by James A. Bacon
Jim Ceaser runs the Program for Constitutionalism and Democracy at the University of Virginia, which provides civic education on American ideas in politics and political economy. The courses are unusual these days in surveying the thought of mostly dead white men: from Aristotle and Montesquieu to Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville. The courses are remarkable also in giving equal time – in many instances even more than equal time — to thinkers whom most today consider conservative and whom, he believes, receive less attention than they merit.
Ceaser is a fully tenured professor, which provides significant protections against being fired. As for the program he directs, which reaches a large number of students, all of the funding comes from private donors and foundations from outside the university. Having started teaching in 1975, he’s reached retirement age.
If not cancel proof, he is cancel-resistant. That makes it easier for him to refuse to fill out questions in a “peer review evaluation form” that probe his thinking about Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.
The form requires faculty members to describe their teaching, advising, research and service activities in the previous year. For each of those topics, faculty are told to describe their efforts on behalf of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. For example:
Please describe your efforts to cultivate and/or contribute to a diverse, inclusive, and equitable environment in the classroom. This can include subject matter, contents of syllabi, in-class pedagogy, etc.
If he did answer, Ceaser likely would stress that he treats his students as individuals without regard to their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or group identity. He engages with all students who need help and grades them on the basis of their contributions to class and mastery of the material. But he knows that’s not what departmental functionaries are looking for. To the contrary. In some quarters of UVa — not everywhere, but some — color-blindness is deemed a racist tool designed to maintain White supremacy.
The requirement for employees and job applicants to write “diversity statements” emanates from Inclusive Excellence directives at the university level, filter down through guidelines at the school or college level, and are interpreted and administered at the departmental level. In Ceaser’s department, selected DEI representatives sit on faculty hiring committees and employee-review committees.
I asked UVa spokesman Brian Coy if the questions Ceaser had to fill out in his peer-review evaluation form were standard at UVa, what weight is given to the answers, and whether the addition of the DEI questions to the peer-review questionnaire was ever discussed with, or approved by, the Board of Visitors.
Coy answered as follows, referring to both the academic and health-care divisions of UVa:
The highest task of every UVA faculty member is to align their teaching, research, and service efforts with our greater mission of serving the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world by developing responsible citizen leaders and professionals; advancing, preserving, and disseminating knowledge, and providing world-class patient care. The questions you include below are part of a comprehensive evaluation of College faculty that covers many different elements of the job they are expected to perform here at the University.
The part of the evaluation you quote gives faculty members space to reflect on ways they are contributing to an academic environment where students from different perspectives and walks of life feel welcome and are exposed to ideas, points of view, and experiences different from their own. This part of the larger evaluation is intended to ensure that College faculty are connecting their teaching, research, and service with the diversity and complexity of the Commonwealth, nation, and world those efforts are intended to serve.
I queried Ceaser about Coy’s statement. He responded that it did no more than repeat the shibboleths of diversity, equity & inclusion “that one would expect to hear from a coy spokesperson.” These terms, he said, “have no fixed meanings and vary according to different political understandings.”
The following questions, which the university’s Human Resources Department “suggests” for use in job-applicant interviews, gives a flavor of the favored thinking. I have highlighted passages that are especially loaded ideologically.
- How has privilege impacted your professional career?
- In what ways have you demonstrated commitment and sensitivity to the importance of diversity in your previous experience?
- Please demonstrate your awareness of difference within commonly-accepted categories of diversity.
- What do you see as the fundamental characteristics of organizations that create an inclusive environment?
- How would you describe your current thinking about diversity, and how has your thinking changed over time?
- What does it mean for you to have a commitment to diversity? How have you demonstrated that commitment, and how would you see yourself demonstrating it here?
- Sometimes there is a belief that a commitment to diversity conflicts with a commitment to excellence (i.e. we will have to lower our standards to achieve or accommodate diversity). How would you describe the relationship between diversity and excellence? What kinds of leadership efforts would you undertake to encourage a commitment to excellence through diversity?
- We promote and value diversity and equity. How has your teaching, mentoring and/or research addressed issues of diversity and equity in education?
- Can you tell us a bit more about your approach to teaching? For instance, how do you assess the diverse learning needs of your students?
- What are ways in which you incorporate issues of diversity into your work as a professor?
- How would you advocate for diversity education and diversity initiatives with individuals who don’t see its value?
- What opportunities have you taken to improve the learning environment for historically marginalized students?
- Has diversity played a role in shaping your teaching and advising styles? If so, how?
- How has your background and experience prepared you to be effective in an environment [that values diversity] [is committed to inclusion] [where we see awareness of and respect for diversity as an important value]?
- Explain what you believe to be an effective strategy to diversify curricula.
- How might you handle a white student who claims, “I just don’t have a cultural identity”?
Ceaser does not know what reaction to expect from his act of administrative disobedience. Will he suffer negative consequences, or will the administration let slide his refusal to respond to these questions?
DEI statements are by now a widespread phenomenon in higher education, but a reaction has begun to set in. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has vowed to purge DEI from higher education. In North Carolina, the Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina system has removed DEI statements from its hiring and admissions practices due to concerns about compelled speech.
No organized challenge to DEI statements has surfaced yet in Virginia. One reason is that no one has challenged them. Outside organizations like the Jefferson Council cannot file a lawsuit because we have no standing — that is, we have not been directly affected by the policy or suffered any damages. A legal challenge must come from a member of the faculty or staff who has refused to comply with the diversity statements and suffered punishment as a result.
Ceaser is following his individual path, not seeking to spark a legal revolution. He acknowledges that his defiance of the “empty DEI trilogy” could pose an interesting test, but he’s looking for a less confrontational outcome. “I hope the embarrassment of associating a first-class university with this foolishness will soon force a change.”