SJSU prof: DEI statements enable subjective, narrow-minded, “mini-me” screening.

Arizona’s public colleges just bid adieu to requiring DEI statements in the application process; and two CA lawsuits could change things up for local professors. SJSU Anthropology prof and National Association of Scholars board member Elizabeth Weiss breaks down these developments—and what’s turning people off the once-universally lauded DEI statements. An Opp Now exclusive.

Opportunity Now: Considering all that’s going on, from Arizona throwing in the towel to other legal battles across the U.S., what’s the big deal about DEI statements? Is it actually that bad to ask prospective professors about their philosophy on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion?

Elizabeth Weiss: I would say there’s a few problems with requiring university professor applicants to submit DEI statements, though these problems can persist even when the DEI statements are merely allowed or encouraged. If hiring committees are screening specific answers from applicants’ DEI statements (as UC Berkeley’s rubric advocates), this means they’re seeking a particular “good” ideological response, which is compelled speech. For instance, a statement like “I treat all people as equals regardless of their skin color, ethnicity, or gender” would actually be thought of as a “bad” response to a person or institution that’s into Critical Race Theory.

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Furthermore, hiring committees can’t ask candidates about their views on politics and religion. It’s not important (and some of these questions certainly aren’t legal) to require applicants to reveal that information when being considered for a job. So then, if you’re applying for a university position where it’s completely irrelevant to how or whether you’d teach the topic of DEI, why should you be forced to reveal your stance? Even if you know everything right to say. And even if you believe the “correct” answer according to that institution. If it’s irrelevant to your job, then it shouldn’t be asked.

ON: It’s almost comical how much applicants have to shoehorn DEI ideology into their teaching philosophy. As an instructor in Reedley, CA so aptly put it, “I’m a professor of chemistry. How am I supposed to incorporate DEI into my classroom instruction? What’s the ‘anti-racist’ perspective on the atomic mass of boron?”

EW: Another aspect that doesn’t get a lot of attention is that requiring DEI statements can be used to weed out applicants who are highly qualified but that universities don’t want—for other, subjective reasons. At San Jose State, I was on a hiring committee for a staff position. The chair and other staff person already had someone in mind, an inside hire, and the decision was essentially already made. Surprisingly, we got a second applicant from a different part of SJSU. When this second person was interviewed, I personally thought she was better than the candidate they wanted to hire. I suggested we consider both applicants. But they were set on their first choice and remarked that the second applicant’s DEI statement “wasn’t very strong.” Though this applicant’s statement was up to par to the committee’s standards of a “good” statement, they cited it as their reason to reject her.

DEI statements can be manipulated subjectively in the interview process. If there’s no valid complaints about the applicant, the committee can say, “They didn’t answer the DEI question well.” And that’s a deal killer. Whereas merit- and skill-based factors are more difficult to manipulate or use to partisanly screen out people.

ON: Because you can’t just fudge the numbers on how many publications a person has, or how many scholarly presentations they’ve done.

EW: Right. And here’s my last consideration: Mandating DEI statements could discriminate against people who haven’t been trained in the jargon—for instance, individuals who come from another non-Western culture or just express themselves differently. Really, it’s problematic in a lot of ways.

ON: It makes sense why universities in states like Arizona are quietly dropping the requirement, the further we get from 2020’s National DEI Craze.

EW: Things are happening in our state, too. Look at FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression), which recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of six community college professors against California community colleges mandating DEI/“anti-racist” ideology in and outside of the classroom.

Additionally, the Pacific Legal Foundation has filed a lawsuit against UC Santa Cruz on behalf of psychopathy expert Dr. John Haltigan, who alleges he “knows he won’t get through UC’s DEI statement screen” despite being strongly qualified. People are realizing this is an ideologically-driven requirement.

ON: Do you think the tide is turning in California, then? As far as universities requiring DEI statements, are common sense and merit-based hiring becoming vogue again?

EW: The tide is turning in general, I think. Without pushback like from FIRE’s and PLF’s lawsuits, and the changes happening in Arizona public colleges, this would be a runaway problem. So the pushback is good. But the jury’s still out on what’s going to happen.

ON: Well, we’re sure many professors are looking forward to the day when they’re evaluated, once again, for their qualifications and achievements—not how well they score on an ideologically-biased writing prompt.

EW: And that’s the thing: Diversity statements in the traditional sense are fine. When I was hired at SJSU in 2004, I had to write a diversity statement. Not a DEI statement. It was along the lines of “How do you think you’d function in a diverse place like SJSU?” I think that’s okay, to ask something specifically relevant to the institution. For instance, if there’s a high percentage of returning students, maybe you want to inquire about something directly pertinent to that, like a willingness to teach evening classes.

However, these statements have morphed into a completely different thing. When I composed my diversity statement for SJSU, I talked about my experience living in SF and how teaching Intro to Evolution classes to a wide variety of religious beliefs is easier as far as student pushback is concerned. But now the DEI statements have become a checklist to determine: Does this applicant have the same ideology as us? It’s a litmus test. They’re trying to hire a bunch of mini-me’s—one ideologue after another—rather than maintaining a diverse field of quality professors.

Original Special Report by Opportunity Now.