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A Breakdown of DEI and Academic Freedom: Challenges and Opportunities

Today’s college students are the most diverse in history. Schools are seeking to ensure students of all social, economic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds feel accepted on campus. One way has been by making formal commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) using mechanisms such as statements, trainings, and surveys. In fact, the majority of American universities are now integrating diversity and inclusion commitments into their university missions.

These policies are being placed alongside schools’ long-standing commitments to academic freedom and free expression. Academic freedom protects professors from “professional disadvantage” in intramural speech when expressing controversial views in their approaches to research, classroom management, and curricula design as well as their freedom from “institutional censorship or discipline” in extramural speech.

Often, schools have made commitments to DEI without clarifying how these newer policies will harmonize with other commitments, including academic freedom. Recent campus controversies over whether a school’s commitment to DEI supersedes academic freedom or vice versa suggest there is great confusion over how—or even whether—these policies are compatible.

For instance, Georgetown’s process of adjudicating a tweet by Georgetown University Law Center’s incoming administrator Ilya Shapiro and deciding whether his actions should be governed by the school’s DEI or academic freedom commitment revealed the potential conflict between DEI and academic freedom. Some Georgetown faculty argued that Shapiro should be fired because his statements violated the university’s DEI principles. Other faculty, along with free speech advocates, believed that sanctioning Shapiro for “ideological reasons” would be inconsistent with Georgetown’s free speech policy. Shapiro’s case revealed faculty, administrators, and students do not have clear guidance from the university regarding these policies.

Keith Whittington, the Academic Freedom Alliance’s Academic Committee chair and William Nelson Cromwell professor of politics at Princeton University, argues that the perceived tension between a university’s academic freedom and diversity commitments arises from a misunderstanding of what these values require. They can go hand in hand, Whittington argues, because “inclusivity necessitates the tolerance of a diversity of ideas, as well as a diversity of people, and the empowerment of a broad range of students and faculty to give voice to their ideas.” Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University, points out that university administrators often perceive a need to choose between prioritizing free speech or DEI. However, Thomas argues, this “zero-sum” absolutist perception is “an unnecessary and ill-advised choice.”

Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, lays out the challenge universities face: “Universities today are trying to ensure freedom of expression while at the same time cultivating recognition and belonging. This effort…has to do not only with admissions, but also with every facet of the school’s culture and climate: from how one values and retains faculty and staff to how people are treated in classrooms, lunchrooms, and board rooms.” Since faculty are integral to upholding both academic freedom and DEI commitments, universities must be deliberate about how to uphold faculty’s academic freedom rights while also equipping faculty with the necessary tools to further the university’s DEI mission in the classroom.

Three DEI initiatives that raise potential conflicts with academic freedom are: 1) the requirement of candidates and faculty to submit diversity statements, 2) the institutionalization of diversity training for higher education employees, and 3) the administration of diversity surveys. I breakdown considerations for university leaders and policymakers when addressing a university’s dual commitment to DEI and academic freedom.

1. Diversity Statements

Colleges and universities use statements to make known their commitments that, in turn, guide their campus policies. Many schools have declared their commitment to make free expression and academic freedom integral to their community by endorsing the Chicago Principles or adopting free expression statements. Other schools, such as the University of Georgia and the University of Oregon, have not endorsed a statement but have adopted and published freedom of expression policies. Universities show their commitment to DEI also through these institutional statements and policies. The rise of diversity statements, however, is a recent, growing phenomenon.

To probe faculty commitment to DEI in their hiring, promotion, and tenure, many universities ask candidates to submit personal DEI statements. Personal diversity statements are written assertions of faculty candidates’ alignment with the universities’ mission to promote DEI. According to an American Enterprise Institute 2021 study, one-fifth of faculty job postings require DEI statements, with elite colleges being more likely to require DEI statements or make reference to diversity than non-elite institutions.

Universities see the incorporation of diversity statements in employment practices as essential to fostering a more inclusive academic environment for students of different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. The incorporation of diversity statements in employment practices differs in stages of appointment, promotion, and tenure.

A. Appointments

The University of California (UC) system spearheaded the use of diversity statements in faculty employment practices in the early 2000s. Within the span of two decades, several colleges and universities adopted the practices of the UC schools by requiring diversity statements during faculty appointments. Sixty-eight percent of job postings mention diversity and 19% require diversity statements, according to AEI’s study. Given its impact, the UC system considers itself the “national model for universities seeking to recognize and credit meritorious contributions that work to reconcile inequalities.”

The University of Pennsylvania followed the UC system’s model. It requires diversity statements from faculty as a part of their hiring practices. Beyond just mentioning prior DEI experiences, Penn asks interested candidates to consider questions such as, “What does diversity mean to you, and why is this important? Do you understand the university’s diversity goals? What have been some of your experiences either being part of a non-majority group, or interacting with diverse populations?” The university also encourages applicants to describe how they taught or advised under-represented groups in the past, engaged in non-university community involvement, or are aware of the “challenges faced by historically underrepresented populations.”

B. Promotion and Tenure

Diversity statements go beyond the appointment level. The University of California, Los Angeles went “further than most other UC campuses” by expanding its requirement for diversity statements to promotions and tenures in 2019, and other colleges and universities have followed suit.

The Indiana University School of Medicine recently proposed revising its promotion and tenure requirements as they relate to DEI. The university seeks to require faculty to “show effort toward advancing DEI in at least one mission area for which they are evaluated by including a short narrative DEI summary in their personal statement and by listing DEI-related activities on their CVs.” IU also provides examples of how activities that further DEI might be presented on a resume. Examples include: receiving awards for DEI work, participating in the “active recruitment of diverse students and trainees at all levels,” “creating and/or leading programs related to DEI, on campus and/or beyond,” and “providing exposure to the research produced by underrepresented groups in open knowledge environments.”

Setting Inclusive Standards

While the goal for schools like UPenn and IU is to increase campus diversity and establish accepting environments through their DEI practices, some academics are raising concerns.

In an op-ed for the Chronicle for Higher Education, Harvard Medical School professor Jeffrey Flier, a self-described “supporter of the original goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives,” says he has become skeptical of including diversity statements in the hiring, promotion and tenure process. Flier writes: “When concepts of ambiguous or contested meaning are included in the process — without clear guidelines as to how they will be interpreted and weighed — things can easily go astray.”

Things can go astray when DEI statements take on the form of politically influenced litmus tests. Advocates for the complete removal of diversity statements claim that such statements prevent individuals of certain ideologies from being considered in the hiring process.

Brian Soucek, University of California, Davis law professor and chair of the UC system Committee on Academic Freedom, summarizes academics’ main concern: “The claim that ‘[r]equiring [diversity] statements in applications for appointments and promotions is an affront to academic freedom’ is best understood, then, not as a worry that academics’ views are being judged but rather as an objection about who is doing the judging, or setting the standards, when it comes to faculty appointments and promotions.” This suggests there is miscommunication between faculty and university administrations concerning who is defining DEI, where definitions are coming from, and what the expectations for faculty are. Academics worry that without clear cut standards and expectations for diversity statements, university commitments to DEI might conflict with the preservations of intellectual diversity in academia.

2. Diversity Training

Another way colleges and universities are advancing DEI initiatives is through diversity trainings for faculty and administrators. While these trainings can look different depending on the institution, at their core, the goal is to train faculty and administrators to be culturally aware, sensitive, and respectful to students of different backgrounds.

The University of Denver’s DEI Action Plan aims to advance DEI through the provision of “baseline, mandatory training and continued professional development for administration, faculty, staff, and students.” The university provides three separate programs for college leadership, faculty, and administrators and staff. However, both leadership and faculty are required to complete the Faculty Institute for Inclusive Teaching (FIIT) Methods online program which covers designing courses, facilitating dialogue in the classroom, and creating a caring, inclusive and culturally aware learning environment.

George Mason University’s DEI Training Policy requires new and current faculty to complete training. New employees are “required to complete these trainings in-person or online within their first 30 days of employment” while current employees are “required to complete one annual and two biennial trainings.” The training includes courses on Title IX and sexual harassment prevention; equal opportunity; and ethics.

The Rancho Santiago Community College District Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion provides online “innovative training programs for employees to raise their racial, social and cultural competencies.” The past school year’s modules included topics on systemic racism, anti-racism, accountability, restorative justice, and inclusive pedagogy. The upcoming 2022–2023 school year will include training on workplace prejudice, cultural diversity, and cultural competency.

Ensuring Consistent Guidelines and Expectations

Although the University of Denver, George Mason University, and Rancho Santiago Community College are three different types of schools–a private university, public university, and community college–the trainings share the same goal of educating faculty on DEI expectations, primarily in the classroom.

The Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at GMU says: “Effective training clarifies what is — and isn’t — acceptable. It ensures that employees have consistent information; everyone should be aware of the expectations, rules and standards of behavior.”

What many of these trainings do not include is enough guidance clarifying for faculty and staff how they should carry out the school’s commitments to academic freedom alongside these newer DEI initiatives.

A model that addresses this concern is found in the University of Iowa’s Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Office. Its DEI training is conducted alongside a free expression module laying out its diversity expectations and academic freedom expectations. In February 2022, the university essentially bridged the gap between the DEI and academic freedom by launching a new required training program for faculty, staff, and students on First Amendment free expression rights. The university makes participation in the programming mandatory for all in order to further the university’s “commitment to providing an educational, living and working environment that protects the First Amendment rights of all members of the campus community.” This is one model of how colleges and universities can set expectations and guidelines for faculty to harmonize and uphold both academic freedom and DEI by providing equivalent resources (i.e. statements, trainings, etc.) for their DEI and academic freedom commitments.

3. Diversity Surveys

Diversity surveys are a tool colleges and universities use to assess whether faculty and students feel their campus promotes diversity and inclusion of race, culture, and socioeconomic backgrounds. They serve as a way for schools to determine whether their practices are working or need to be improved for the future.

Stanford University’s IDEAL Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is a common type of diversity survey. The survey explores “how race and ethnicity shape the experiences of community members.” In 2021, 38% of Stanford’s faculty took the survey, which “asked faculty participants questions about gender identity, socio-economic background, disability, and more.”

Making Holistic Diversity Surveys

The concern some have with diversity surveys, however, is that they are not holistic. According to the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, a higher education policy organization, diversity surveys have “become standard for colleges to evaluate the social and academic environments on campus.” Diversity surveys focus primarily on campus climate questions that “do not engage political topics.”

The University of Colorado and the State University System of Florida have taken steps to include intellectual diversity in their annual surveys. The University of Colorado’s goal is “to ‘promote faculty, student, and staff diversity to ensure the rich interchange of ideas in the pursuit of truth and learning, including diversity of political, geographic, cultural, intellectual, and philosophical perspectives.”

With the recently passed HB 233, Florida universities are now required to distribute annual voluntary, anonymous surveys to faculty and students “to safeguard open inquiry and intellectual diversity on state campuses.” In the employee survey, faculty and staff respondents are asked questions like whether they think their institution “provides an environment for free expression of ideas, opinions and beliefs,” or if they faced censorship.

Gathering Data, Safeguarding Privacy

However, while some believe intellectual diversity surveys like the one being distributed to Florida schools will promote free expression on college campuses, other faculty worry that the intellectual diversity surveys are going too far. Nicholas de Villiers, president of the United Faculty of Florida at the University of North Florida, argues that the Florida survey is “explicitly partisan” and “infringes on our privacy and civil liberties.”

Colleges and universities will have to find a balance in conducting these assessments to better inform their policies without the appearance of a pressure campaign on either side of the political aisle. Free speech, after all, is an inherently non-partisan issue, a core American value.

Recognizing Dual Commitments

The implementation of DEI statements, trainings, and surveys have brought about uncertainty regarding the compatibility with a university’s commitment to academic freedom. Faculty are unsure about what is expected from them, which has led to professor retirements and the recent conflicts at Georgetown Law Center, Collin College, University of Washington, and University of Sussex.

Academics recognize that academic freedom and diversity, equity, and inclusion can be compatible commitments. In BPC’s Academic Leader’s Task Force free expression report, DePauw University President Lori White is quoted, “A commitment to free expression must be built on a foundation of inclusion and equity. Diversity is a necessary condition for the coexistence of different ideas and perspectives, and inclusion is a necessary condition for every member of our community to feel welcomed, affirmed, and respected.” University administrators must ensure that they have assessed how their co-commitments fit into their overall mission, that they have clearly communicated to faculty, students, and staff what these look like in practice, and that they will consistently adhere to a constructed set of policy guidelines.

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