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Diversity, Equity, and … Conformity?
Did a candidate for a UCLA faculty post get nixed because of his criticism of DEI statements?
THE SUPREME COURT’S RULING last month against race-based college admissions put affirmative action back in the headlines, but other diversity programs in higher education are also generating controversy—none more than the “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” pledges required of faculty, and the question of whether such pledges, when made a condition of employment, violate intellectual freedom.
In May, John D. Haltigan, formerly an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, filed a lawsuit challenging the use of mandatory diversity statements for job applicants at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Haltigan, who is represented by the right-of-center Pacific Legal Foundation, had intended to apply for a tenure-track opening at UC Santa Cruz after the grant funding his previous position ran out. He argues that the school’s required diversity statement effectively mandates “the view that treating individuals differently based on their race or sex is desirable” and screens out his own belief in “colorblind inclusivity,” “viewpoint diversity,” and “merit-based evaluation.”
Haltigan’s claim of discrimination was theoretical. But in June, another kerfuffle broke out about an incident at the University of California, Los Angeles that involved a candidate actually being rejected from a job opening—as it happens, another would-be University of Toronto transplant. Yoel Inbar, a psychologist, was interviewing for a post at UCLA after his partner received a job offer from the school and asked about bringing him on as a partner hire. He visited the campus last January; according to him, faculty members seemed enthusiastic about his candidacy. However, during a meeting with the “diversity issues” committee, he found himself being quizzed about a 2018 episode of a podcast he cohosts, Two Psychologists Four Beers, in which he had questioned the value of diversity statements as “administrator virtue-signaling.”
According to Inbar, the committee seemed appeased after he explained, “I think that the goals are good, but I don’t know if the diversity statements necessarily accomplish the goals.” One of the committee members, however, remarked that the department had “some very passionate graduate students” who might be upset by his views. Inbar also met with some graduate students and thought that the conversation went well.
Then, the three professors on Inbar’s hiring committee—as well as every other faculty member in the department—received a letter signed by sixty graduate students opposing Inbar’s hiring because of the opinions expressed in his podcast on DEI statements. The letter was strongly worded:
We feel that serious consideration of Dr. Inbar directly conflicts with the values and standards we uphold as an institution and department committed to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). We believe that Dr. Inbar would not enter the social area as a member committed to creating a safe, welcoming, and inclusive environment, and that his hiring would threaten ongoing efforts to protect and uplift individuals of marginalized backgrounds.
The letter listed several offenses beyond Inbar’s heretical opinions on DEI statements. In his conversation with the grad students, Inbar had said that his work “does not really deal with identity,” a stance the students found “deeply troubling” since his research has to do with “how moral psychology shapes prejudice.” (One of the articles referenced in the letter examined how “a predisposition to feel disgust” is related to conservative stances on gay rights and abortion; the students were concerned that without an appropriate focus on identity issues, such research might be read as implying that anti-gay prejudice is natural.)
Inbar was also faulted for an August 2022 podcast episode in which he critiqued an academic association, the Society of Personality and Social Psychology, over two issues related to progressive politics. One was a new set of guidelines for evaluating conference submissions, which Inbar felt could promote “political biases”—e.g., favoring methodologies based on “critical theory.” The other was a strong stance in favor of abortion rights, including a boycott of Georgia as a conference venue because of its law banning nearly all abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. (Inbar, who is pro-choice, argued that it was inappropriate for an academic society to take a side in a political controversy.) Ironically, in this case, Inbar was assailed for acknowledging identity-based concerns: He had pointed out that members of some “nonwhite” demographics were more likely to be “centrist” on abortion and to find the society’s stance exclusionary. Lastly, the students felt that Inbar unpardonably prioritized “advocating for those he classifies as political minorities in academia,” thus taking up a defense of values that would undermine the goal of “fostering a safe and inclusive environment.”
Shortly after the students’ letter was sent, the hiring committee decided to recommend against offering Inbar a post. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, department chair Annette L. Stanton found the entire process to be such a “significant and problematic departure from our typical searches” that she considered such nonstandard options as inviting Inbar for a “do-over” interview or putting the hire to a vote by the entire faculty. In the end, Stanton decided to stick with the norm of abiding by the hiring committee’s decision.
It’s difficult to say, of course, to what extent either the students’ letter or Inbar’s views played a role in his rejection. It is worth noting, however, that the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) has attempted to investigate possible viewpoint discrimination in the case and has run into a wall of silence from UCLA.
According to FIRE, UCLA has repeatedly refused to release the records related to the hiring process for Inbar, citing “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy”—even after Inbar waived his privacy interest. FIRE’s new appeal is still pending.
THE INCIDENT BECAME PUBLIC when Inbar talked about it on the June 27 episode of Very Bad Wizards, a podcast hosted by philosopher Tamler Sommers and psychologist David Pizarro. The next day, John D. Sailer, a senior fellow at the National Association of Scholars, a conservative group that has been focusing on “political correctness” in the academy for three decades, posted screenshots of the grad students’ letter on Twitter, and the controversy exploded.
To people concerned about left-wing illiberalism, the Inbar affair was a classic case of “cancel culture” at work. (Sommers and Pizarro, it should be noted, acknowledged that they had often been “dismissive of fears about cancel culture in academia” but found Inbar’s situation alarming.)
On the other side, there were several, sometimes overlapping arguments reminiscent of the Freudian “kettle logic” trope in which a borrowed kettle returned in broken condition is said to have been (1) never borrowed, (2) already broken when borrowed, and (3) returned whole.
Some observers suggested that there was no evidence the graduate students’ letter had an impact on the decision not to hire Inbar, particularly since a second letter from another group of graduate students supported his hiring. (That second letter was reportedly signed by a “handful” of students.) One of the original letter’s signatories tweeted an alleged rebuttal thread claiming, without evidence, that the decision to reject Inbar was made before the letter was circulated and that the objection to Inbar had to do not only with his views but with his behavior, including unspecified “inappropriate comments” to students. When queried about these alleged comments, the poster did not reply and later deleted her Twitter account. For the record, the students’ letter opposing Inbar did not mention any such inappropriate comments to students, though its catalogue of Inbar’s thoughtcrimes did include the claim that, at a dinner with faculty, he “labeled a graduate student who is a woman of color as ‘intense’ in response to her questions about DEI efforts.”
Others argued that the students were entirely within their rights to block Inbar’s hiring. Among those expressing this view was University of Virginia associate law professor Megan Stephenson:
A postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Commonwealth University hailed the students as “brave” for sending the hopeful message that “the next gen[eration] of scholars value DEI.” Ironically, this person conceded that “Dr. Inbar has the right to free speech,” but added that “so do these students.”
Indeed, a number of those who pushed back against the pro-Inbar narrative suggested that the students were the ones whose free speech was being imperiled:
This formulation brings us to Karl Popper’s famous “paradox of tolerance”: To what extent can society safely tolerate the speech of those who advocate intolerance? In this case, the students were making it overwhelmingly clear that they believe no person who dissents from progressive ideas on diversity, equity, and social justice can be tolerated in the department. They were, moreover, using their influence to keep such a person from “enter[ing] the social area” of UCLA.
ONE CAN CERTAINLY AGREE THAT, in a broad sense, “diversity, equity, and inclusion” should be a part of the twenty-first-century academy. The devil, of course, is in the details of how those terms are defined. A college or university should expect faculty members to treat students fairly. But does that mean fairness without regard to race, ethnicity, sex, etc.?
Or does it mean a proactive model that requires an extra effort to “uplift” underrepresented groups?
Should “inclusion” require an effort to introduce racial and sexual diversity into a literature curriculum even if the specific subject covered by the class does not readily lend itself to such an effort?
Should it require using a racial, ethnic, or gender lens when discussing philosophical topics?
And should it require—as the UCLA graduate students who set out to block Inbar’s hiring seem to believe—a specific stance on various political issues, such as abortion rights?
At UC Santa Cruz, for example, the official guidelines for a high-scoring DEI statement imply a high level of engagement with and commitment to identity-focused perspectives as well as pro-DEI activism. The guidelines call for “clear knowledge of and experience with dimensions of diversity that result from different identities, such as ethnic, socioeconomic, racial, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and cultural differences.” It’s safe to say the guidelines imply what Haltigan’s lawsuit calls “agreement with specific socio-political ideas”—i.e., progressive perspectives that stress the pervasiveness of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other bigotries and oppressions. (Familiarity with the work of Cornell University psychologists Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams, whose research from the last decade found no evidence that discrimination explains the differences in male-female career performance in academic science, would probably not find a very warm reception.) Yet such litmus tests are increasingly common: In 2020, one-third of job postings at elite schools, and a quarter of job postings in the social sciences at all schools, required DEI statements. And last year, nearly half of academic institutions with more than 5,000 students made tenure contingent on DEI compliance.
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Is the anti-DEI backlash being exploited by bad-faith players and culture warriors on the right? No doubt: Witness Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s moves to ban entirely voluntary DEI programs at public universities. For that matter, Haltigan is not exactly a poster boy for classical liberal values: His Twitter feed over the past couple of years reveals a dive into right-wing crazy on everything from Ukraine to election-rigging, along with a habit of slamming perceived libs (myself included) as emotion-driven females and low-testosterone men. But as a matter of principle and policy, his challenge to UC Santa Cruz’s DEI regime should prevail. Bad plaintiffs, such as Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, can make good law.
Opposition to mandatory DEI statements is by no means limited the right: A survey by FIRE published last March found that half of college faculty members, including 56 percent of self-identified moderates and 26 percent of self-described liberals, disapproved of the use of DEI statements for hiring and promotion and saw them as a political litmus test. The FIRE survey also found that faculty opposed to DEI mandates were considerably more sympathetic to protections for controversial faculty speech—interestingly, including expressions of extreme far-left views such as the statement that “all white people are racist.” Required DEI statements may thus operate as a selection mechanism for less free-expression-friendly faculty.
If there were any doubt about the fact that DEI mandates are a diktat promoting political and cultural uniformity in the academy, the defenestration of Yoel Inbar—a liberal who supports diversity goals, including affirmative action, but disagrees with the specific methods used to advance those goals—should dispel those doubts. To be sure, the graduate students in the UCLA psychology department have a right to free speech. Nonetheless, their support for such a diktat is deeply troubling—just as, for instance, it would be troubling if a large proportion of graduate students in a university department signed letter urging that a candidate for an academic post be disqualified for being openly gay, Muslim, or atheist.
Should the letter’s signers be punished? Of course not. But first of all, their letter should not have been allowed to influence the hiring process. And second, just as alleged racist, homophobic, or misogynistic incidents on college campuses are often treated as “teachable moments” for discussing concerns about the campus climate, the letter attacking Inbar should have led to some student-faculty forums and other activities to promote a better understanding of free expression, exchange of ideas, and viewpoint diversity. The next generation of scholars needs those lessons.