Does University of California Undercut Academic Freedom?
Administrations and faculties at University of California campuses are embroiled in a searing controversy over requirements that applicants for faculty positions and candidates for promotion prove their active support, without reservation, of what’s called “diversity, equity and inclusion.”Candidates must submit “DEI statements” that, under UC’s policies, determine whether they will be considered for employment or promotions, regardless of their academic credentials. While different campuses use slightly different “rubrics” for judging candidates on their DEI statements, they generally use a 1-to-5 scale to determine whether they should be allowed to advance.
One, at UC-Davis, provides the lowest score to candidates who seem to be unaware or uninterested in the need to promote diversity, while the highest score would be given to someone who “discusses diversity, equity, and inclusion as core values that every faculty member should actively contribute to advancing.”Another version, according to a recent history of UC’s Advancing Faculty Diversity Initiative, establishes a 1-to-5 scoring system to judge whether the applicant should be rejected out of hand or allowed to advance. If he or she refuses to discuss gender or ethnicity issues, or contends that such issues are “antithetical to academic freedom or the university’s research mission,” they will automatically receive a low score. In contrast, someone who embraces DEI as “core values that every faculty member should actively contribute to advancing” should get the highest score. One UC Merced professor, Tanya Golash-Boza, even published a guide in the professional publication Inside Higher Ed, to help applicants frame their DEI statements in language that would pass muster with the authorities. The use of DEI statements began at UCLA four years ago and has become virtually universal since, sparking an intense debate in academic and legal circles over whether the UC system is, in effect, elevating political correctness over academic achievement and in doing so damaging the concept of academic freedom. To its supporters, DEI statements and other evaluations are necessary tools to ensure that the university system overcomes its historic imbalance in students and faculty that favors whites and Asians over Blacks and Latinos. But detractors see DEI statements as violating in spirit, if not in letter, university policies that prohibit using politics as a litmus test — policies that were introduced to counter Cold War-era efforts to weed out faculty members with leftist tendencies by forcing them to take loyalty oaths. In 1950, the Legislature passed the Levering Act, requiring all state employees to sign such oaths — a move obviously directed at the UC faculty. In fact, 31 tenured professors were fired for refusing to sign it. After years of legal and political wrangling, the state Supreme Court, by a 6-1 vote, declared the Levering Act to be unconstitutional in 1967. Meanwhile, the UC Board of Regents adopted a policy that “No political test shall ever be considered in the appointment and promotion of any faculty member or employee.” The DEI statements were mandated campus by campus because the UC system’s administrators are under intense pressure from the Legislature, the Board of Regents and activist organizations to overcome ethnic imbalances in spite of voter approval of a ballot measure, Proposition 209, in 1996 that outlaws racial or gender preferences in public employment. Moreover, in 2020 the state’s voters, by a substantial margin, refused to repeal Proposition 209. The history of how DEI statements became a powerful tool to weed out faculty applicants who don’t conform is explored in a recently published and somewhat critical but remarkably objective monograph by two academic researchers affiliated with UC’s Riverside campus. They are Steven Brint, a professor of sociology and public policy, and Komi T. German, who earned her doctorate at UC Riverside. “We find ourselves with a university in flux,” the two conclude. “Its commitment to the representational mission, and the progressive political demands that accompany it, is gaining traction as many find themselves disillusioned with the traditional mission of dispassionately searching for truth.” The irony — and perhaps tragedy — of the DEI statement mandate is that while it might, at least in theory, make UC’s faculty more diverse in ethnicity, its conformism will make it even less diverse intellectually.
About the Author
Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. For more columns by Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.