Empty Platitude, or Litmus Test?
University-issued “diversity statements” are either too banal to justify or unconscionable attacks on free speech.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in higher education involve a range of objectionable elements, such as giving preferential treatment to job candidates from particular race and gender groups and generating a massive administrative staff that encroaches on faculty autonomy and attempts to structure and surveil even informal campus interactions. One element of the phenomenon that has received increasing attention is the proliferation of DEI statements: requirements that candidates submit testimonials of their contributions to DEI as part of the academic hiring and promotion process, and official pronouncements of the values of a university or unit within it. A growing number of university departments now announce their support for DEI while demanding that any potential future colleagues do the same.
Others have advanced capable and instructive attacks on these statements. I write simply to point out a dilemma: such statements are necessarily either too weak or too strong.
Defenders of DEI statements often ask how such a practice can be problematic. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are positive values, the argument goes; what kind of person would not support them? The implication is that the DEI statements contain an affirmation of self-evident goods to which no good person could object, obvious truths beyond the realm of reasonable contestability. Being asked to testify to one’s support for DEI could give no pause to any sensible person’s conscience.
But if the statements are platitudinous and banal, why have they become so popular? Applicants for a position aren’t required to profess allegiance to happiness or good times or kindness or doing the right thing. Departments don’t issue statements acknowledging that the sun rises in the morning, that one should provide for one’s children, or that it is good to try the best one can. And it would be wrong to do so, for unnecessary obligations add to the endless administrative overhead afflicting professional life today and generate opportunities for decisionmakers to treat applicants arbitrarily. Mandating a “why caring about others is better than not” statement for evaluating chemists or physicists, for instance, could only introduce a confounding variable into the process and lead to the hiring of worse chemists and physicists.
Moreover, how could the ballooning administrative apparatus at universities that exists largely to oversee DEI statements be justified if they amount to nothing more than uncontentious sappiness? Indeed, if higher ed really is facing an adverse economic climate—with austerity looming even in its core pedagogical and research functions—then it is irresponsible to devote so many university resources to such a pointless enterprise.
Apologists for this burgeoning practice have been pushed toward emphasizing a level of generality and lack of clear content in DEI statements, even at the cost of making them seem pointless and wasteful. The reason is clear: as Brian Soucek, a defender of diversity statements, acknowledges, less “specific” (in other words, more substance-free) statements are less susceptible to the challenge that they constitute “thinly veiled ideological litmus tests.” The more obvious interpretation is that DEI statements have been adopted across academia with such passion and pervasiveness not because they are empty vessels, but because they do express a particular value system and political outlook. DEI statements demonstrate, and align universities with, a way of looking at the world fashionable among faculty and (especially) administrators.
But if these professions are meaningful at all, then they curtail academic freedom and abet already-rampant discrimination in academic careers. When demanded in the context of hiring and promotion, DEI statements either serve to downgrade and exclude candidates who are honest about holding views that dissent from progressive orthodoxy on race and gender, or they enjoin applicants to mislead about their views and violate their consciences. During the struggle to rescind the religious tests that limited Oxford and Cambridge to Anglicans until the second half of the nineteenth century, critics noted that constrained professions of belief have the tragic quality of being most effective at keeping out people with integrity, people unwilling to distort or lie about their beliefs to get ahead. But this is exactly the kind of person whom academia should prize.
Universities and departments render free speech a dead letter when they issue substantive DEI statements. Students and faculty will rightly worry about repercussions for running afoul of the opinion announced on behalf of the corporate body to which they belong. Permitting proponents of one side of a question to trade on the prestige of the university’s name tilts the field of debate unfairly. A DEI statement with even the slightest substantive purchase transforms the institution from a true university—a place where all are welcome who can contribute to the discovery and transmission of knowledge—into a sect with lab space.
Defenders of DEI statements cannot help but be stuck on one horn of this dilemma. The statements are too weak to justify implementing or too strong to cohere with the academic mission. Either they are so empty and trivial that building a bureaucracy around them and expending moral and financial capital inserting them into so many aspects of university life constitutes an indefensible waste; or they contain substantive positions, in which case they are instruments for the further marginalization of disfavored viewpoints under the guise of inclusivity. In practice, the latter situation is increasingly the norm in higher education.
The pretense of a happy and uncontestable generality is, for apologists of this burgeoning practice, the price to pay for keeping the DEI engine rolling. But the truth is that DEI statements subvert the ideal of impartial evaluation of scholarly achievement and skirt nondiscrimination law in order to limit academic hiring and promotion to desired perspectives and groups. And that is, sadly, precisely why they are gaining ground across higher education today.
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