Friday, February 17, 2023

How To Write a "Colorblind" DEI Statement

Keeping on with the theme of DEI statements and alleged compelled ideological orthodoxy, one common argument against the use of DEI statements in academia is that they functionally compel agreement with a particular ideological orthodoxy. Even when the questions are formally open-ended (as they almost always are), it is alleged that the expected answer simply must accede to the prevailing left orthodoxy on DEI matters or it will be rejected out of hand. The job applicant who believes in colorblindness will not be able to write an (honest) DEI statement that will be acceptable to the hiring committee.

Having now served on an appointments committee (and having recently been an academic job candidate), I don't think this is true. I've now read a lot of DEI statements saying a lot of different things, and there are many ways to write a good DEI statement. And I actually do think it is entirely possible to write a "colorblind" DEI statement that would at least be considered acceptable by the average appointments committee. This matters because, if I'm right, it falsifies a key objection against having DEI statements -- that they in practice either require acceptance of a single ideological framework, or at least rejection of certain commonly-held and politically reasonable ideological frameworks.

To begin, though, we need to zero in on exactly what the complaint here is. In my experience, many of those who complain about DEI statements compelling allegiance to a particular orthodoxy actually are complaining about being asked to think about DEI at all.* Their problem isn't actually that they're allegedly being forced to accede to or reject a particular approach to DEI. It's that they have to have an approach -- they need to have considered the various challenges a university might have in fostering an environment that is equitable and inclusive to a diverse student body, and to have some thoughts on how to address those challenges.

For my part, when I read a DEI statement, I'm not looking for particular endorsement of a specific political view. What I want to see is simply that the candidate has thought critically and careful about DEI problems and has some ideas of how address or remediate them. If you haven't ever done that -- if you've never considered in any serious way questions like "how can I create an inclusive environment in my classroom for students of diverse backgrounds and perspectives" -- well, yes, I think that's a strike against you in the same way it'd be a strike if you've never considered in any serious way "how can I maximize my students' learning potential" or "how can I ensure my scholarship is responsive to potential objections." Asking candidates to think about challenges that are present in academic spaces is not a party foul.

A good DEI answer isn't about regurgitating a particular ideology. It's about demonstrating that one has thought about how to handle DEI problems and issues in some amount of specificity, and that specificity can take many forms. The "ideology", if one has it, needs to be tied into resolution of a problem -- "I've seen X problem, which I try to ameliorate by Y practice." This is why one often sees DEI guidelines that give low marks to statements like "I treat everyone the same". It's not because that's Wrongthink. It's because it's not responsive to the question. If someone asks me "how do you ensure student success in your classroom", answering "I treat everyone the same" ... isn't an answer. It doesn't tell me anything. It's not ideologically impermissible, it's just a normal incomplete answer. At the very least, it needs to be filled out -- I should identify a problem area where some students are struggling to succeed, and then I can specifically explain how my practice of "treating everyone the same" helps resolve or ameliorate that problem. Of course, it's possible that in some circumstances "treating everyone the same" won't be an effective way of resolving certain classroom problems, in which case the answer probably isn't a very good one. But again, the candidate there is being penalized not for "ideology" but because they aren't capable of translating an ideological commitment into a workable practice.

The same is true of DEI questions. If your view is that DEI problems are best resolved via "colorblind" practices like "treating people as individuals", that's fine -- so long as you can actually tie it specific problems related to diversity, equity, and inclusion in a meaningful fashion. Again, if you can't do that -- because one hasn't actually thought about how your abstract ideological commitments translate into resolving actual problems for actual students -- yeah, you're going to get dinged, but it will be entirely deserved. Abstract commitment to an ideology -- any ideology -- isn't good enough.

But I'm inclined to think that one can construct a "colorblind" DEI statement -- it just has to demonstrate that the candidate has actually thought about how "colorblind" practices can resolve certain identifiable problems related to diversity, equity, and inclusion in academic spaces.

Consider the following as the skeleton of a "colorblind" DEI statement. Obviously this would have to be expanded and elaborated on and personalized. But I think something of this form would not be instinctively rejected by the average appointments committee:

Central to my philosophy of teaching is meeting students where they are. Academic life can be deeply depersonalizing, particularly for students who are often still figuring out who they are and how to get where they want to go in life. And programs like affirmative action, which primarily concentrate on admitting underrepresented minorities onto campus, do not do much to ensure that such students are supported and positioned to thrive once they matriculate. It does little good to expend so much effort to create a "diverse" community and then not support students in their diversity once they arrive on campus. Consequently, I make it point to get to know all of my students as individuals -- for example, at the start of each semester I require all students to write a short introductory essay simply telling me who they are, and require students to attend at least one mandatory office hours session per semester -- so I'm best positioned to help them along the path they've chosen for themselves. 

On receiving these essays, and in innumerable office hour conversations, many of my students have reported that they often feel siloed or pigeon-holed into particular career trajectories -- for example, female students who tell me it is just assumed that they'll want to go into family law rather than corporate law, or Black students for whom it is taken for granted they won't want to become prosecutors -- and find that resources and support are lacking if it turns out they don't want to go down the expected road. Often the persons who promote these presuppositions are acting with good intentions, but nonetheless that sort of formulaic treatment frustrates students who deviate from popular assumptions of what someone "like them" will or should do with their lives -- a cost that often falls especially hard on minority and underrepresented students who may be particularly prone to being stereotyped in this fashion. Students of all backgrounds benefit when they know that all the paths and choices of academic life are available to them, and that they will be supported and mentored no matter which avenue they choose to take. Ultimately, my job as a professor is not turn my students into the person I expect them to be, but to help them become the person they want to be. To that end, there is no substitute for learning about every student as a full person, to support the entire student body in the full range of its diversity.

I'm not saying this is the perfect DEI statement (nor, for the record, is it the one I wrote when I was a candidate or necessarily reflective of my own views about DEI). And again, this would need to be fleshed out and personalized considerably. One can argue about its approach or its underlying presuppositions, and that's all fine. But I do think that, as a bare bones model, this is not the sort of statement that would be rejected out of hand -- even though its core framework is something like "treat students as individuals". The statement tacitly calls out forms of DEI "support" that rely on racial or gender essentialism, and even takes a little shot at affirmative action programs, all while promoting individualized treatment of each student. And yet, to me at least it seems like a DEI framework that would be basically acceptable to most hiring committees, and to that extent it falsifies the popular but I think fanciful notion that refusing to kowtow to left-wing orthodoxy equates to an auto-reject.

Why does a statement like this work, notwithstanding its "colorblind" approach? For me, at least, it works because it advocates for individualized treatment in response to specific and identifiable DEI problems faced by certain students. It doesn't promote "individualized treatment" as some sort of abstract moral principle and leave it there; nor is it some polemical rant against "DEI orthodoxy". It takes seriously certain pitfalls and inequities that might exist in educational spaces, and then offers a set of practices which are designed to be responsive to and redressive of those problems. The applicant is demonstrating that they're paying attention to certain burdens and problems that exist in academic spaces -- burdens that fall perhaps especially heavily on minority groups -- and they are taking affirmative steps at trying to ameliorate them. Given that, it's not going to be disqualifying that the approach chosen is one that is aligned with a "colorblind", "treat everyone as individuals" vision of the world.

Again, the main barrier to writing a statement like this isn't ideological dissension. The main barrier is that one has to actually be paying attention to potential DEI problems and barriers (such as, here, the students who feel especially pigeon-holed into and out of specific career paths on basis of identity) and have thought about how one can redress it. Again, many anti-DEI objectors seem angry about even having to do this much -- they think they're wronged if they're even expected to consider things like "female and minority students are at heightened risk of stereotyping", even if the payoff is "and that's why it's important to treat all students as individuals rather than essentialize on the basis of racial or gender identity". So yes, if the only thought you've had about DEI is "I shouldn't have to think about DEI", one won't produce this sort of essay. 

But again, there is no reason why hiring committees cannot look askance at that sort of apathy, which fundamentally isn't about "ideological" dissension but rather a basic incuriosity regarding an important facet of the job. As I've written before, it cannot be the case 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." Of course we can think it's important that incoming faculty have demonstrated ability to handle DEI problems, just as we can think it's important that incoming faculty have demonstrated ability to teach effectively. It's possible to seriously approach on-the-ground DEI matters from a variety of political or ideological perspectives, but screening out people who are just indifferent to the issue is not the same thing as imposing a rigid ideological litmus test.

* Some others have nearly the opposite complaint, which is that they want to go on a thirteen page rant about how DEI is the devil's bureaucracy but that's somehow unacceptable. Which, yes, rants like that tend to go over poorly -- but I will say they go over equally poorly regardless of politics: a dozen pages on the need for a proletariat revolution because only under Communism will students truly be free will also generally be met with scorn. And glibness aside, the reason this doesn't work is typically because such statements, in raging on about all the things one hates, typically offers little in the way of practical proposals of what one can do for the students one does have under currently existing conditions of the world. Again, what we want to see is some attentiveness to extant problems and some practical steps you've taken to ameliorate them. So even you think affirmative action is the new Jim Crow, shrieking about that for 15,000 words doesn't tell me anything about what you do to help about and nurture the students who are in your classroom (and strongly suggests that your policy towards them is to abandon them to fail, which understandably is not really an acceptable response).

Thursday, February 16, 2023

FIRE's Proposed Anti-DEI Legislation is an Academic Freedom Trainwreck

FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression -- formerly Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) is a controversial organization that works in a controversial area. By and large, though, I'm a FIRE defender -- I tend to think they get more right than wrong, and strive to be genuinely evenhanded in dealing with threats to academic freedom on campus.

But this makes it all the more striking to read their proposed model legislation targeting "DEI statements" at public universities. It is nothing short of an academic freedom trainwreck -- the sort of vague censorial tool that in most contexts FIRE would be blasting the alarm over. That it does not just endorse but drafted this disaster show is deeply worrisome and disconcerting.

I've written before trying to tease out the connection between DEI statements and (threats to) academic freedom before, which is far more complicated than groups like FIRE are letting on. The core problem is that while I absolutely agree that DEI statements can be used in abusive ways to create an ideological monoculture, it is actually very difficult to distinguish such statements from other arenas in which academic actors are asked to make normative assessments of their peers (for example, regarding teaching or scholarship) -- arenas which also are prone to ideological abuse. Almost inevitably, an "anti-DEI" rule that tries to have any teeth will put at risk basic practices of academic evaluation, and will do so regardless of any disclaimers to the contrary. This risk is only accentuated by the impossibly vague language that purports to distinguish licit versus illicit appraisals. And university bureaucrats who want to avoid potentially crippling financial liability (we'll get to that in a moment) are going to be very defensive regarding what is and is not permitted, inviting exactly the sort of administrative interference in academic affairs that FIRE purports to oppose.

When it comes to attempts to regulate DEI initiatives, my basic framework for evaluation is this. I assume that it cannot be the case that university actors are forbidden from caring about questions like "will the job candidate do a good job creating an equitable and inclusive environment for our diverse academic community" (if we are "forbidden from caring" about that, then the oppressive orthodoxy of the anti-DEI push is beyond dispute). So, assuming we're not "forbidden from caring", the question becomes "how can we, consistent with the anti-DEI regulation, permissibly elicit information to make an evaluation on that question?" And the subsidiary to that question is "what will the university or government bureaucrat in charge of compliance permit us to do to elicit information to make an evaluation on that question?" The former is a textual inquiry; the latter gets to the chilling effect of defensive bureaucracies seeking to avoid potentially millions in financial penalties. And for FIRE's anti-DEI legislation, the answers to these questions seem to be (a) I have no idea and (b) virtually nothing.

The core practice FIRE targets in its legislation are requirements that academic community members or job candidates "pledg[e] allegiance to or mak[e] a statement of personal support for or opposition to any political ideology or movement, including a pledge or statement regarding diversity, equity, inclusion, patriotism, or related topics." In addition, the law would forbid any institution from "request[ing] or requir[ing] any such pledge or statement from an applicant or faculty member" (notice that this would seemingly apply to interviews as well -- I could not ask a question that "requests" the candidate give a "statement" regarding their DEI-related practices).

Right from the outset, this is impossibly vague. Academia is, of course, beset with normative controversies. Some are very specific questions of disciplinary dispute ("Is originalism the best way to interpret the Constitution?"). But many are broad questions of academic mission. "Should university education be primarily vocational or academic in focus?" "What is the best way that professors can create a supportive learning environment for their students?" "What do you hope students will get out of your classes?"

These questions are contested, and often politically contested. For example, on university education as academic versus vocational, many conservatives contend that universities focus too heavily on hoity-toity theory and should instead concentrate on disciplines which prepare students for specific workplace jobs; liberals, by contrast, are more comfortable with the classic model of a liberal arts education where the project of learning and development is valuable even if it doesn't directly translate into a specific career arc. Are all of these questions qualifying "political ideologies or movements" that fall under the ambit of the law? If not, what conceptually distinguishes those questions from the seemingly-similar question "How do we render our institution equitable and inclusive to the diverse populations that we serve?" If the questions are identical in form, then the only basis for specifically banning DEI related questions is ideological hostility -- an imposition of state orthodoxy under the guise of pluralism.

One possible response is that the question is fine so long as it actually is a question, and does not dictate a particular answer. So if you ask "What is the best way that professors can create a supportive learning environment for their students," there are multiple ways to answer that question; the question does not require a "statement of personal support for or opposition to" any particular ideology, since the respondent is free to take any stance they like on the subject. By contrast, it would be problematic to ask job candidates to explain why the Socratic Method simply is the best way to create a supportive learning environment, since now they are being compelled to express support for a particular (pedagogical) ideological view, and we should be open to a diversity of positions on that subject.

Problem #1 with this response is that it's not clear that the model legislation permits even this, insofar as asking them to take any position on "supportive learning environments" arguably requires them to issue a "statement of personal support for" the practices they endorse, and opposition to the ones they reject. The law is vague as to whether it prohibits requiring candidates to endorse one favored view on an "ideology", or if it prohibits requiring candidates to simply present a view on the subject.  At least for DEI, the text points towards the latter -- the language prohibits requirements of statements "regarding" DEI or "related topics." So even an open-ended question which expressly invites multiple potential answers is forbidden if the subject matter of the question "relates" to DEI.

Problem #2 is that, assuming the model legislation does permit questions like "What is the best way that professors can create a supportive learning environment for their students" because they're open-ended and don't demand avowal of a particular ideological view, then it's unclear what distinguishes that sort of question from standard DEI statement questions. Contrary to popular belief, most DEI prompts do not take the form "explain why Derrick Bell is the greatest political theorist since Rousseau" (and if that sort of request is all that's being covered here, the law scarcely does anything at all). They are far more likely to be framed as something like "How do you propose making your institution equitable and inclusive to the diverse populations that we serve?" That question, too, can be answered in a multitude of ways, and so is not different in kind from all the other normative appraisal questions that are endemic to academic life (and which also can elicit strong views and significant political controversies).

In order to carve out a distinction for why DEI is different, one might make one of two arguments. The first is that although the DEI question is nominally open-ended, everyone knows that there is but one "right answer", and that answer is kowtowing to the politically-correct standards of the moment. To begin, I'm dubious that this is true at least in the strong form (there might be some answers generally thought of as wrong, but there is not only one answer accepted as right). I'm also skeptical that a complaint that is fundamentally about abusive-applications can justify prohibiting such questions as a class. I'll concede that it's probably true that a job candidate whose views on a given issue of concern are sharply at odds with their employers will be at a disadvantage in the process; I'll even concede that a flat unwillingness to even consider a contrary view is deeply malformed practice.  But that a candidate who answers a DEI question in a fashion at odds with prevailing sentiments may be at a comparative disadvantage to others cannot alone suffice to establish that the statements are being "abused" or that the statement's usage is tantamount to a desire to create a monoculture. The core risk -- dissidents are disadvantaged -- is always present for any normatively-laden assessment, it is not distinct to DEI. It exists for the academic job candidate whose views on pedagogy or research sharply diverge from the departmental line, it exists for that matter for the corporate job candidate whose views on business expansion break from the general consensus held by the executive leadership. Across the board, for any normatively-laden question, dissident candidates are probably at a disadvantage. If that fact is enough to justify banning an interview question, then we have a lot of questions to ban.

The second potential argument for why DEI questions are materially different is that the DEI question, while admitting multiple answers, still encodes certain values inside the question's very structure as presuppositions which an answer must tacitly endorse -- i.e., that values like "equity" and "inclusiveness" are in fact values the university should pursue. Someone who rejects the very premise will struggle to answer the question. But this "distinction" actually isn't one; similar presuppositions are likely embedded into most normative questions. "What is the best way that professors can create a supportive learning environment for their students," embeds a presupposition that professors should try to create a supportive learning environment; a candidate who rejects that premise (thinking, perhaps, that students learn best in a trial-by-fire academic Sparta) would likely be at disadvantage. Again, the objection here would cover far, far too much.

And at this point we do start to see FIRE unsuccessfully try to cabin its law's reach, with a provision contending that "Nothing in this Act prohibits an institution from considering, in good faith, a candidate's scholarship, teaching, or subject-matter expertise in their given academic field." Great verbiage; no idea how it works in practice. Suppose I, in good faith, believe that demonstrating capacity to work with and respond to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, is part of assessing a candidate's teaching (or, for that matter, scholarship or subject-matter expertise). Can I ask about that? I have no idea, but I suspect the answer is "no", notwithstanding this supposed carve-out. FIRE is I suspect embedding a normative presupposition of its own: that issues "related" to DEI never are in good faith connected to valid considerations of academic merit. But this position is very much a contested one -- I'd contest it -- and certainly should not be encoded into state law as legally-compulsory orthodoxy. Again, 90 times out of 100 FIRE would be screaming bloody murder about this sort of thing -- they are a victim of their own blindspots that they don't see how they're promoting exactly the sort of legislation they normally abhor.

And speaking of legislation -- we shouldn't conclude without talking about penalties for a moment. They have several different penalty formulations, but they all coalesce around proposing six-figure monetary fines "for each violation of the act." That's gigantic on its own, and certainly will counsel extreme defensiveness by university bureaucrats and lawyers regarding what faculty are and are not permitted to say in job interviews or other like forums on matters of DEI. The potential for censorial chilling is massive. But worse, the law does not tell us what counts as a single violation. A college posts hiring announcements across a dozen different departments, requesting application materials which are later determined to include Forbidden Questions. Is that one violation, or twelve? Probably twelve, meaning that a $300,000 fine just got converted into a $3.6 million fine. Or worse -- each of those job postings (based on what I know of the academic market) will likely get 250 applications. And since the structure of the act suggests that each individual applicant is separately injured by unlawful consideration of the Forbidden Questions -- well, 250 x 12 x $300,000 = Nine Hundred Million Dollars in potential liability. Given that exposure, you better believe that the university bureaucracy is going to be policing faculty hiring and promotion practices with a very fine-toothed comb to root out anything that could even possibly represent eliciting a statement "relating" to DEI as interpreted by whatever lickspittle Ron DeSantis has put in charge of oversight. And I guarantee you that the ensuing bureaucratic regime will be far more onerous, oppressive, and censorial than anything currently happening at the behest of DEI offices.

FIRE knows better than this. It knows that the strong arm of state regulation and compulsion is almost inevitably toxic to the free and open exchange of ideas on campus, and it knows that academic freedom means that it must be the academics themselves -- not bureaucratic meddlers, not state legislatures, not politically-appointed boards -- who get to decide how to appraise their peers and the requirements of their discipline. Some academics do not think that matters of DEI are germane to that assessment. Many others think they are quite germane, not because we demand all candidates adhere to the One True Path, but because I absolutely want to know that any potential member of my academic institution has at least thought critically and comprehensively on the subject of how to best create an equitable and inclusive environment for a diverse educational community. That interest of mine is no different than my wanting to know that they have thought on how to create supportive learning environments, or wanting to know that they have thought on how the important normative questions that are part of many research agendas. In terms of what conclusions they draw from that critical consideration, I'm willing to hear a wide range -- I don't have a single answer in mind that is the only acceptable conclusion. But it doesn't matter, because under FIRE's view if I try to elicit information on the wrong subjects I risk bankrupting the university. That can only have a censorial and chilling effect.

It is not possible to declare the topic of DEI a Legally Forbidden Question without doing catastrophic damage to academic freedom, and the manner in which this law proposes to enforce its prohibitions will inevitably generate a nightmarish cavalcade of bureaucratic censorship. To be blunt: Academic departments are absolutely entitled, as part of their discretion to determine how to assess disciplinary, pedagogical, or service-based standards, to decide how and to what extent questions relating to DEI are germane to their evaluative appraisals. I do not doubt there are departments that will exercise their discretion in a fashion that I would not approve of; I do not doubt that are departments that will exercise it ways I find impossibly narrow-minded and abusive. It does not matter: any state legislation which limits that fundamental prerogative of academic independence and faculty self-governance is a limit on academic freedom -- full stop. Problems of abuse, to the extent they exist, are not validly delegated to state legislatures, and FIRE absolutely knows better than to argue otherwise.

This legislation is a stain on FIRE's reputation. They should withdraw it, and they should reflect on just what it is about this issue that caused them to so flagrantly abandon their normal principles regarding academic freedom. That an organization that has done so much to fight for academic freedom is poised to usher in this sort of censorial dystopia is fiendish irony. One hopes they backtrack before it becomes reality.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

You People, Get a Grip

So quick disclaimer: I have not seen "You People". It did not especially interest me to begin with, and the commentary I've read about it has not (to say the least) altered my initial instincts.

But reading the discourse about "You People", I've noticed a particular type of denunciation which seems to hold several presuppositions as gospel. They are:

  1. "You People" is antisemitic;
  2. Despite (or because of?) its antisemitism, "You People" is a critical darling; and
  3. No other group but the Jews would encounter a situation where a media property that is so hateful is a media darling.
That this last claim is made unironically at the exact same time Dave Chappelle won a Grammy for "The Closer" is absolutely precious. But there's a bigger problem with the syllogism here, which is that "You People" is not at all a "critical darling". It has a flat lousy 42% rating on Rotten Tomato! It is widely seen as a mediocre disappointment!

The "nobody but the Jews is expected to suffer so" is an ever-flowering weed of antisemitism discourse, paradoxically living in largely harmonious coexistence with its opposite ("nobody would ever dare say that about the Jews"). Both positions are obviously wrong, which stops exactly nobody from asserting them with unimpeachable confidence. More interesting is the assumption that "You People" inevitably would be a critical hit; so much so that I saw people simply asserting that it was being lauded as an anti-racism classic in defiance of the actual critical consensus. What is going on here?

My suspicion is that there is a line of thinking amongst some that basically assumes that any film or media property which styles itself as "anti-racist" or "asking the hard questions about discrimination" will, in our supposedly hyper-woke era, automatically be viewed as a work of great significance and power -- and if punches at Jews, so much the better. They have bought in hard to the narrative that "woke" means a complete suspension of critical faculties in favor of blind support for anything that holds itself out as anti-racist; since "You People" fits the mold, of course it will be blindly and fervently supported via this inevitable collapse into groupthink. The complaint that critics will reflexively laud anything calling itself "anti-racist" -- ironically itself a reflex that has (as here) proven itself impervious to empirical refutation (perhaps because its very purpose is to enable the automatic and reflexive suspicion of any media property calling itself "anti-racist" -- it can't ever have earned its praise, if it is being lauded it's simply to fulfill the diktats of political correctness)  -- is paradoxically paired with the complaint that Jews and antisemitism are not included inside this paradigm of blind and uncritical support.

But again -- the whole thing is based on a misnomer. The critical reception of "You People" was not blindly supportive; it was not supportive at all. Whether because of its alleged antisemitism, or its clunkiness, or its heavy-handedness, "You People" was not a highly regarded movie notwithstanding its grand social ambitions. This should (but won't) falsify the notion that critics or commentators simply reflexively praise anything that styles itself as anti-racist -- which in turn should (but won't) make us more willing to consider seriously other "anti-racist" media properties which have gotten plaudits but also are hit with the reflexive dismissiveness that they are naught but contemporary PC pandering.