Diversity and Academic Freedom

I recently had reason to go and dig through some of my old blog posts at ScienceBlogs - in particular, this one on diversity and this other one on academic freedom vs bigotry. Though I often feel like I've gone through a rather major intellectual overhaul in the past couple of years, I'm happy to say that I can stand behind the stuff I wrote back in 2010 and 2013 on these topics.

Serendipitously, there was a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education last week about these very topics. The piece may be behind a paywall, but the piece is about a report (pdf) by the Oregon Association of Scholars report that suggests that "diversity statements," which are documents often required for academic job applications, may be a threat to intellectual freedom.

I've applied to a number of academic jobs in the past few years (still searching btw), and I've written a number of these diversity statements - they're also sometimes called "mentoring statements" - the basic idea is that you're writing to describe how your scholarly and/or pedagogical activities will help contribute to diversity at the institution. I certainly didn't find these onerous, but then again my philosophical and political leanings are in favor of increased diversity anyway. Others may feel differently.

From the report:

Both legal and academic principles have generally asserted that universities should not be partisan institutions, both because they receive public funds and because their mission requires extensive freedoms for a diversity of viewpoints...

This non-partisan ideal was first challenged in the 1970s and 1980s with the widespread creation of academic units centered on racial, ethnic, or gender identities. While these new fields of inquiry were generally welcome, for the most part they evolved with explicit partisan agendas and very limited viewpoint pluralism...

Diversity statements are only a small part of the attempt to reconfigure higher education based on a partisan ideology of social engineering. Universities today, including all major colleges and universities in Oregon, are pouring millions of dollars each year into “diversity training”, “diversity action plans”, and “diversity councils” even as student tuition rises. Diversity statements are unique insofar as they represent a clear and imminent threat to academic freedom and research excellence, although the more corrosive and insidious effects of the broader diversity agenda should not be ignored.

"Corrosive and insidious!" "Clear and imminent threat!" Wow - if this report is intended to convince anyone that's not on their side already, this kind of language isn't going to do them any favors.

Before I continue - I think I should summarize my a priori position on diversity and academic freedom. Basically, I think both are incredibly important. But for me, academic freedom, like freedom of speech, should basically be inviolable.

In the post I linked above, I defended awarding a PhD to a guy that wrote a dissertation that concludes that hispanic people have lower IQ's than white people and therefore immigration is bad. I am personally appalled by this conclusion - it's offensive. But there were people saying that the university (Harvard) should not have been willing to grant the PhD, because the ideas were offensive. I wrote:

I don’t think academics should be in the habit of silencing any scholarship, regardless of how much it offends our sensibilities. If Jason Richwine put in the work, met the requirements for his program and had his thesis approved by three independent faculty members (he did), then he deserves his PhD.

So, I'm a strong advocate of academic freedom, to the point that I think it necessary to overcome my moral horror and defend the principle that people should be allowed to say noxious things, and to study politically abhorrent ideas. Given this, one might assume that I'd agree with the OAS in their stance on diversity

But I don't. Or at least, I'm not convinced.

One of the main issues that I have with the argument as written is that it presumes that diversity statements are

based on a partisan ideology of social engineering

and that

academic units centered on racial, ethnic, or gender identities

are inherently partisan. Or at least

they evolved with explicit partisan agendas and very limited viewpoint pluralism

If that's the case, one might argue that what's needed is more diversity, not less. Someone might credibly argue in a diversity statement that they will promote intellectual diversity by espousing conservative ideas and making safe spaces for conservative students.

Further, I think this dangerously stretches the notion of academic freedom. Can I be upset if I apply to write for a conservative magazine and they don't hire me because of my obvious liberal viewpoint? I mean, I could be upset, but they would not be guilty of impinging my free speech.

In the same way, though I think that the "deplatforming" of speakers is often silly, I'm always annoyed when claims are made that this violates someone's right to free speech. Organizations also have the right to not be associated with speech they don't care for. It's a different case entirely when speakers are shouted down or violently prevented from speaking - that's just mob rule, and is an affront to free speech. Again, I think Milo's and Murray's views are awful and also wrong, but that's no excuse for blocking others from hearing their views.

In any case, my feeling is that universities and other institutions should be free to encourage diversity if they choose to, and so long as scholars continue to debate, I remain hopeful that the best ideas will rise to the top.