Conor Friedersdorf on why mandatory diversity statements for academic hires are both wrong and hypocritical

July 9, 2023 • 11:00 am

Several readers sent me the article in The Atlantic below by Conor Friedersdorf, who regularly criticizes woke statements and initiatives in that popular magazine, and is thus on the road to being demonized as an alt-righter or even a Nazi. But, as usual, he takes a heterodox but eminently reasonable stand on an issue regarded as almost taboo: requiring academics to produce “diversity statements” (“DEI statements”) when applying for jobs or promotions. Click the screenshot to read, though it might be paywalled:

Friedersdorf begins by mentioning the case of John D. Haltigan, which I’ve discussed twice before (here and here). Haltigan wanted to apply for a job in the psychology department at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and, represented by the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation, argued that the required DEI statement at UCSC would violate his First Amendment right as it would be compelled speech.  Haltigan is asking the courts for an injunction that would allow him to apply without a DEI statement, knowing that his own statement would render him unhire-able from the outset. I wrote this before:

As I wrote in a previous post, Haltigan didn’t actually apply for the job, because he realized that his own statement would never pass muster with the faculty. But he did write and publish the statement that he would have used had he applied. It wouldn’t have passed muster, though, because it included stuff like this:

I believe that the use of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statements in evaluating candidates for positions in higher education and academia are anathema to the ideals and principles of rigorous scholarship, and the sound practice of science and teaching.

As Friedersdorf notes, this “is the first major free-speech challenge to a public institution that requires these statements.”  He muses about what would happen were it upheld by courts: everybody would require one, and they aren’t a violation of the Supreme Court’s ban on affirmative action for college admissions. But I think that if this case works its way up to the Supreme Court, DEI statements would be banned as violations of free speech. And that would be a good outcome, for I think that DEI statements are indeed a violation of free speech. As Freidersdorf argues, they act by “chilling” speech—by forcing applicants to hew to a particular interpretation of DEI, and that interpretation is not a King-ian “colorblind one”. (For more information, see my colleague Brian Leiter’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, “The legal problems with diversity statements.”

What surprised me about Friedersdorf’s piece were two things. First was the pervasiveness of DEI statements in American college hiring:

UC Santa Cruz’s requirement is part of a larger trend: Almost half of large colleges now include DEI criteria in tenure standards, while the American Enterprise Institute found that 19 percent of academic job postings required DEI statements, which were required more frequently at elite institutions. Still, there is significant opposition to the practice. A 2022 survey of nearly 1,500 U.S. faculty members found that 50 percent of respondents considered the statements “an ideological litmus test that violates academic freedom.” And the Academic Freedom Alliance, a group composed of faculty members with a wide range of political perspectives, argues that diversity statements erase “the distinction between academic expertise and ideological conformity” and create scenarios “inimical to fundamental values that should govern academic life.”

Second, I was surprised that the University of California system is still using DEI statement to weed out applicants before evaluating their academic credentials. Some colleagues at UC schools have told me that this is no longer the case, but I presume Friedersdorf checked the data before writing the following:

Perhaps the most extreme developments in the UC system’s use of DEI statements are taking place on the Davis, Santa Cruz, Berkeley, and Riverside campuses, where pilot programs treat mandatory diversity statements not as one factor among many in an overall evaluation of candidates, but as a threshold test. In other words, if a group of academics applied for jobs, their DEI statements would be read and scored, and only applicants with the highest DEI statement scores would make it to the next round. The others would never be evaluated on their research, teaching, or service. This is a revolutionary change in how to evaluate professors.

This approach—one that is under direct challenge in the Haltigan lawsuit—was scrutinized in detail by Daniel M. Ortner of the Pacific Legal Foundation in an article for the Catholic University Law Review. When UC Berkeley hired for life-sciences jobs through its pilot program, Ortner reports, 679 qualified applicants were eliminated based on their DEI statements alone. “Seventy-six percent of qualified applicants were rejected without even considering their teaching skills, their publication history, their potential for academic excellence, or their ability to contribute to their field,” he wrote. “As far as the university knew, these applicants could have well been the next Albert Einstein or Jonas Salk, or they might have been outstanding and innovative educators who would make a significant difference in students’ lives.”

At UC Davis, 50 percent of applicants in some searches were disqualified based on their DEI statements alone. Abigail Thompson, then the chair of the mathematics department at UC Davis, dissented from its approach in a 2019 column for the American Mathematics Society newsletter. “Classical liberals aspire to treat every person as a unique individual,” she wrote. “Requiring candidates to believe that people should be treated differently according to their identity is indeed a political test.”

People at Berkeley and Davis have told me that disqualification based on DEI statements is no longer used, but perhaps they were referring to their own departments. It’s odious, though, to prioritize these statements above everything else, and Friedersdorf says why.  The statement about doing other stuff to help society rang true to me because I spent a great deal of time as an associate and full professor being an expert witness testifying in criminal trials about the use of DNA evidence, helping public defenders—one of the great institutions of our justice system—and working for free.  I could have doubled my income taking cases (some people offered me $400-$500 per hour), but I always did it for free (except for airfare and hotel fees), so that my views could not be challenged on the grounds that I was profiting from them.  And I never worked for the prosecution, because public defenders need to be supported as the only bulwark poor people have to get justice.

But I digress: here’s why DEI statements are “anti-pluralistic”:

Mandatory DEI statements send a message that is anti-pluralistic. I believe that diversity and inclusion are good. I do not think that universities should reward advancing those particular values more than all others. Some aspiring professors are well suited to advancing diversity. Great! The time of others is better spent mitigating climate change, or serving as expert witnesses in trials, or pioneering new treatments for cancer. Insofar as all academics must check a compulsory “advancing DEI” box, many will waste time on work that provides little or no benefit instead of doing kinds of work where they enjoy a comparative advantage in improving the world.

And mandatory DEI statements send the message that viewpoint diversity and dissent are neither valuable nor necessary—that if you’ve identified the right values, a monoculture in support of them is preferable. The scoring rubric for evaluating candidates’ statements that UC Santa Cruz published declares that a superlative statement “discusses diversity, equity, and inclusion as core values of the University that every faculty member should actively contribute to advancing.” Do academics really want to assert that any value should be held by “every” faculty member? Academics who value DEI work should want smart critics of the approach commenting from inside academic institutions to point out flaws and shortcomings that boosters miss.

This is a long article, which not only recounts the history of DEI statements but suggests ways that they might even be made acceptable. But I don’t think they should ever be used, and in the end I think the author agrees, claiming that the free-speech costs are higher than the benefits of diversity statements (does any research show that candidates with higher DEI statements make better professors?):

The costs of mandatory DEI statements are far too high to justify, especially absent evidence that they do significant good. Alas, proponents seem unaware of those costs. Yes, they know that they are imposing a requirement that many colleagues find uncomfortable. But they may be less aware of the message that higher-education institutions send to the public by demanding these statements.

And here are five of the costs (words are Friedersdorf’s). The first one probably encompasses the biggest mistake that people are making with respect to all aspects of college. Increasingly, colleges are no longer a place to learn, to teach, and to get excited about learning, but a place where you are molded into a person who will improve society. That of course will change depending on which authorities define what is “an improved society”!

1.) Mandatory DEI statements send the message that professors should be evaluated not only on research and teaching, but on their contributions to improving society.

2.) Mandatory DEI statements send the message that it’s okay for academics to chill the speech of colleagues. 

3.) Mandatory DEI statements send a message that is anti-pluralistic. I believe that diversity and inclusion are good. I do not think that universities should reward advancing those particular values more than all others

4.) And mandatory DEI statements send the message that viewpoint diversity and dissent are neither valuable nor necessary—that if you’ve identified the right values, a monoculture in support of them is preferable. 

5.)  Demanding that everyone get on board and embrace the same values and social-justice priorities will inevitably narrow the sort of people who apply to work and get hired in higher education.

So why, in the title, does Freidersdorf say that mandatory diversity statements are hypocritical? Because they are supposed to promote diversity, and presumably diversity of viewpoints and ideologies, yet are being used to create conformity and stifle dissent. Or, as the author says,

. . . mandatory DEI statements are profoundly anti-diversity. And that strikes me as an especially perilous hypocrisy for academics to indulge at a time of falling popular support for higher education. A society can afford its college professors radical freedom to dissent from social orthodoxies or it can demand conformity, but not both. Academic-freedom advocates can credibly argue that scholars must be free to criticize or even to denigrate God, the nuclear family, America, motherhood, capitalism, Christianity, John Wayne movies, Thanksgiving Day, the military, the police, beer, penetrative sex, and the internal combustion engine—but not if academics are effectively prohibited from criticizing progressivism’s sacred values.

7 thoughts on “Conor Friedersdorf on why mandatory diversity statements for academic hires are both wrong and hypocritical

  1. On the topic of “social-justice priorities”, it is noteworthy that the latest book from the very distinguished Thomas Sowell, still writing at 93, is entitled “Social Justice Fallacies” and is set to be published in two months. He will no doubt be analyzing what many call, with good reason, the “disparity fallacy”, invariably used to defend the ideology of DEI.

  2. Fridersdorf’s piece is a good one. Kudos to The Atlantic for publishing several articles of late about the downsides of DEI activism. Yes. Academics who want to spend their time and reputations on DEI activism are free to do so—in universities that value and protect free speech—but no one should be forced into such activism or into pretending.

  3. A generation ago, some of us welcomed (or perhaps I should say thought we welcomed) the general Leftward shift of culture in academia. But now that the DEI statement tsunami is moving many institutions toward becoming like little East Germanys— now we are recalling that phrase “be careful what you wish for”. We cannot help noticing that academia’s Leftist monoculture is precisely what allowed the tsunami to sweep in.

  4. All I would add to what Friedersdorf says is in his first cost is that not only does DEI measure contributions to society, but contributions in very specific ways. Building houses for Habitat for Humanity would be unlikely to move the needle for a candidate. The most frustrating thing about DEI, though, is that its practitioners are, in their own minds, free of the charge of hypocrisy, because their definitions of terms are created specifically to exclude those they exclude. Remember, racism isn’t prejudice, it’s prejudice plus power, which means their prejudice is ok and everyone else’s is genocidal. They have no shame.

  5. History repeats itself: I just read a newspaper article from 1971(!), written by the German philosopher Hermann Lübbe in reaction to the political activism of New Left professors and students, in which he argues against an ideological “Bekenntnisabgabezwang” (“compulsory statement of confession”) at universities as a requirement for tenure:
    “The result is that the young scientist can now increase his chances not only through productive scientific achievements, but also through demonstrating his location on the correct political line.” – H. Lübbe (my translation from German)

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