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Higher Ed’s New Woke Loyalty Oaths

A ballooning number of hiring and tenure decisions require candidates to express written fealty to political doctrines

by
John Sailer
September 07, 2022
Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Royce Hall on the campus of the University of California, Los AngelesAl Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In 2021, the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) School of Medicine—ranked fourth in the country for primary care—released a 24-page “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Racism Strategic Action Plan,” listing dozens of “tactics” for advancing “diversity and racial equity” over the ensuing half-decade. One of those tactics reads: “Include a section in promotion packages where faculty members report on the ways they are contributing to improving DEI, anti-racism and social justice.” The plan promises to “reinforce the importance of these efforts by establishing clear consequences and influences on promotion packages.”

OHSU’s policy represents the latest stage in the institutional entrenchment of DEI programming. Universities have long required diversity statements for faculty hiring—short essays outlining one’s contributions to DEI and future plans for advancing DEI. Since it began almost a decade ago, the policy has been criticized as a thinly veiled ideological litmus test. Whether you see it as one largely depends on whether you think DEI is simply a set of corporate “best practices” like any other, or constitutes a rigid set of political and social views. In any event, the diversity statements and criteria have only expanded, and are now commonly required for promotion, tenure, and faculty evaluation.

A quick search for academic jobs inevitably yields dozens or hundreds of positions that require diversity statements. In November 2021, the American Enterprise Institute conducted a survey of faculty jobs and found that 19% required them, a number that is likely to grow. At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, applicants seeking positions in chemical and biomolecular engineering must submit a one-page “Statement describing candidate’s approach to and experience with diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education.” At the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, despite a new law that prohibits requiring job applicants “to endorse a specific ideology or political viewpoint,” applicants for a job in political science must submit a “statement concerning experience with and plans for contributing to diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Meanwhile, every open faculty position listed by Ohio State University’s College of Arts and Sciences, including roles in econometrics, freshwater biology, and astronomy, requires some variation of a statement “articulating the applicant’s demonstrated commitments and capacities to contribute to diversity, equity, and inclusion through research, teaching, mentoring, and/or outreach and engagement.”

It’s conceivable that job candidates could list their plans to contribute to diversity and inclusion without indicating a commitment to any particular political or social viewpoint, but the most commonly available rubrics for assessing diversity statements demonstrate a clear ideological gloss. Almost all of the publicly available rubrics used by recruitment search committees resemble the University of California, Berkeley’s “Rubric for Assessing Candidate Contributions to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging,” which dictates that applicants should receive a low score if they “[discuss] diversity in vague terms, such as ‘diversity is important for science,’” or if they “state that it’s better not to have outreach or affinity groups aimed at particular individuals because it keeps them separate from everyone else, or will make them feel less valued.”

Most notably, the Berkeley rubric explicitly punishes any candidate who expresses a dislike for race-conscious policies, requiring a low score for anyone who “states the intention to ignore the varying backgrounds of their students and ‘treat everyone the same.’” Conversely, it rewards those most committed to the cause: Candidates receive a high score for “discuss[ing] diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging as core values that every faculty member should actively contribute to” and “convincingly express[ing] intent, with examples, to be a strong advocate for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging within the department/school/college and also their field.”

The rubric published by the University of Colorado Denver mimics parts of Berkeley’s rubric verbatim, but also takes it a step further: In one category, candidates receive a middling score for espousing the “golden rule” (“I will treat others as I want to be treated”) but the highest score for espousing the “platinum rule” (“I will treat others as they want to be treated”). Meanwhile, some institutions employ even more overtly ideological language. At Western Oregon University, high-scoring statements provide “at least two or more strategies for contributing to advancing racial equity and eliminating systemic racism” and identify “at least three inequities and … how they would address those inequities if employed at WOU.”

Such evaluations create obvious issues for academic freedom. Even the tamest rubrics reward candidates for affirming the value of race consciousness and punish candidates for affirming the value of racial colorblindness—not exactly an apolitical hiring criteria. In an Aug. 22, 2022, statement, the nonprofit organization Academic Freedom Alliance called for an end to the practice, arguing that 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.”

Given the public health disaster of the last two-and-a-half years, it’s particularly jarring to see this development unfold in the medical field.

DEI criteria have become increasingly dominant not only in hiring practices, but in tenure decisions. In the American Association of University Professors’ recent survey of tenure practices, 21.5% of all surveyed institutions reported including DEI criteria in their tenure standards, and 38.9% reported that they were considering adopting such criteria. For large institutions, 45.6% had adopted the criteria, and another 35.5% were considering them. Only 18.8% of the large universities surveyed had not implemented DEI promotion and tenure criteria and were not considering doing so in the future. Presumably, some number of them will eventually flip.

That the policy is an open question at so many universities underscores an important point: DEI measures tend to inflate. Large fleets of university diversity officers need a raison d’être, which is why universities are adopting DEI strategic plans, and ennumerating dozens of new policies created by and for DEI officers, at accelerating rates. The universities that have not yet done so face mounting pressure. In April of this year, Ohio State University’s Task Force on Racism and Racial Inequities released a report with a laundry list of “Grand Challenges and Priority Action Steps,” recommending the creation of an institutionwide diversity action plan. If that plan looks like the College of Engineering’s Racial Equity and Inclusion Action Plan, it will include establishing language in its promotion and tenure manual “concerning the assessment of equity and inclusion in annual reviews.”

Given the public health disaster of the last two-and-a-half years, and the gravity of the discipline, it’s particularly jarring to see this development unfold in the medical field. The Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine was recently reaccredited, but the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME), which accredits medical schools, found it lacking in faculty diversity. In response, the medical school released its DEI strategic plan, which was created “in alignment with accreditation requirements,” and which promises not only “consequences” for faculty who don’t get on board but also to “develop and incorporate DEI, anti-racism and social justice core competencies in performance appraisals of faculty and staff.”

The UNC School of Medicine likewise created a Task Force for Integrating Social Justice Into the Curriculum, which recommended, among other measures, adding social justice criteria to the school’s promotion and tenure policy. As of May 2021, the school’s promotion and tenure guidelines require faculty to submit a diversity statement and list DEI contributions, examples of which include “Application of material learned in DEI trainings (e.g., Safe Zone, Unconscious Bias, Implicit Bias, etc.) to promote an environment of cultural awareness, knowledge, and sensitivity.” The broader list of recommendations was so radical that it received extensive pushback, prompting the dean of the medical school to give a personal response to the UNC Board of Governors, in which he suggested that many of those recommendations came from the LCME. When pressed on the promotion and tenure policy, the school downplayed concerns, noting that DEI efforts would be “conceptualized in the broadest context.”

At other institutions, the case that these requirements are politically neutral is harder to make. Overtly ideological language is baked into the newly established requirements for the California Community College system—the nation’s largest system of higher education, governing 116 colleges that together enroll 1.8 million students. In May 2022, the Board of Governors approved a resolution mandating that community college districts “include DEIA [diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility] competencies and criteria as a minimum standard for evaluating the performance of all employees” and that they “place significant emphasis on DEIA competencies in employee evaluation and tenure review processes.”

The resolution itself is suffused with ideological language. It defines “Cultural Competency,” for example, as “the practice of acquiring and utilizing knowledge of the intersectionality of social identities and the multiple axes of oppression that people from different racial, ethnic, and other minoritized groups face.” The Chancellor’s Office also released a list of example competencies saturated with the ideological buzzwords of contemporary identity politics:

Demonstrates an ongoing awareness and recognition of racial, social, and cultural identities with fluency regarding their relevance in creating structures of oppression and marginalization.
Seeks DEIA and anti-racist perspectives and applies knowledge to problem solving, policies, and processes to create respectful, DEIA-affirming environments …
Develops and implements a pedagogy and/or curriculum that promotes a race-conscious and intersectional lens and equips students to engage with the world as scholars and citizens.
Participates in a continuous cycle of self-assessment of one’s growth and commitment to DEIA and acknowledgement of any internalized personal biases and racial superiority or inferiority, or ideas of normalcy.

Like so many others, the California Community Colleges system appears impervious to appeals to academic freedom. During the resolution’s comment period, an anonymous commenter brought up the policy’s likely chilling effect—that evaluating faculty for their adherence to political views might prevent any dissenting voices from speaking up or even just telling the truth as they see it, for fear of “very real and severe social consequences (including demotion, job loss, and public ridicule on social media).”

The Chancellor’s response? “This comment is speculative and not grounded in specific facts or observations. As such, the Chancellor’s Office cannot provide a meaningful specific response to the concerns expressed in this comment.”

Whatever else they do, diversity statements and criteria at least provide a clear admission of where things like education, knowledge, and the pursuit of truth fit in a university’s list of real priorities. Students and parents should take note.

John Sailer is a fellow at the National Association of Scholars.

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