Posted on January 7, 2019

Against Diversity Statements

Jeffrey Flier, Chronicle of Higher Education, January 3, 2019


{snip} Have the terms retained their original meanings, or acquired important new connotations? Have the programs changed their goals to adapt to current realities? Do they advance the same values today that initially accorded them broad support? Might some elements of current advocacy impede rather than advance widely shared goals, or even bring unintended negative consequences?

My attention was drawn to these question by the University of California at Los Angeles’s recent announcement of a new policy requiring faculty members to document activities in support of diversity in dossiers used to evaluate all appointments and promotions. According to the policy, “all regular rank faculty searches must require candidates to submit an ‘EDI Statement’ that describes the candidate’s past, present, and future (planned) contributions to equity, diversity, and inclusion.” Moreover, “UCLA will implement a similar practice in the context of ladder rank faculty promotions beginning in the 2019-20 academic year.”

As a supporter of the original goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, my skepticism toward this policy surprised a number of friends and colleagues. But it is entirely inappropriate to require diversity statements in the process of appointment and promotion. Such requirements risk introducing a political litmus test into faculty hiring and reviews.


During nine years as a medical-school dean, I oversaw nearly a thousand professorial reviews assessing the research, teaching, service, and reputation of senior members of the faculty. Maintaining the objectivity of these reviews is essential to the integrity of the academy, though I fully recognize the imperfections of the process. {snip}

While the recent UCLA policy is far from the loyalty oaths deployed at the University of California during the McCarthy era, it’s not unreasonable to be concerned that politically influenced attestations might begin to re-emerge in the current hyperpartisan political environment, either in response to politically driven demands for faculty members to support populist or nationalist ideas, or from within the increasingly polarized academy itself. Since progressive/left identifications are dominant in the academy, especially in the humanities and social sciences (as well as in administration), politically influenced litmus tests could easily arise in that sphere.

{snip} But the key terms — diversity, equity, and inclusion — are rarely defined with specificity, and their meaning has been subtly shifting. That’s a serious problem, especially if diversity efforts are to be a criterion for faculty evaluation. The term “equity,” for instance, can imply equality of opportunity or equality of outcome — two quite different things with distinct policy implications. The concept of “inclusion” might imply the welcoming of diverse groups and perspectives, or it might involve the avoidance of microaggressions and the creation of safe spaces — two controversial goals. The lack of definitional clarity of key terms creates confusion, suspicion, and disagreement.

One way to understand the problem is to examine the academic literature regarding equity and inclusion today. This literature, though not uniform, often incorporates key elements of a theoretical corpus known as “critical race theory,” little known to many academics outside of the social sciences and the humanities. It emphasizes structural racism, white privilege and supremacy, microaggressions, economically driven power relationships, and intersectionality. At the level of policy, it favors “race conscious” rather than “color blind” approaches to remedies.

My goal here is not to critique or evaluate the precepts of critical race theory. But it is obvious that these ideas and policy frameworks are not politically neutral. Rather, they map onto the left/progressive wing of the political spectrum, and their claims are arguable and highly contested. This ideological context is hardly subtle, but many academics appear not to appreciate its pervasiveness. The resulting ambiguity makes it difficult to debate proposed policies, which are portrayed as reflecting common decency even as they are increasingly linked to a particular leftist ideology.

{snip} Reviewers and administrators typically operate behind a wall of confidentiality. Depending on their perspectives, politically influenced litmus tests — unrelated to academic accomplishments and potential — could easily develop. This would most likely occur first in the humanities and social sciences, where such perspectives are already well entrenched, but the practice would quickly spread. Of course, advocates of critical race theory and social justice don’t see the pervasive influence of these ideas as a threat to academic freedom, while those who question them often do.

{snip} At the moment, honest dialogue about the goals and consequences of these initiatives is uncommon, and overt criticism is virtually taboo. Skepticism tends to be voiced privately or in small groups rather than in public forums. Self-censorship is the rule. When institutional leaders issue statements about diversity, they are typically anodyne, vague, and euphemistic, reflecting the highly charged context in which they will be received and interpreted. {snip}

{snip} But injecting mandatory diversity statements into academic reviews is a bad idea. Though well-intentioned, such statements will open the door to political influence, which should be anathema. The meanings of “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion” require clarification, and where appropriate, debate. {snip}