Last year, San Diego State University conducted a search for a cancer biologist as part of an initiative focused on increasing faculty diversity. While ideal candidates’ expertise could be in tumor biology, cancer immunology, or other areas of hard science, they would also be expected to demonstrate a focus on health disparities and a commitment to diversity. SDSU required each applicant to fill out a form describing their contributions to “building inclusive excellence”—their version of the now-ubiquitous “diversity statement.”
Through a public-records request, I have acquired SDSU’s “building inclusive excellence” form. It symbolizes a remarkable statement of the university’s priorities and demonstrates how even the most high-stakes areas of scientific research must now genuflect to social justice.
The form, published on the National Association of Scholars website, requires candidates to describe their “inclusive excellence” contributions across eight categories, which include “demonstrated knowledge of barriers for underrepresented students and faculty within the discipline,” “demonstrated commitment to teaching and mentoring underrepresented students,” “demonstrated commitment to integrating understanding of underrepresented populations and communities into research,” and “research interests that contribute to diversity and equal opportunity in higher education.”
Far from being merely a symbolic nod toward diversity, these criteria have teeth. Per SDSU’s hiring guide, the chief diversity officer appoints separate “Building Inclusive Excellence” screeners, who examine candidates’ “inclusive excellence” contributions. Screeners won’t advance candidates to the final stage unless they meet two criteria. Departments can appeal a screener’s decision, but only with the approval of both the chief diversity officer and the provost. In other words, even cancer biologists now risk limiting their job prospects unless they demonstrate a commitment to DEI.
As is now well known, DEI evaluations often amount to ideological policing. It’s hard to assess someone’s “demonstrated knowledge of barriers for underrepresented students and faculty” without veering into highly contested political issues. Some consider “structural racism” and “microaggressions” to be among the barriers to minority advancement; others view those concepts as misguided at best. UC–Berkeley’s widely adopted “Rubric for Assessing Candidate Contributions to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging” is even more extreme than SDSU’s requirement, mandating a low score for candidates who espouse concepts like colorblindness or race neutrality.
Yet SDSU’s requirement is perhaps even more troubling in that it overshadows what should be the main priority in cancer research—namely, curing cancer. Screening candidates for their “inclusive excellence” risks penalizing scientists who focus almost exclusively on their discipline. Such screening selects against precisely the kinds of candidates whom universities should hire: scientists obsessively focused on their research.
SDSU isn’t alone in this. DEI evaluations are deeply entrenched throughout academia, even in the medical sciences. In 2020, Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center conducted a cluster hire of faculty who could “demonstrate a commitment” to “diversity, antiracism, and inclusion.” Per the research center’s guidelines, such contributions might include an “understanding of the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and related topics such as antiracism, decolonization, bias mitigation, [and] social justice.”
These evaluations carry the imprimatur of the federal government. SDSU’s hiring initiative is itself funded by the National Institutes of Health, which is doling out almost $250 million for similar DEI-focused hiring programs around the country. All these programs follow the same model, requiring DEI statements and heavily weighing candidates’ contributions to DEI. At least two programs, the University of South Carolina’s and the University of New Mexico’s, even copy the UC–Berkeley rubric verbatim. Despite pushback, DEI remains an all-encompassing priority across many fields and disciplines.