Last month, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees passed a resolution reaffirming the Chicago Principles on free expression and adopting the Kalven Committee Report on institutional neutrality. In doing so, UNC became the first institution other than the University of Chicago to adopt both sets of principles, which together provide an unequivocal articulation of the value of academic freedom. Such a statement should prompt us to ask: What’s next? How will this newly clarified commitment to academic freedom play out?
One obvious measure presents itself. The university should take aim at an egregious policy widely adopted in academia—the use of diversity statements for hiring, promotion, and tenure. The Chicago Principles promise “the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” The Kalven Committee Report argues that universities harm their basic mission when they make statements or take collective action on controversial issues because such statements pressure faculty to conform to the university’s official stance. Thus, the report ultimately endorses institutional neutrality because of a more fundamental principle: that scholars cannot fulfill their role, the pursuit of truth, if pressured to affirm specific political and social views.
Both statements assert that the university should not coerce viewpoints. Unfortunately, a growing number of universities, including UNC, are doing exactly that. A recent American Enterprise Institute survey of faculty job listings found that 19 percent required “diversity statements,” and, in a similar survey of tenure practices, the American Association of University Professors found that 45.6 percent of larger universities listed diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) criteria in their tenure standards. Often, the rubrics used to evaluate these statements—and the criteria used for evaluating a faculty member’s “DEI contributions”—are overtly ideological.
Thus, many scholars on both the left and right decry the use of diversity statements. Most recently, the Academic Freedom Alliance released a statement urging universities to end the practice. The statement echoes the language of the Kalven Report, arguing that “[a]cademics seeking employment or promotion will almost inescapably feel pressured to say things that accommodate the perceived ideological preferences of an institution demanding a diversity statement.” It adds: “This scenario is inimical to fundamental values that should govern academic life.”
Mandatory diversity statements are widespread at UNC. The most egregious example comes from the university’s school of medicine. In 2020, the medical school convened its “Task Force for Integrating Social Justice Into the Curriculum,” which released a report outlining dozens of recommendations. These included requiring students to develop “advocacy skills” (the report even listed the political causes for which students should advocate), requiring faculty to adhere to “core concepts of anti-racism,” and revising the school’s promotion and tenure guidelines to “include a social justice domain required for promotion.”
Initially, the medical school indicated that it had accepted each of these recommendations. Even after it walked back the most extreme measures, it stood by its newly issued tenure and promotion requirements, which require faculty to submit a diversity statement and list their contributions to DEI. The guidelines’ list of sample DEI contributions includes “[p]erforming DEI or social justice-focused lectures to students, residents, or peers” and “[p]reparing DEI or social justice curriculum materials.”
The UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health has also jumped on board. As I reported in January, the school recently updated its promotion and tenure manual to “strengthen recognition for anti-racist and equity-focused research, practice, service, teaching and mentoring.” The school’s Anti-Racist Planning Guide for Public Health Pedagogy gives some indication of what “anti-racist” research and teaching might involve—making such outlandish proclamations as “we have all been colonized and socialized in a white supremacist system” and “anti-fatness is deeply tied to anti-Blackness and is pervasive in public health research, policy and practice.”
More broadly, the university clearly supports the use of diversity statements in hiring. Recently, I reviewed all the current faculty listings on the UNC website, 19 of which required diversity statements. From the Department of Chemistry to the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures, applicants are expected to outline their commitment to the cause. Thus, applicants for a role in the Department of Genetics and Psychiatry must submit a statement that describes their “track record of engagement and activities related to diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as a vision of how their work at UNC will continue to support this mission.”
By adopting the Chicago Principles and Kalven Committee Report, UNC has made an ambitious commitment to academic freedom. If it continues to require diversity statements, however, the university will render that commitment toothless.
Photo by Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images