Professor loses job offer at UCLA after grad students object to his views about DEI statements

June 29, 2023 • 9:15 am

I’m not sure why the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote such a long story about this issue, but probably because it instantiates an ongoing controversy in higher education. Actually four controversies, the last of which isn’t mentioned in the article:

1.) Should candidates be required to submit “DEI statements” when they apply for a job at a university?

2.) Should those statements be vetted against a given “correct” ideological position by the university or department?

3.) Should the candidate be denied a job if their DEI statements aren’t ideologically correct?

4.) Is it legal to require these statements (especially at a state university) since they may violate the Constitution by being loyalty oaths and subject to “viewpoint discrimination?”

In the case of psychologist Yoel Inbar, a professor at the Unversity of Toronto who applied for a joint hire with his partner at UCLA’S Department of Psychology, UCLA’s answer to the first three questions was, respectively, yes, yes, and yes.  He didn’t get the job. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), however, thinks the answer to #4 is “no,” and is investigating the issue.

Click to read:

There are a lot of twists and turns here, and I won’t describe them, as they’re in the article. The short take is that Inbar was probably going to be offered the job, but lost it after a bunch of grad students in the department objected to his take on DEI—a take expressed in a five-year-old podcast. From CHI:

A psychologist spoke out this week about what critics see as a job offer gone awry over an ideological spat about diversity statements.

Yoel Inbar, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, was up for a job at the University of California at Los Angeles. But the psychology department there decided not to proceed after more than 60 graduate students in the department signed an open letter urging the university not to hire him.

At issue, the students wrote, were Inbar’s comments on his podcast expressing skepticism about the use of diversity statements in hiring, as well as about other efforts intended to make the academy more inclusive.

In the letter, which circulated on Twitter, the students wrote that Inbar’s hiring “would threaten ongoing efforts to protect and uplift individuals of marginalized backgrounds” and that Inbar “prioritizes advocating for those he classifies as political minorities in academia” over fostering inclusivity. In a meeting with graduate students, the letter continues, Inbar’s answers to questions about diversity, equity, and inclusion were in some cases “outright disconcerting.” (Inbar shared his account on a podcast episode released on Tuesday, and spoke with The Chronicle on Wednesday.)

You can also see students’ letter here. This was one of those incidents that go viral on Twitter, though since I’m told that (or am sent tweets), I haven’t verified that for myself.

But what’s clear is that Inbar is a liberal, and that he’s not against departments promoting diversity. His objection was to mandatory DEI statements, an objection that repelled the students. There’s also another twist; the students think that, as a psychologist studying “moral and political ideology”, Inbar’s work wasn’t sufficiently imbued with issues of race, gender, and other work about discrimination. In other words, they objected as much to his lack of ideologically-infused research as to his objection to DEI statements, statements that he considers aren’t efficacious but which serve only to flaunt virtue.  From CHI:

The story began, Inbar said Tuesday on the podcast Very Bad Wizards, when his partner received a job offer from the UCLA psychology department. When she inquired about the possibility of bringing Inbar on as a partner hire, the department was receptive, Inbar said. During a campus visit in late January, faculty members seemed enthusiastic about him as a candidate.

But he told the hosts of Very Bad Wizards that his meeting with the diversity-issues committee was one of several “strange things” that happened while he was on campus. At the end of the meeting, in which the committee asked standard questions about his approach to diversity in his teaching and research, Inbar said he had been asked about a December 2018 episode of Two Psychologists Four Beers.

In that episode, Inbar said that diversity statements “sort of seem like administrator virtue-signaling,” questioned how they would be used in a hiring process, and suggested “it’s not clear that they lead to better outcomes for underrepresented groups.”

The committee asked: Was he prepared to defend those comments now?

“To be honest, I wasn’t, because this episode is like, four and a half years old,” Inbar said on Very Bad Wizards. But he explained his current stance: “The very short version is, I think that the goals are good, but I don’t know if the diversity statements necessarily accomplish the goals.” (One host of Very Bad Wizards, David A. Pizarro, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, said he’d let Inbar’s comments on the podcast speak for themselves.)

So Inbar is in favor of promoting diversity, but said that he didn’t think that DEI statements were the way to do that; that they are “virtue-signaling”.  I agree with Inbar, and diversity statements are not allowed at the University of Chicago precisely because, I believe, they violate freedom of speech and are a form of compelled speech when vetted compared to desired “rubrics.”

Here are the graduate students objecting not just to his views on DEI statements (it’s not enough that he’s in favor of the statements’ goals), but also to the insufficiently “minoritized” character of his academic work:

Then Inbar met with some of the graduate students. Both parties recalled the meeting as unusual. The students wrote in their letter that Inbar had told them that his “work does not really deal with identity,” which they found problematic. Inbar studies morality and political ideology, the students wrote, so “it was deeply troubling to hear that he does not believe identity (i.e., individual background as it pertains to race, gender, sexuality, class, or ability) has bearing on these research questions.”

But Inbar said the graduate students had never asked him directly about the podcast episodes mentioned in their letter. “To be honest, it wasn’t entirely clear what they were getting at” in the meeting, Inbar told The Chronicle; if they had asked more-direct questions about, for instance, his approach to mentoring students from diverse backgrounds, he said he could have answered them.

It seems to me that calling for Inbar not to be hired because his work isn’t centered on “identity” constitutes a violation of his academic freedom. Inbar is a highly respected scholar, and here we have students saying “you’re working on the wrong thing” when in fact they offer no critique at all of his research.

In the end the department, rattled by the graduate students’ statement, convened an unusual special committee to re-evaluate Inbar’s application. The committee went along with the students and Inbar he didn’t get the job.

I think FIRE’s take on what happened seems accurate (read the students’ letter):

Meanwhile, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression has requested from UCLA documents related to Inbar’s case, including the committee’s report; the university denied that request in March and an appeal this month. Alex Morey, director of campus rights advocacy at FIRE, told The Chronicle that her organization is preparing a second appeal, arguing that the records are a matter of public interest.

“What we suspect may be happening here is that because Professor Inbar allegedly did not parrot the correct views on DEI and some students objected to that, he may have been discriminated against because of his views in the hiring process,” Morey said. That’s not allowed at a public university, she said: “They can hold faculty to viewpoint-neutral type of criteria, objective standards, but they can’t say, ‘If you don’t pledge allegiance to our particular view on diversity, you can’t have a job.’”

They’re right: there is strong evidence here for viewpoint discrimination. What’s odd is that the very views held by Inbar—that the goal of increasing diversity is good but mandatory DEI statements for applicants are not—is the very goal of schools like the University of Chicago, which tries to preserve freedom of speech and academic freedom while seeking a diverse student body.  DEI statements should not be required for application, and if that’s the case then questions #2 and #3 above become superfluous.

In 1972, the University of Chicago issued the Shils Report, which lays out the criteria for hiring, retention, and promotion within the University. Here are the four criteria listed in the report (my bold):

Any appointive body must have a standard by which it assesses the merits of the alternative candidates before it. Academic appointive bodies in general, and at The University of Chicago in particular, must have clearly perceived standards which they seek to apply to particular cases. They must seek to choose candidates who can conform most closely with these standards in their most exigent application. The standards to be applied by any appointive body should be those which assess the quality of performance in (1) research; (2) teaching and training, including the supervision of graduate students; (3) contribution to intellectual community; and (4) services. Distinguished performance in any one of these categories does not automatically entail distinguished performance in the others. For this reason, weighting of the various criteria cannot be avoided by appointive bodies. The Committee thinks that the criterion of distinction in research should be given the greatest weight.

It’s understood that “services” means “services to the University,” like serving on committees and the like. You’d be hard pressed to shoehorn “correct ideology towards diversity in there,” and, as I understand it, the powers that be here have decided that requiring DEI statements violates the Shils criteria. (This is my interpretation from what I’ve heard, so don’t take it as an official policy of the university.)  At the same time, the University is dedicated to maintaining diversity, including diversity of thought. We have a strong policy to that effect. It seems to me that our own policy, which promotes diversity while insisting on freedom of expression and academic freedom, expresses the very views that cost Inbar his job.

This is not a “cancelation,” but only the failure to offer a job, and Inbar is being sanguine about it:

Meanwhile, Inbar is not asking for sympathy. His partner received a one-year extension of her job offer from UCLA, which he told The Chronicle was “spectacular,” and the couple may consider moving to Los Angeles if Inbar can find a job in the area. “I don’t want people to cry over this for me,” he said on Very Bad Wizards.

In the past, he added, he’s urged faculty members to speak up about potentially controversial topics they believe in. His recent experience has changed his mind.

“Is there a cost to opening your mouth about this stuff? Absolutely, there is,” he said. “Would I advise a junior person to take any sort of heterodox position on this publicly? Absolutely not, because you only need to piss off a few people. It just takes one or two to sink you. Just stay out of it.”

That last paragraph shows how institutional policies requiring or promoting a specific ideology (in this case, one construal of DEI) can chill speech. And that’s why we don’t have such policies.

A few tweets. Below is Matt Yglesias laying out what happened, and then Sean Carroll apparently misunderstanding Yglesias’s tweet, which includes part of the students’ statement and a link to it.  The actual beliefs at issue are, in fact, part of what Yglesias said.

Jesse Singal then weighs in, saying that Carroll apparently missed what Yglesias was writing about.

FIRE has been trying to get UCLA’s records about the Inbar decision, records that should be public since UCLA is a state school. They have a series of ten tweets about it; I’ve put three below.  I doubt that this will lead to a lawsuit against UCLA, but it’s time that required DEI statements be adjudicated as possible violations of the First Amendment.

8 thoughts on “Professor loses job offer at UCLA after grad students object to his views about DEI statements

  1. I’m so glad that you and FIRE are holding UCLA feet to the fire. There should be a price to pay for engaging in this sort of viewpoint discrimination. Even if they get away with it, the practice should not come without a cost—monetary and reputational. The administration should be forced to scramble for words to justify their actions. One can only hope that a lawsuit will lead to these forced loyalty oaths being deemed unconstitutional.

  2. That does seem law-suit-worthy. The outcome would be certain if some brave person with inside knowledge at UCLA were to confirm that he was going to be hired until his thought-crimes came out. But since Inbar seems to have no interest in getting into a mud fight, I guess it won’t happen.

    Meanwhile, the students look to be wrong to claim that “…he does not believe identity (i.e., individual background as it pertains to race, gender, sexuality, class, or ability) has bearing on these research questions.” (And of course those things do have some bearing). He simply said that he was not studying from that perspective.

  3. A perfect demonstration of the totalitarian climate that DEI statements have engendered. The most ominous feature, however, is the role of the graduate students. It is as if the outlawing of Mendelian genetics in the USSR in the 1940s had been at the behest of the grad students! That of course was not so, so we have a new phenomenon here. The implication is that the current atmosphere of MaoCarthyism in academe can be traced back to the student population’s psychology, as Jon Haidt has contended.

  4. Let’s toss the corporate term “partner” in the bin alongside its bedmate “based in”. Wife, husband, boyfriend, paramour are all better and more appropriate. Unless we are talking business partner, which we never are.

  5. The Inbar case presents a more likely basis for a lawsuit than does the case of John Hatigan against UC Santa Cruz, which Jerry wrote about earlier. In the latter case, it is unclear whether the plaintiff has standing (in the legal sense) to sue, as he never even applied for a position, and thus it is not clear that he suffered any harm.

    In this case, there was actual consideration by UCLA of hiring Inbar, so establishing harm, and thus standing, would be easier.

    GCM

  6. It’s worth noting that the students’ views are not unique; many academics on Twitter rushed to endorse their views and claimed that the students were the victims here. In fact, most seemed to view the students’ claims as eminently reasonable and took the prof.’s mild skepticism as proof that the prof must be problematic.

    There’s a very common idea in academia now that a professor cannot adequately advise, mentor, teach, or even interact with students without publicly endorsing a very specific view of what DEI is and how it should be done (otherwise the prof. makes the environment “unsafe”). There’s also a sense that *all* research must lead back to DEI and that scholars should be ready at all times to articulate how their research and teaching ties into DEI because DEI is such a good and important thing (and of course, not just a broad view of DEI, but a very specific, very politically charged version of it).

    To take the Shils Report as a comparison, the majority of grad students in Psych at UCLA (and, I would wager, many other academics at countless other departments) believe that DEI must be prioritized higher than any other criteria and infused into all aspects of Research, Teaching, and Service. They cannot conceive of someone being a “good” researcher or teacher without fully subscribing to their view of DEI. This is now what’s being written into hiring and promotion rubrics and evaluations. More and more departments and schools are trying to dodge restrictions on racial preferences and bans on political discrimination by claiming that these viewpoints are inherent components of merit.

    This is not only a strike against academic freedom, but a strike for more mindless social posturing and empty DEI statements (as, ironically, the prof. in question here warned about), more unproductive workshops and racial struggle sessions (see the Penn State-Abington lawsuit: https://archive.is/tZhsf), more incidents similar to the one outlined here (as well as the chilling effect as these get publicized), and more administrative commissars to ensure that the faculty stick to the party line at all times.

Leave a Reply

Discover more from Why Evolution Is True

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue Reading