Abigail Thompson is a well known professor (and department Chair) of mathematics at the University of California at Davis, specializing in topology. Six years ago she became an inaugural fellow of the American Mathematical Society (AMS), and now she’s a vice president.
But in the December issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, she set herself up for public pillorying by publishing an essay criticizing the mandatory diversity statements that must accompany applications for academic jobs at some colleges and universities, including hers. You can read her short essay by clicking on the screenshot below:
Mathematics has made progress over the past decades towards becoming a more welcoming, inclusive discipline. We should continue to do all we can to reduce barriers to participation in this most beautiful of fields. I am encouraged by the many mathematicians who are working to achieve this laudable aim. There are reasonable means to further this goal: encouraging students from all backgrounds to enter the mathematics pipeline, trying to ensure that talented mathematicians don’t leave the profession, creating family-friendly policies, and supporting junior faculty at the beginning of their careers, for example. There are also mistakes to avoid. Mandating diversity statements for job candidates is one such mistake, reminiscent of events of seventy years ago.
What are these statements? I came of age in academia without the existence of such things, but they are required essays or statements that accompany professorial job applications, outlining your history of diversity-promoting efforts and proposing how you’ll increase diversity if you’re hired. And, as Thompson reports, they’re actually scored at the University of California using a point system. If you don’t say the right stuff, or come off as sufficiently enthusiastic about promoting diversity, you’re not going to get the job.
Nearly all University of California campuses require that job applicants submit a “contributions to diversity” statement as a part of their application. The campuses evaluate such statements using rubrics, a detailed scoring system. Several UC programs have used these diversity statements to screen out candidates early in the search process. A typical rubric from UC Berkeley specifies that a statement that “describes only activities that are already the expectation of Berkeley faculty (mentoring, treating all students the same regardless of background, etc)” (italics mine) merits a score of 1–2 out of a possible 5 (1 worst and 5 best) in the second section of the rubric, the “track record for advancing diversity” category. [JAC: note that “treating everyone the same” doesn’t get you much credit.]
The diversity “score” is becoming central in the hiring process. Hiring committees are being urged to start the review process by using officially provided rubrics to score the required diversity statements and to eliminate applicants who don’t achieve a scoring cut-off.
Now clearly “diversity” here means “ethnic diversity”, but I don’t think they say that explicitly. But those applicants who propose to increase political viewpoint diversity by, say, trying to promote conservative values and accept more conservative students, are simply not going to be hired!
If, like me, you find it worthwhile to promote equality of opportunity—and, to some extent, in outcome—in academics in general, and in STEM and math in particular, why object to diversity statements? Thompson argues, and I agree, that they are ideological statements, weeding out candidates according to whether they align with certain non-academic goals. She compares them to the “I am not a communist and will not overthrow the US government” statements once required as a condition for taking a job at University of California campuses. (I had to sign one when I became a postdoc at UC Davis in 1979.) Thompson explains:
Why is it a political test? Politics are a reflection of how you believe society should be organized. Classical liberals aspire to treat every person as a unique individual, not as a representative of their gender or their ethnic group. The sample rubric dictates that in order to get a high diversity score, a candidate must have actively engaged in promoting different identity groups as part of their professional life. The candidate should demonstrate “clear knowledge of, experience with, and interest in dimensions of diversity that result from different identities” and describe “multiple activities in depth.” Requiring candidates to believe that people should be treated differently according to their identity is indeed a political test. The idea of using a political test as a screen for job applicants should send a shiver down our collective spine.
. . . ‘Mathematics must be open and welcoming to everyone, to those who have traditionally been excluded, and to those holding unpopular viewpoints. Imposing a political litmus test is not the way to achieve excellence in mathematics or in the university.
I have to agree with Thompson here. I am a believer in at least some affirmative action in university hiring, for I see diversity of all sorts as a net good. (I haven’t yet decided how one should balance diversity versus academic quality when they conflict.) But I believe even more strongly in “affirmative action in opportunity“: that is, making sure everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, politics, or background, gets an equal opportunity from the beginning of their lives to follow their interests and to study and achieve without discrimination. We are a very long way away from that.
But I don’t believe those goals should be achieved by these coercive “diversity statements”, which are indeed chilling. You can imagine how candidates struggle to write a successful statement, and surely there exaggeration pervades many of them. Most academics who aren’t bigots simply haven’t done that much in their pre-job lives to promote diversity. And Thompson’s right: these statements are political, aimed at turning a university’s mission toward social engineering and away from teaching students how to think and how to absorb and assess the knowledge is in their chosen field.
But you’re taking your career and your reputation in danger if, like Dr. Thompson, you dare question diversity statements—even if you’re in favor of increasing diversity. This article in Inside Higher Ed (click on screenshot), describes the reactions of academics, pro and con, of requiring such statements.
The statements have sometimes been characterized by a kind of academic doublespeak, as described in that article:
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, for instance, mentions connectedness, inclusion and diversity throughout its mission and vision statements. It also requires faculty applicants to submit diversity statements. But Autumn Reed, assistant vice provost for faculty affairs, said, “My stance is that I don’t even like to call them diversity statements. The language we use is statements on commitment to inclusive excellence in higher education.” Such wording moves the discussion away from embodied characteristics of diversity to issues of pedagogical diversity and even diversity of perspective and thought, she added.
Well, let’s see if UMBC favors hiring professors who work to promote the hiring of more conservatives, libertarians, or Ayn Randians! I’m for all sorts of diversity, but in practice, as I said, the word tends to mean ethnic diversity.
Yet if you think diversity is a net good, as I do (and as the Supreme Court decided in its Bakke ruling), then you want good people from all sorts of backgrounds. To suppose that ethnicity is a marker of viewpoints, and thus diversity of ethnicity is a good surrogate for diversity of views, is patronizing, for it assumes that members of certain ethnic groups are relatively ideologically homogeneous as well as ideologically different in a predictable way from members of other groups. In other words, to use statistical theory, this view presumes that most of the variation (diversity) in thought among Americans will be explained by variation in their ethnicity.
But never mind. As you can predict, Thompson’s non-inflammatory criticism of diversity statements angered some of the woke. There have been petitions criticizing Thompson’s equation of diversity statements with McCarthy-esque “I’m not a Commie” statements, as well as statements calling for letters to her department and demands that she step down as chair of mathematics at Davis.
A particularly nasty and vitriolic example of the latter came from Chad Topaz, a professor of mathematics at (you guessed it) Williams College. On his public Facebook page, Topaz posted the following call for public censure of Thompson:
Nothing like “good ‘ol public shame”, eh? (The apostrophe goes after the “l”, by the way.) What a nasty piece of work this Topaz fellow must be!
Topaz also wrote the article shown below on his own diversity organization’s website, QSIDE. But there appears to be a conflict of interest here. Topaz funds that organization in part by giving donors the gift of “diversity statement help” from his organization [UPDATE: link removed– see here for reason why]. To wit:
Donate any amount. For every $100 raised, we will provide one hour of consulting to a graduate student or postdoc who is on the job market for tenure track jobs right now, or who will be next year. Specifically, we will give feedback on any existing diversity statement the candidate has written, and/or we will help develop an equity/diversity/inclusion plan in concert with the candidate.
For any individual who donates $500 or more, the benefactor can, if they wish, designate two people who should receive one hour of consulting services.
. . . The use of the pro bono services will be completely confidential, meaning that we will never share any information about who we help (other than the total number of individuals).
Thus, by promoting requirements for diversity statements, Topaz is also plumping for donations to his own organization. Further, the undisclosed use of outside help in writing your diversity statement seems to me more than a bit sleazy, like relying on those organizations that charge for helping college students write admissions essays. It may not be illegal, but it doesn’t seem right, since your statements are supposed to be your own, not the thoughts of others.
At any rate, here’s Topaz’s new statement on his QSIDE website [UPDATE: Link removed– see here for reason why]:
The article lists several courses of action that Topaz recommends vis-à-vis Thompson’s statement, following those given on his Facebook post. They include 1) advising your math students not to go to UC Davis; 2) emailing the AMS criticizing its publication of Thompson’s piece (he has a boilerplate letter of complaint, including the statement “I believe you have made a grave and very damaging mistake by publishing Thompson’s essay.“); 3) punishing the AMS journal by not writing or “doing favors” for it; 4) “spreading the word about this debacle on social media and in your workplaces” (the call for social-media crucifixion); 5) contacting the UC Davis math department demanding that they dump Thompson as chair; and, most self-aggrandizingly, 6) donating to Topaz’s own organization (my emphasis).
And of course Topaz tweeted, because all manner of social media must be used when shaming the Ideologically Impure:
But Topaz was hoist with his own petard. In a heartening display, people called him out for being authoritarian and McCarthy-esque himself (you can see the thread here). This was the result:
Further, there’s a new essay in Psychology Today by a social psychologist (!) and Chair of Psychology at Rutgers that gives more examples of those enraged by Thompson’s essay while at the same time defending her criticism of mandatory diversity statements (click on screenshot):
Jussim’s ending is a model for the way that we, as liberals, should deal with diversity on one hand and mandatory diversity statements on the other:
I have a sincere Diversity Statement that I chose to put online at Rutgers, which you can find here. I am pretty sure I was the first Rutgers Psych Professor to have such a statement. This was by my choice; no one urged or pressured me to do it. Rutgers has a very demographically diverse student body, and it is genuinely important to me that students know that, regardless of their racial, ethnic, political, religious, or other identity backgrounds, they are welcome here and in my lab.
However, I also respect faculty who would rather not provide a diversity statement. People who strive for excellence in their field of expertise, say, teaching and research for many academics, should not be excluded from positions because they are not sufficiently fluent in the lingo of social justice.
I also have one here, in which I point out the politicized nature of such required statements. Here are some excerpts:
I am not afraid of social justice.
I am afraid of those who will punish others for not subscribing to a toxic and oppressive view of social justice. I am afraid, not of actual social justice, but of what some people are willing to do, and are in fact now doing, in the name of social justice.
This reads almost like a prediction for what is happening to Thompson.
Amen, comrades! The second link, here, goes to another piece by Jussim, published in Quillette, that underscores the maladaptive effects of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” statements. It’s worth a read.