Last month I reported on a controversial essay written by Abigail Thompson, chair of mathematics at the University of California at Davis. In that essay, posted in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society (NAMS), Thompson, while favoring initiatives to increase diversity in her field, decried the mandatory “diversity statements” that the University of California now requires of all scholars applying for jobs. These were, she said, almost like the old loyalty oaths that the U of C used to require, as unless you adhered to a rubric provided by the University, you had no chance of getting a job. In these statements, you have to show tangible commitment to diversity, a track record of increasing diversity, and a plan for promoting diversity at the UC campus where you’re hired. As Thompson wrote:
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.
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.
She decried this practice as a test of one’s political views:
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. Whatever our views on communism, most of us today are in agreement that the UC loyalty oaths of the 1950s were wrong. Whatever our views on diversity and how it can be achieved, mandatory diversity statements are equally misguided. Mathematics is not immune from political pressures on campus. In addition to David Saxon, who eventually became the president of the University of California, three mathematicians were fired for refusing to sign the loyalty oath in 1950. 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. Not in 1950, and not today.
This of course caused a big kerfuffle, with mathematicians and academics furiously gathering signatures on petitions and writing letters to the NAMS. You can see all of them by clicking on the screenshot below. These occupy 21 pages, most of the space taken by signatures on the two big petitions: one supporting Thompson’s stand and the other criticizing it and favoring diversity statements. There are also individual letters, most of them supporting Thompson. I won’t summarize these as you can read them for yourself.
It would help clarify this mess if one could actually see the rubrics that the University of California uses to judge candidates. Fortunately, the one used by UC Berkeley is online, and lists the way they “grade” three aspects of a candidate’s diversity statement: their “knowledge about diversity, equity, and inclusion”; their “track record in advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion”; and their “plans for advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion.” You can get from 1-5 points in each of the three areas, with a minimum score of 3 and a maximum of 15. Apparently the university uses cutoffs, so that if a candidate’s diversity score falls below a threshold, they would be removed from consideration without looking at their c.v.s or other information. (I am not 100% sure about this, but Thompson implies that this is the case.)
If you want to see how these things are scored, click on the screenshot below (there are two pages in the document; don’t try to read the tiny print!):
After looking over this draconian document, I find that I agree even more with Thompson. To get passable scores, you simply cannot just have been in favor of increasing diversity, or have done only activities “that are already the expectation of faculty as evidence of commitment and involvement” (i.e., welcoming students to a lab regardless of background, or mentoring women students without having an outreach program to bring them in). That is, if you are gender- and color-blind, and treat everyone equally, or even mentor minorities or women without outreach, you’re not going to make the cut.
To get scores of 4 or 5, you must have a pretty deep knowledge of diversity and intersectionality (along with data about them), a long track record of promoting diversity in multiple ways, and specific ideas of how you would advance equity and inclusion at Berkeley. You must also agree “to be a strong advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion within the department/school/college and also their field.” That specifically means that you have to swear fealty to an ideology, and act on that fealty. I invite you to read these two brief pages to see the kind of nonacademic and ideological requirements for getting an academic job in the UC system.
I hasten to add that I am in favor of diversity in academia as both an innate good and as a way of compensating groups who have been held back by oppression, racism, or sexism. I favor a limited form of affirmative action in hiring, which means, to put it plainly, that there are occasions when academic quality must bow before other needs. But I do not favor the UC’s brand of ideological purity test, in which candidates must not only swear their commitment to diversity, but have a long track record of promoting it.
Track records will of course differ depending on many things, including a candidate’s involvement in academic matters or in useful activities that don’t directly increase diversity (popular writing, lectures in high schools, and so on). And I favor initiatives on the part of departments and colleges to increase diversity. But let us not have these purity tests, loyalty oaths, and cutoffs if your record of social justice activity isn’t up to snuff. That is a recipe for authoritarianism, for stifling needed discussions and free speech, and, not least of all, it’s an invitation to lie and distort. I still can’t accept that the purpose of universities should be to engineer society in specific ways beyond teaching the current knowledge in all fields and helping students learn how to think clearly.
One of the signatories of the anti-Thompson letter is Chad Topaz, a professor at Williams College whom we met before. He actually runs an organization that, in return for your donations, will help one or two people you designate write a diversity statement*. How honest can a statement be if you write it with the “help” of an organization that specializes in crafting diversity statements in return for money?
*Note: this link is likely to disappear, as Topaz, a real piece of work, redirects links from people he considers “white supremacists” (i.e., me) away from his site and to the Southern Poverty Law Center. But try copying this link into your browser (it won’t connect directly because Topaz is an ass): https://qsideinstitute.org/2019/11/20/if-you-donate-we-will-give-pro-bono-support-to-job-candidates-regarding-writing-diversity-statements/
UPDATE: In response to a reader question, Topaz does seem to think I’m a white supremacist. Here’s a screenshot from his Facebook page that appears on someone’s website: