Academic freedom is under attack at the University of California, from multiple directions. In this blog post, I'll discuss just two of the many ways that UC is strangling academic freedom for its faculty, staff, and students.
Diversity statements for faculty evaluation
The University of California now requires diversity statements for faculty evaluations. In itself, this isn't a limit on academic freedom — after all, a faculty member can say what they want in them. However, the way that diversity statements are used is limiting academic freedom.
First, diversity statements are used in faculty hiring as a first-stage filter, at least at UC Santa Cruz. An administrative committee, not the department's hiring committee, reviews anonymized diversity statements, removing those who don't pass the rubric-based screening from the candidate pool before the department hiring committee can look at the pool. This is an issue because the rubric is, at its core, a loyalty oath to the university's ideals of how to achieve equity (not equality). For example, the committee would award Dr. Martin Luther King's statement of "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" the lowest score (1-2 points) because it "[d]escribes only activities that are already the expectation of our faculty such as mentoring, treating all students the same regardless of background, etc." The rubric explicitly favors individuals actually from underrepresented groups by giving maximum points to someone who "[s]erved as a leader in a student or professional organization that supports underrepresented individuals"; such roles are typically filled by members of the underrepresented group. While it's possible for a male student to lead the local chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, it's rare.
Equally important, the diversity statement requires adhering to the university's view of how to increase participation of underrepresented groups. An applicant who bases additional help solely on economic status would fare poorly because they "[don't] discuss gender or ethnicity/race", even though such an approach might be more appropriate than one that targets high-SES students from underrepresented groups. Similarly, an applicant who "may state that it's better not to have outreach or affinity groups aimed at underrepresented individuals because it keeps them separate from everyone else, or will make them feel less valued" will be given the lowest rating, even though research has shown that qualified minorities often question their own worth because of such programs. An applicant must "intend[s] to be a strong advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion within the department/school/college", even if the individual believes that DEI programs are discriminatory. Merely believing that the content of one's character should be the overriding way to judge people is sufficient to get your faculty application denied before anyone in the department sees it.
By enforcing these rules before hiring a faculty candidate, the administration is biasing new hires towards those who believe that DEI programs, as envisioned by the University of California, are the best way to address representation of underrepresented groups. Faculty who, like me and (presumably) Richard Sander, author of Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won't Admit It, would not be hired in today's climate. Prof. Sander's book is well-researched, and certainly contains valid viewpoints that should be heard, whether one agrees with the conclusions or not.
Using diversity statements in promotion and tenure cases, while it still chills academic freedom, is less of an issue because it permits holistic evaluation of a faculty member. Just as a faculty member with outstanding research but merely average teaching can be promoted, so can a faculty member whose research and teaching are outstanding but diversity efforts are merely adequate. Having said that, requiring diversity statements will tend to encourage faculty with strength in research, teaching, and service to leave the university if they disagree with the university's approach to DEI. It's part of the reason I decided to retire early, and I know of other faculty who feel the same way.
Departmental statements on political issues
In late 2021, the University of California University Committee on Academic Freedom (UCAF) sent a letter to the Academic Council supporting the ability of academic departments on campus to issue, or endorse, statements on political issues in the name of the department. The rationale behind the proposal was that multiple departments across multiple UC campuses published letters condemning Israel's (but not Hamas's) actions during the brief hostilities in Gaza in June 2021. While individual faculty, staff, and students have every right to publish such letters, departments do not, under long-standing UC policy.
The UCAF letter to the Academic Council states, in part:
Academic Council has requested recommendations from the University Committee on Academic Freedom (UCAF) regarding the ability of academic departments on campus to issue, or endorse, statements on political issues in the name of the department. We have given the matter a great deal of thought, consulted with colleagues on the campus academic freedom committees as well as general counsel at UCOP, and conducted our own research. Our conclusion is that, while such statements are sometimes ill-advised and have the potential to chill or intimidate minority views, departments should not be precluded from issuing or endorsing statements, so long as a) such statements make clear that they are not intended to represent the views of the University as a whole and b) allowances are made for minority views to be expressed in some reasonable fashion.
I was shocked to note that the University Committee on Academic Freedom would endorse a policy that "[has] the potential to chill or intimidate minority views," yet that is exactly what it did.
In response, I prepared a letter formally opposing this change in policy, for a number of reasons fully described in the letter. The main goal of the letter was to support freedom of speech for individual faculty, staff, and students while upholding the UCOP policy that "the name, insignia, seal, or address (including the electronic address) of the University or any of its offices or units shall not be used for or in connection with religious, political, business or other purposes or activities."
The letter was signed by over 150 University of California faculty and staff, and was sent to the Academic Senate office on March 17, 2022. Thankfully, the policy was tabled — for now.
Where do we go from here?
One of the big issues with academic freedom is that university faculty often don't even realize how fragile it is. Over 90% of the Faculty Senate members at my campus, UC Santa Cruz, rejected the Chicago Statement on Freedom of Expression when I brought it up for adoption in early 2019. I wonder if the Faculty Senate would feel differently if they were in Florida, and had to rebut Governor DeSantis's attacks on teaching critical race theory at the university level.
It's always important to consider that anything you support to achieve your goals will, inevitably, be used by your enemies when they take power. One of the reasons for rejecting the Chicago Statement at UCSC was that "we fought this battle over loyalty oaths that decried Communism, and won." But the problem is that, having fought the battle against one type of loyalty oath, the response is to substitute their own. The next time the government imposes a loyalty oath that the faculty don't like, they won't be in a position to oppose it, since they've already shown that they're not in favor of true academic freedom.
Late breaking news
The Wall Street Journal has an editorial on Texas Tech's usage of diversity statements in recruiting. Thanks to the publicity around this behavior, Texas Tech removed the diversity statement requirement, in a victory for academic freedom.
The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article titled "Yes, DEI Can Erode Academic Freedom. Let’s Not Pretend Otherwise." Again, I'm glad to see that the academic community is beginning to see how mandating DEI beliefs erodes academic freedom.
One can believe in providing additional help for those who need it without subscribing to the beliefs standard in DEI administrations, as do I and many others. Requiring fealty to such beliefs, even in the face of evidence that it's neutral at best and likely harmful, stifles academic freedom.