UNC Board Moves to Prohibit Compelled Speech

John D. Sailer

Recently, the UNC Board of Governor’s proposed a resolution that would prohibit “compelled speech” for admissions, hiring, promotion, and tenure. A key section of the proposed policy reads:

The University shall neither solicit nor require an employee or applicant for academic admission or employment to affirmatively ascribe to or opine about beliefs, affiliations, ideals, or principles regarding matters of contemporary political debate or social action as a condition to admission, employment, or professional advancement.

In an article titled “At UNC, conservatives claim they’re oppressed, so they’re oppressing the faculty,” the editorial board at Raleigh’s News & Observer dismissed the resolution as “a solution in search of a problem,” adding: “This so-called defense of free speech and political association is actually a repression of the ability of administrators and faculty members to freely and fully assess candidates for admission, jobs and tenure.

Far from being “a solution in search of a problem,” the UNC Board of Governor’s move to prohibit compelled speech addressing a rapidly spreading issue in higher education—namely, the use of mandatory diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statements for hiring, promotion, and tenure. This practice is alive and well in the UNC system, and the Board of Governors has done well in its move to curtail it. No doubt, members of the National Association of Scholars will be familiar with this issue. From the sound of it, some of those who are new to the debate—including the News & Observer editorial board—might need a primer.

Diversity statements, short essays detailing a job candidates’ past and planned contributions to DEI, have long been criticized as political litmus tests and compared to the loyalty oaths of the McCarthy era. The basic argument goes like this: The term “diversity, equity, and inclusion” connotes a set of controversial social and political views. Thus, requiring faculty to demonstrate their commitment to these values—and evaluating them for such commitment—inevitably leads to assessing faculty for their social and political views.

A growing number of universities and academic departments around the country nevertheless require diversity statements from job applicants. To apply for the recent role of Department Head of Primary Care & Population Health at the Texas A&M School of Medicine, job candidates were required to submit a statement “addressing aspirations and contributions to promoting equity, inclusion, and diversity in their professional careers.” At Ohio State University, dozens of faculty jobs require a statement describing the candidate’s “demonstrated commitments and capacities to contribute to diversity, equity, and inclusion through research, teaching, mentoring, and/or outreach and engagement.” The list goes on. A 2021 American Enterprise Institute survey of faculty jobs found that 20 percent required diversity statements, and the American Association of University Professors likewise found that a growing number of universities consider DEI contributions in the promotion and tenure process.

Far from being merely symbolic gestures, diversity statements can in many cases make or break a job candidate. In 2020, the National Institutes for Health began its Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST) program, which funds new faculty hires at 12 institutions, aiming at roughly 120 new faculty jobs. To apply, candidates must submit a diversity statement, and an explicit condition for employment through the program, as noted in many grant-award announcements, is “a demonstrated commitment to DEI.” UC Berkeley’s Life Sciences Initiative, a program to hire multiple faculty members simultaneously, began its review of applications by cutting the applicant pool from 893 to 214 based solely on the candidates’ diversity statements. The Texas Tech University's Department of Biological Sciences, meanwhile, adopted a department-wide motion promising to “require and strongly weight a diversity statement from all candidates.” In other words, while it’s impossible to say how diversity statements factor into job decisions in every case—I’ve been told by some professors that their departments do not seriously consider them—there are countless examples of universities that explicitly advertise their heavy reliance on the statements.

Many universities are explicit about how they assess diversity statements, publishing their DEI rubrics online. These provide a glimpse of the deliberation process—and lend credence to the argument that diversity statements enable viewpoint discrimination. UC Berkeley’s “Rubric for Assessing Candidate Contributions to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging” constitutes something of a gold standard. It’s adapted, copied, and recommended by universities across the country.

According to the Berkeley rubric, job candidates can receive a low score for stating that “it's better not to have outreach or affinity groups aimed at particular individuals because it keeps them separate from everyone else.” Of course, many have argued that affinity groups—literally groups separated by race or other demographic categories—constitute a kind of neo-segregation. For expressing that view, a job candidate would be punished. Even more startlingly, the Berkeley rubric dictates a low score for any candidate who “states the intention to ignore the varying backgrounds of their students and ‘treat everyone the same.’” This essentially mandates that faculty endorse race-conscious policies. A job candidate who opposes racial preferences in admissions—as a majority of Americans do—would likely be punished for expressing their views. And again, they would be punished according to the most commonly used rubric for assessing diversity statements.

While conservatives and classical liberals are more attuned to the perils of diversity statements, they are by no means alone in raising objections to the practice. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE)—an organization that often picks fights with conservative politicians—frequently issues open letters in opposition to DEI statements and requirements on First Amendment grounds. As the organization recently put it,

Vague or ideologically motivated DEI statement policies can too easily function as litmus tests for adherence to prevailing ideological views on DEI, penalize faculty for holding dissenting opinions on matters of public concern, and “cast a pall of orthodoxy” over the campus.

Many have echoed FIRE’s argument, arguing that diversity statements simply violate the the law. Brian Leiter, professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago, and an avowed socialist who regularly castigates the likes of Ron DeSantis, likewise argued that diversity statements are unlawful in his 2020 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Legal Problem With Diversity Statements.” Leiter notes, “In the language of First Amendment jurisprudence, these diversity statements constitute ‘viewpoint discrimination.’”

Meanwhile, the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), a non-partisan group devoted, as the name suggests, to academic freedom, released a statement opposing the practice, co-authored by the former dean of Harvard Medical School. The AFA’s assessment of diversity statements is unequivocal.

Academics 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, notwithstanding the actual beliefs or commitments of those forced to speak. This scenario is inimical to fundamental values that should govern academic life. The demand for diversity statements enlists academics into a political movement, erasing the distinction between academic expertise and ideological conformity. It encourages cynicism and dishonesty.

Even if every university in the UNC system had somehow bucked the trend, the Board of Governors would be well-advised to take preemptive action against the misbegotten “best practice.”

But the policy of mandatory diversity statements is alive and well throughout the UNC system. UNC-Chapel Hill requires them for positions as varied as computer science, classics, and biostatistics. In 2020, the UNC School of Medicine’s Task Force for Integrating Social Justice Into the Curriculum recommended that the school add a “social justice domain” into its promotion and tenure guidelines. The school quickly complied by adding an assessment of faculty DEI contributions to its promotion and tenure process. At UNC-Greensboro, candidates for a “Director of Orchestras” position must submit “a statement of commitment to advancing equity, diversity, inclusion.” And UNC-Charlotte requires diversity statements for roles in art history, engineering, and chemistry—while finalists for a position in the department of Languages and Culture Studies “will be asked during their screening interview to discuss how the topics of diversity and inclusion are incorporated into their teaching and research.” A search committee resources page on UNC-Charlotte’s even recommends using the notorious Berkeley rubric.

Putting their money where their mouth is, the UNC Board of Governors seems to be interested in having an open debate about the resolution, having delayed the final vote until their next meeting. I’m sure there are many constructive points to be made about the precise language of the resolution, and of course, this is a welcome opportunity to fully examine the issue of compelled speech posed by diversity statements. But to say that the policy is a “solution without a problem” is demonstrably false.

Photo by Brian Wangenheim on Unsplash

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