Trustees | Freedom of Expression

How Diversity Screening At The University Of California Could Degrade Faculty Quality

FORBES   |  January 21, 2020 by Michael Poliakoff
Statue of grizzly bear, University of California, Berkeley, California
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Could Albert Einstein get a job today at the University of California–Berkeley?

Or Enrico Fermi, or Robert Oppenheimer, or John von Neumann? With the University of California’s (UC) experiments in diversity screening underway, the answer is that their job applications could stall before a faculty hiring committee reviewed their academic qualifications.

Before assuming that this column will argue that diversity is not important, please read further.

When Fisher v. University of Texas, the landmark case that upheld affirmative action, returned to the Supreme Court in July 2016, Justice Kennedy wrote, “Student body diversity promotes learning outcomes and better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society.” It makes common sense that graduates will be better prepared for career, community, and citizenship after studying in an environment in which students and faculty bring different backgrounds and life experiences to bear on the urgent questions of our times. Of course, this means that intellectual diversity (i.e., different perspectives on politics, social values, and religion) should command every bit as much respect as any diversity understood in terms of race, sexual orientation, and gender. 

But it isn’t happening that way in California.

The University of California stipulates that departments at its campuses must require faculty applicants to submit “diversity statements,” in which applicants affirm their commitment to diversity and inclusion as social ideals, detail their contributions to diversity in academia, and outline their plans for cultivating a diverse community on campus. The requirement for a diversity statement seems reasonable, given the imperative of understanding students of different backgrounds and teaching them effectively. This is particularly important given UC’s rich mixture of cultures and backgrounds. Different University of California campuses have used the diversity statements in different ways in hiring and promotion, some, so far, in relatively benign ways.

Some, however, in quite dangerous ways.

What has emerged most clearly at Berkeley is likely to have catastrophic implications for the intellectual life of the University of California, especially if such practices find homes at other campuses. A new “Initiative to Advance Faculty Diversity” adopted by several departments at Berkeley is the use of a rubric as a screening process to eliminate all applicants who do not conform to the approach to diversity that Berkeley’s Office for Faculty Equity and Welfare might have in mind. A candidate who describes, in the language of the rubric, “only activities that are already the expectation of Berkeley faculty (mentoring, treating all students the same regardless of background, etc.)” is deemed to have given an unacceptable answer. And there are real consequences for the candidate. In pilot programs, the rubric, to repeat, has been used—and continues to be used—as a screening tool, deployed before the faculty hiring committee can give due consideration to the academic merits of the candidate.

Let us examine the implications. First, there is the matter of intellectual diversity, and different approaches to multiculturalism and diversity. As Abigail Thompson, chair of the mathematics department at the University of California–Davis, described in a Wall Street Journal editorial: “To score well [on a diversity statement], candidates must subscribe to a particular political ideology, one based on treating people not as unique individuals but as representatives of their gender and ethnic identities. . . . This system specifically excludes those who believe in a tenet of classical liberalism: that each person should be treated as a unique individual, not as a representative of an identity group. Rather than helping achieve inclusion, these [rubrics] act as a filter for those with nonconforming views.”

In this regard, Stephen Bainbridge, professor of law at the University of California–Los Angeles, will be a test case. Professor Bainbridge shared the diversity statement that he submitted for his merit raise, which emphasizes the importance of differing viewpoints in forming a diverse community. If the university cherishes intellectual diversity, then it will value his perspective to support students of faith and conservative political views. It is a case to watch.

Second, the pilot programs of screening for diversity expertise before considering academic qualifications make a travesty of academic standards, relegating them to a distant second place. Of the “pioneer” UC departments that have opted for screening with the diversity rubrics, nearly all are in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines. The quintessential meritocratic rigor of science and mathematics is, as I write, taking a gut punch. News flash from Berkeley: A 2018–19 search for a professor in life sciences cut the applicant pool from 894 to 214 based solely on the diversity rubric. Who were the scientists whose academic credentials were never reviewed? What other UC academic programs are now preparing to adopt such practices?

Let’s return to the question asked at the beginning of this editorial. If the likes of Albert Einstein or Enrico Fermi or any other great scholar and teacher did not craft a diversity statement judged satisfactory in light of standards devised by a campus inclusion and equity bureaucracy, his or her application could stop cold. It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out that finding academic excellence and sheer, life-changing, history-making brilliance in teaching and research will be a lucky accident for schools that follow the Berkeley experiment.

The cost of such perverse definition and enforcement of diversity jeopardizes a storied university system. Six of the UC universities are in the top 100 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, two of them in the top 20. If the job applications of some percentage of the academy’s rising stars go to the shredder, UC will one day weep for the talent it lost.


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