Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in higher education involve a range of wrongdoings, such as giving preferential treatment to job applicants from racial and gender groups individuals and the creation of a massive administrative staff that encroaches on faculty autonomy and attempts to structure and monitor even informal on-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 hiring and academic promotion process, and formal statements of the values of DEI. a university or a unit within it. A growing number of university departments are now announcing their support for DEI while requiring any potential future colleagues to do the same.
Others have advanced capable and instructive attacks on these statements. I write simply to point out a dilemma: such assertions are necessarily either too weak or too strong.
Defenders of DEI declarations often ask how such a practice can be problematic. Diversity, equity and inclusion are positive values, the argument goes; what kind of person wouldn’t support them? The implication is that DEI statements contain assertion of self-evident goods that no good person could oppose, self-evident truths beyond the realm of reasonable contestability. Being asked to show support for DCI could give no pause to the conscience of any sane person.
But if the statements are mundane and mundane, why have they become so popular? Job applicants are not required to profess allegiance to happiness, good times, kindness, or doing the right thing. Ministries don’t issue statements acknowledging that the sun comes up in the morning, that you have to provide for your children, or that it’s good to try the best you can. And it would be a mistake to do so, because unnecessary obligations add to the endless administrative costs that plague working life today and create opportunities for decision-makers to treat candidates arbitrarily. Mandating a statement of “why caring about others is better than not” to evaluate chemists or physicists, for example, could only introduce a confounding variable into the process and lead to the hiring of worse chemists and physicists.
Moreover, how could the bloated administrative apparatus of universities that exists largely to oversee DEI reporting be justified if it is just unquestioned foolishness? Indeed, if higher education is truly facing an unfavorable economic climate – with impending austerity even in its basic teaching and research functions – then it is irresponsible to devote so many academic resources to such a wasteful undertaking.
Apologists for this burgeoning practice have been driven to point out a level of generality and a lack of clear content in DEI statements, even at the cost of making them seem unnecessary and unnecessary. The reason is clear: as Brian Soucek, an advocate for diversity statements, acknowledges, less “specific” (in other words, more devoid of substance) statements are less likely to meet the challenge of being “tests thinly veiled ideological determinants”. The most obvious interpretation is that DEI statements have been embraced in academia with such passion and ubiquity, not because they are empty vessels, but because they express a value system and political vision. individuals. DEI statements demonstrate and align universities with a fashionable worldview among faculty and (especially) administrators.
But while these professions make sense, they restrict academic freedom and encourage discrimination already endemic in academic careers. When required as part of hiring and promotion, DEI statements either serve to downgrade and exclude candidates who are honest about their views dissenting from progressive orthodoxy on race and gender, or they enjoin candidates to mislead their opinions and violate their conscience. During the struggle to overturn the religious tests that restricted Oxford and Cambridge to Anglicans until the second half of the 19th century, critics noted that coerced professions of belief have the tragic quality of being the most effective in keeping away people of integrity, people who do not want to distort or lie about their beliefs in order to move forward. But he’s exactly the kind of person that academia should value.
Universities and departments make free speech a dead letter when they release substantive DEI statements. Students and faculty will rightly worry about the repercussions of violating the notice given on behalf of the corporate body to which they belong. Allowing supporters of one side of an issue to argue over the prestige of the university’s name unfairly tilts the field of debate. A DEI declaration with the least substantial purchase transforms the institution from a true university – a place where all who can contribute to the discovery and transmission of knowledge are welcome – into a cult with laboratory space.
Defenders of DEI statements can’t help but be stuck on one horn of this dilemma. The statements are either too weak to justify implementation or too strong to be consistent with the academic mission. Either they are so empty and trivial that building a bureaucracy around them and expending moral and financial capital to insert them into so many aspects of university life is an indefensible waste; or they contain substantive positions, in which case they are instruments to further marginalize disadvantaged viewpoints under the guise of inclusiveness. In practice, the latter situation is increasingly the norm in higher education.
The claim of a happy and indisputable generality is, for the apologists of this nascent practice, the price to pay to make the DEI engine run. But the truth is that the DEI’s statements subvert the ideal of unbiased assessment of academic achievement and circumvent non-discrimination law to limit academic hiring and promotion to desired prospects and groups. And that is, unfortunately, precisely why they are gaining ground in higher education today.