UVa’s Ideological Litmus Test — “Diversity Statements”

by James A. Bacon

In the fall convocation ceremonies at the University of Virginia this week, President Jim Ryan said many things that once upon a time would have been considered unremarkable. The purpose of a UVa education, he said, is to pursue the truth. The search for truth is unending, and progress toward the truth is predicated upon free speech and open inquiry. UVa is a place for honest and respectful conversations between those who disagree, Ryan said. UVa is a place where civil dialogues can take place.

An alumnus in the audience, Bert Ellis, was reassured by Ryan’s words. Ellis is president of The Jefferson Council, a group dedicated to upholding the Jeffersonian legacy at UVa that has catalogued the suppression of free speech and expression and the drift toward intellectual conformity, and he was primed to be skeptical.

“All in all, I liked his remarks,” says Ellis. “I was pleasantly surprised by his references to and respect for Mr. Jefferson and his legacy and with his very strong support for open dialogue and for the Honor System. I hope his actions over the upcoming school year will be as strong as his words.”

Indeed, words are one thing, and actions are another. While Ryan supports free speech and expression in the abstract, deans and department heads are enforcing a social justice dogma under the banner of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in their hiring policies. Job prospects are subject to what can only be called a DE&I litmus test.

For example, the Darden School of Business is advertising openings for two tenure-track positions in the field of Leadership and Organizational Behavior. Along with the academic qualifications one would expect for a professorship at one of the nation’s most prestigious business schools, applicants must submit a “diversity statement” that details “contributions to excellence through diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

The application links to a page on the university’s Office for Equal Opportunity and Civil Rights (EOCR) website, which explains what should be included in these DE&I statements and how they will be evaluated.

“Hiring officials and/or search committees will consider demonstrated skills, abilities, experiences, and knowledge of diversity, equity, and inclusion evidencing inclusive excellence as just one of the many elements addressed in the overall evaluation process,” states the EOCR description of the process. A “guidelines” document fills in details for faculty positions:

  • Have you mentored students, staff or faculty who “were different from your own and/or from groups historically or currently under-represented in your field, specialty or the academy at large?”
  • Have you served on a committee or board that focused on “building a respectful and inclusive climate [or] spoken on a panel which fostered cross-cultural dialogue on a relevant topic … or otherwise raised your awareness or level of participation in matters related to diversity, equity and inclusion?”
  • Has your past research or teaching contributed to DE&I? This could include designing course features “which encouraged appropriate and contextual cultural dialogue.”
  • Have you “actively sought out” DE&I opportunities or endeavored to build your own “cultural competence”?

If the job posting does not ask for specifics, the EOCR document continues, “it is recommended that you consider and explore how you feel diversity, equity, and inclusion are important to the role for which you are applying.”

The Darden School is not an outlier. The School of Data Science is hiring            associate and full professors. Applicants should complete the online application and attach a Curriculum Vitae, cover letter, references, statements of teaching and research, and a “diversity statement.”

The School of Nursing is looking for someone to lead research om compassionate care. States the job application: “We are deeply committed to developing a community that is inclusive, respectful, and considers diversity” a top priority. Applicants must fill out the diversity statement.

The School of Data Science also is hiring a professor to fill a position to focus on quantification of health disparities and inequality and modes of action to address those disparities and inequalities.” Applicants must fill out the diversity statement.

The Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy is hiring a distinguished scholar to fill an endowed, full professorship to teach, lead a research program, and engage with the world outside UVa. Applicants must fill out the diversity statement.

The administration has articulated a goal of increasing the percentage of racial/ethnic minorities in the faculty and staff. While the goal seems benign, hiring has morphed into a type of affirmative action and the diversity statements have become a a “political litmus test,” says Allan Stam, a full professor and former dean of the Batten School. Stam belongs to a small minority of conservative faculty members at UVa. As a tenured professor and former dean, he is one of the few willing to express his views publicly.

A deep commitment to DE&I correlates closely with other liberal-left views, says Stam. The diversity statement “effectively excludes conservative voices from consideration or requires them to be disingenuous.” Moreover, diversity statements are only part of the way the hiring process is stacked. Members of search committees go through “sensitivity training,” and committees also must document that DE&I procedures have been followed.

Joel B. Gardner, a UVa alumnus who served on the Committee of Free Speech and Free Inquiry, noted that faculty submissions to the committee asserted that required training by faculty members has become “increasingly doctrinal, demanding conformity on certain legitimately contestable issues.”

The doctrinal nature of the hiring process has an effect quite different from the lofty ideas propounded by President Ryan during the convocation. As the spectrum of political and philosophical views at UVa narrow, so does the range of discussions that take place, and, as a consequence, the range of viewpoints that are entertained. It becomes ever easier to view conservative ideas as outside the norm, hence, offensive or threatening.

Seeing the DE&I litmus test as a dangerous example of the University taking institutional positions on political/social issues, Gardner tried to persuade the Committee to take the position that it is improper for a university, particularly a state university, to do so. He was told that this issue was not part of the Committee’s mandate and that it was an issue “to be addressed at another time and place.”

At present, there is no mechanism for exploring the impact of the DE&I Statements in hiring applications upon free speech and open inquiry. The ideology behind Diversity, Equity & Inclusion is loaded with political suppositions about social justice, or its lack, in American society. To take issue with those suppositions, says Stam, is to run afoul of official university policy.

Says Stam: “UVa has moved from a consensus that the mission is to create and disseminate new knowledge into an institution now focusing on advancing a particular vision of social justice.”

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