Tuesday, August 23, 2022

How Do Diversity Statements Threaten Academic Freedom?

The Academic Freedom Alliance has come out in opposition to the use of "diversity" or "DEI" statements as part of the academic hiring or promotion process, labeling them threats to academic freedom.

Academics seeking employment or promotion will almost inescapably feel pressured to say things that accommodate the perceived ideological preferences of an institution demanding a diversity statement, notwithstanding the actual beliefs or commitments of those forced to speak. This scenario is inimical to fundamental values that should govern academic life. The demand for diversity statements enlists academics into a political movement, erasing the distinction between academic expertise and ideological conformity. It encourages cynicism and dishonesty. An industry of diversity statement “counselling” has already emerged--and could easily have been predicted. There are prevalent and reasonable suspicions that beneath the stated rationales for diversity statements lurk unstated motives that include providing a way to screen out candidates who express ambivalence about DEI programming.

I'm honestly not sure I see the academic freedom issue here, even taken on AFA's own terms.

For starters, it's somewhat difficult to situate academic freedom concerns into either the promotion or (especially) hiring context. Academic freedom, as I've written, is a constraint on remedies. It takes certain consequences -- most notably, termination -- off the table as responses to even admittedly terrible speech (as well as, of course, perfectly legitimate but nonetheless controversial speech). But while a tenured professor is entitled as a default to continue his employment, a job applicant has no baseline entitlement to be hired, nor does a faculty member seeking promotion have a default entitlement to move from associate to full professor. It is hard for me to imagine a case where a job applicant has their academic freedom violated because they weren't hired -- at least, outside of cases where the hiring was already approved by the appropriate stakeholders and was only reversed via abnormal intervention from upper administration. 

Most job applicants aren't hired, and they aren't hired for all sorts of reasons. Importantly, those reasons include normative appraisals of the quality of their "materials" -- both in terms of scholarship and in terms of teaching. Academic freedom says you can't fire John Doe because you think his scholarship is bad. But academic freedom obviously does not mean you must hire John Doe even though you think his scholarship is bad. The two circumstances are not comparable, and academic freedom concerns map poorly onto the latter. If a hiring committee can say "we don't want to proceed with John's candidacy because we think his scholarship is poor", why can't they say "we don't want to proceed with John's candidacy because we think he'll do a bad job at teaching students of diverse backgrounds"?

The AFA cannot and I think does not take the position that it is conceptually inappropriate for a hiring committee to value a prospective applicant's ability to teach, mentor, and support students of diverse backgrounds. And if that is a valid criteria for a committee to consider, there must be some way for the committee to elicit a candidate's perspective on how they'd approach the issue. At root, a DEI statement is a means to provide that information. The AFA statement concentrates instead on the instinct -- which I share -- that dismissal of a given job candidate based on pure ideological disagreement is inappropriate. It's fine to say "this scholarship is bad, therefore, it's a no", but one shouldn't say "this scholarship is bad for no other reason than that I disagree with it, therefore, it's a no." And the same would be true for a DEI statement. The AFA's worry is that DEI statements in practice are not subject to the normal normative appraisals that, say, a scholarly research portfolio are. Rather, they are subject to rigid ideological litmus tests where anyone who fails to mouth the preferred shibboleths is instantly dismissed from consideration.

Granting the conceptual validity of those concerns, though, the AFA's position still goes too far. Because the statement is at best unclear on what, if anything, could replace the DEI statement, it runs the risk of interfering with the academic freedom of existing faculty, who are deprived of information they think would be valuable in determining what constitutes a meritorious candidate and who will be a productive and sociable colleague. Again, it cannot be the case that hiring committees are simply not permitted to elicit information on this subject. And while there are no doubt diverse views on how best to actualize the value of being a good teacher and mentor to students of all backgrounds, we should not confuse that diversity for a job candidate's entitlement to simply not care about the question. It is one thing to take a minority view on the best way to support DEI values. It's another thing to take one's own indifference to facilitating an inclusive academic environment and elevate that apathy to a political principle. In my experience, dissidents who show they've thought about the question seriously and have a gameplan for addressing DEI issues will be given due consideration even if their proposals aren't in line with the de rigueur set of proposals. But very often, what one encounters instead are people who feel aggrieved at being asked to think about the question at all, or who project onto their peers a claimed reflexive dismissal in order to rationalize their own unwillingness to actually robustly defend their positions.

Given this, the problem cannot be with DEI statements themselves, but rather the potential for abusing such statements to enforce a narrow orthodoxy. Yet the AFA statement does not actually provide any evidence that such abuse is occurring at such high rates that DEI statements must be killed off entirely -- a showing that I believe would be necessary given the more obvious and immediate academic threat that exists from banning such statements. Such evidence would be hard to muster in any case, because it is quite difficult to distinguish between simple reflexive ideological dismissal, versus a considered professional judgment that a given articulation of how to best serve a diverse community and student body is poorly conceived.

In reality, the abuse-risk of evaluating a faculty candidate's DEI statement is little different than the abuse-risk of evaluating a faculty candidate's scholarship. There, too, there is the risk of ideologically-motivated dismissal. There, too, that admittedly abusive practice can be hard to distinguish from legitimate evaluative appraisals. There, too, it probably is the case that persons proffering dissident, provocative, or counter-cultural perspectives probably are at a comparative disadvantage. There, too, many candidates have long since learned to disguise their true scholarly agenda until they gain tenure; and there, too, there is a cottage industry of advice and mentoring centered around how to present one's portfolio in a manner most likely to be deemed attractive. Nothing is new under the sun.

But we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater on the scholarship side, and say that just because there's the potential for ideological abuse, it is fundamentally illegitimate for faculty candidates to provide a research agenda. Nor do we claim that the disappointed job candidate had an academic freedom entitlement to be hired to a given position, notwithstanding the presumably negative assessment his materials garnered from the hiring committee. If this is true on the research side, I don't see why it's any less true on the teaching side.

It is legitimate -- and dare I say, a prerogative of academic freedom -- for faculty members to want future colleagues and leaders to have thought hard about how they'll teach, mentor, and support a diverse student body. There's nothing shady about asking prospective applicants to share their views on that subject. It's probably the case that those with dissident views may have to overcome more skepticism, but that's an evergreen fact of applying to any job in any field at any time. The risk to academic freedom, if it exists at all, is no more extensive for diversity statements than it is for any other element of an academic applicant's portfolio.

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