, imagine UCLA replacing “equity, diversity, and inclusion” with “capitalism, freedom, and patriotism,” and providing examples that happen not to include any activities or opinions that would make mainstream Republicans uncomfortable, and see if your opinion changes. Such an idea is hardly far-fetched, and of course such tests are wrong no matter whose ideology happens to be in the ascendant.

Anticipating objections on ideological grounds, the guidance explicitly professes to tackle the questions of whether this new requirement violates California’s Proposition 209 banning certain kinds of discrimination or preferential statement by state entities (it says it doesn’t), and whether it will violate academic freedom (it says it won’t, and adds that political tests in hiring or promotion are banned in UC Regents bylaws). Given the nature of such disputes and our current political culture, of course, these assurances are unlikely to do much to convince those wary of the new requirement that their fears are baseless, and it’s reasonable to expect that most of the controversy over the requirement will fall along the predictable political lines.

Even those without much interest in current culture-war disputes have reason to be concerned about the effect of this requirement on academic freedom. In its 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, the American Association of University Professors wrote the following:

[I]t is highly needful, in the interest of society at large, that what purport to be the conclusions of men trained for, and dedicated to, the quest for truth, shall in fact be the conclusions of such men, and not echoes of the opinions of the lay public, or of the individuals who endow or manage universities. To the degree that professional scholars, in the formation and promulgation of their opinions, are, or by the character of their tenure appear to be, subject to any motive other than their own scientific conscience and a desire for the respect of their fellow experts, to that degree the university teaching profession is corrupted; its proper influence upon public opinion is diminished and vitiated; and society at large fails to get from its scholars, in an unadulterated form, the peculiar and necessary service which it is the office of the professional scholar to furnish.

UCLA’s diversity statement requirement contradicts this principle.

First, take a look at who is demanding that faculty members, both current and prospective, dedicate a substantial part of their efforts to activities that look good on an EDI statement. It’s not the faculty members themselves. It’s not even the faculty at large. No, it’s the UCLA administration and the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion — in other words, “the individuals who [] manage universities.”

Second, even by 1915 it was obvious to the professoriate that the credibility of their work, which is based on their reputation for expertise in their fields, would be fatally compromised if people could merely dismiss their purportedly academic conclusions by pointing out that ideology, or the fear of losing jobs or opportunities because of political disagreement, was what was driving their academic endeavors. Yet that is precisely what UCLA has now mandated must happen. If faculty members want to have a satisfactory EDI statement, they’d better turn some of their academic endeavors toward “equity, diversity, and inclusion,” however UCLA administrators define such terms, regardless of their own “scientific conscience” and/or “desire for the respect of their fellow experts.”

Last year, the Pew Research Center released a poll indicating that the percentage of Republican-leaning respondents who thought that colleges and universities had a positive effect on the way things are going in the country had dropped to 36 percent in 2017, with 58 percent saying they had a negative effect. This was a dramatic drop from just two years before, in which 54 percent said colleges had a positive effect and only 37 percent said it was negative. (The overwhelmingly positive sentiment of Democrat-leaning respondents remained virtually unchanged.)

Whatever your political sentiments, colleges and universities will most certainly suffer if they can no longer claim a broad, cross-partisan base of support. Avoiding policies that are both politically divisive and destructive to academic freedom is a necessary condition if we are to rebuild everyone’s confidence that higher education is a net positive for our country, and worthy of the billions of tuition, taxpayer, and philanthropic dollars it receives every year. By allowing administrators to rely on broad, subjective, and ideologically-loaded terms to influence hiring decisions, UCLA is headed in the opposite direction.

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