Students are usually at the center of free speech fights on university campuses—think Christian groups sanctioned for faith-based leadership requirements and both socialists and libertarians ordered not to pass out pamphlets without prior approval.
But now professors are increasingly becoming targets for what they say, do—and believe. A growing number of universities are requiring professors to either sign or write and submit diversity statements as part of their tenure process. Administrators describe the statements as a good way to ensure faculty members are committed to advancing institutional equality goals. Critics say they pose a threat to academic freedom and free speech, not to mention an ironic threat to diversity on campus.
Peter Wood, head of the National Association of Scholars, describes diversity statements as a dangerous “litmus test” used to weed out candidates who might not agree wholeheartedly with administrators’ political positions.
“If you had any doubts or reservations about how diversity was proceeding, to refuse to sign these statements or refuse to make a fervent profession of agreement with them, could be severely career-damaging,” he told me. “That is, they might not be reappointed or if they were up for tenure, might not get tenure. So there was an intimidating quality to it.”
Wood first encountered faculty diversity statements at Virginia Tech nearly a decade ago. Although he doesn’t know for sure how many other schools have incorporated diversity statements into their hiring process, Wood told me anecdotal feedback from his group’s members suggests they are widespread. The University of California system may be the biggest adopter, with nearly all its schools requiring them.
Campus diversity initiatives first targeted racial disparity among students and faculty. But today they include sexual orientation and gender identity. Wood opposes all efforts at social engineering, no matter who’s highlighted for inclusion. He calls diversity a “misleading idea” because it puts something other than excellence in learning at the center of the academic enterprise.
“As soon as nonacademic issues are put out as a litmus tests for academic appointment and advancement, the pursuit of excellence in the form of finding the best people with the deepest research and greatest capacity to further human understanding of issues takes a backseat to a kind of display politics of getting people who ostensibly agree and uphold some doctrine,” he said.
Robert Shibley with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education told me that while diversity statements raise free speech concerns, the biggest problem is the threat they pose to academic freedom: “It suggests to professors and candidates for the professoriate that their own teaching and research needs to move, or be moved, in a direction where it will be seen to fulfill these requirements rather than the direction that they would prefer to go in themselves.”
Shibley reviewed the diversity statement used at the University of California, Los Angeles, and noted it’s built on mainstream liberal political assumptions about the problems in academia.
“And there’s not a lot of suggestion that, for instance, somebody who thinks that diversity inclusion or equity could be advanced in other ways, would be just as easily accepted as those who seem to share the assumptions of the people who wrote these requirements,” he said.
While requiring diversity statements isn’t illegal, the government is not allowed to use political tests for hiring. If public universities use them that way, Shibley warned they could face legal challenges.