Yoel Inbar must not be allowed to teach psychology at UCLA—or so a student petition informed the California university’s administration this past July.
Inbar is an eminent, influential, and highly cited researcher with a Ph.D. in social psychology from Cornell University. There is no question that he is qualified. Anyone worth their salt doing work on political polarization knows Inbar’s name. Inbar also jumped through all the hoops UCLA put up for the job, including submitting a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statement, which is currently all the rage in colleges and universities. He even shares the politics of the majority of the psychology department. But on his podcast, Inbar had expressed relatively mild concerns over the ideological pressures that DEI statements impose and wondered aloud whether they do harm to diversity of thought.
As a result of this petition—signed by only 66 students—UCLA did not hire Inbar. And he’s not the only academic this has happened to. Far from it.
DEI Statements Are Political Litmus Tests
Since 2014, an unprecedented number of college professors have been targeted, punished, or fired for what they said, published, or taught. Meanwhile, colleges and universities are becoming even less ideologically diverse than they already were. Professors around the country are reporting their speech chilled in an increasingly homogenous environment.
While you might expect universities to respond to this issue by making efforts to mitigate groupthink, the opposite has occurred. Over the past several years universities across the country have decided that it’s time to add DEI statements as part of the hiring and review process.
“And while some argue that DEI statements are not litmus tests, we think that defies common sense and the evidence in front of us. Take this statement from Vassar College’s Office of the Dean of the Faculty:All department and program hiring for tenure-track and multi-year faculty positions are requesting all candidates to submit a diversity statement. This statement should provide the candidate’s unique perspective on their past and present contributions to and future aspirations for promoting diversity, inclusion, and social justice in their professional career. The purpose of the diversity statement is to help departments and programs identify candidates who have professional experience, intellectual commitments, and/or willingness to engage in activities that could help the College contribute to its mission in these areas.”
Even if you completely agree with the importance of DEI, there really isn’t any reason to ask a potential physics professor, for example, to discuss their prior, past, and future “intellectual commitments” to “social justice.” That is, unless you’re looking to test their political outlook as a condition for their employment. The purpose of DEI statements is obvious, and professors themselves know it.
In 2022, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) conducted a survey of 1,491 university professors to gauge their attitudes toward free expression on campus. About 50 percent said they believed DEI statements are political litmus tests that violate academic freedom. Ideological minorities on campus agree at even higher rates than that: 56 percent of moderates and 90 percent of conservatives.
That may not surprise you, given the ubiquity of DEI statements and the prevalence of social justice ideology on campus and elsewhere. What may shock you is that in another study, about 23 percent of tenured or tenure-track professors said that they saw DEI statements as ideological tests and that their use in this way is appropriate.
Let that sink in: Twenty-three percent of surveyed university professors had no problem admitting they endorsed behavior that was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. In its seminal 1967 decision in Keyishian v. Board of Regents, the Court held that academic freedom is “a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.” They extended this protection even to speech that was arguably “treasonable,” “seditious,” or “advocat[ing] the overthrow of government by force.”
In the past, the Supreme Court has struck down far narrower litmus tests than this expansive review of candidates’ “commitment to social justice.” We have little doubt that the kind of DEI statements being unleashed on potential faculty members right now would be found unconstitutional as well. But a 2022 report by the American Association of University Professors found that 46 percent of large institutions surveyed already use DEI criteria in their tenure standards. An additional 36 percent are considering doing the same. In universities across the country, unconstitutionality seems to be of little concern.
One common defense of DEI statements is the claim that there are any number of valid answers to that prompt, and the applicant just needs to show interest in some sort of diversity—be it political, socioeconomic, regional, or religious diversity. FIRE’s Nate Honeycutt, also a founding member of the Society for Open Inquiry in Behavioral Science, decided to test whether this is actually true.
He conducted a series of experiments where faculty were randomly assigned to evaluate one of a number of different DEI statements: one focusing on race and gender diversity, one on socioeconomic diversity, one on viewpoint diversity, and another on rural diversity. He found that DEI statements failing to discuss race and gender were penalized—even if they did explicitly address another form of diversity.
An amazing 35 percent of faculty who evaluated a diversity statement advocating for greater socioeconomic diversity said they would not recommend that the candidate advance for further review. That means an effective rejection of people who would argue that socioeconomic diversity is the most lacking kind of diversity in elite higher education today.
Worse yet, 52 percent of faculty who evaluated a diversity statement advocating greater viewpoint diversity would not recommend that candidate for advancement. That means advocating for diversity of thought and opinion could often actually hurt your employment prospects in academia.
And we know that evaluators actually are eliminating candidates solely based on their diversity statements. A self-survey conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, found that, during a search for faculty in the life sciences department, 76 percent of applicants were eliminated solely on the basis of their diversity statements. Another departmental search found that the number was 78 percent. Through 800 pages of “Diversity Faculty Recruitment Reports” from Ohio State University, John Sailer of the National Association of Scholars discovered that “racial diversity was touted as a tool to achieve viewpoint diversity, but viewpoint conformity often served as a tool to meet de facto quotas.” Among other examples, Sailer notes that “a committee searching for a professor of freshwater biology selected finalists ‘based upon a weighted rubric of 67% research and 33% contribution to DEI,'” and that “for a search in astrophysics, ‘the DEI statement was given equal weight to the research and teaching statements.'” Sailer correctly points out that this “would strike many as a poor metric for judging astrophysicists.”
Running the Gauntlet
Imagine you’re an independent-minded high schooler who longs to be a famous scientist one day. You don’t consider yourself a conservative, but you’re highly critical of lefty groupthink. By today’s standards in higher education, you’re labeled a conservative, and therefore you will find a shocking number of hurdles between you and your dream.
First, you have to get through high school, where you may already feel pressure not to express the wrong views in the classroom. A 2022 survey by Sam Abrams and Next Gen Politics found that 60 percent of high school students have felt they could not express opinions because of how students, teachers, or the administration would respond.
Now it’s time to apply to your dream school: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Many of the schools on your application list require you to fill out a DEI statement. All of them ask for a personal statement too. You know it’s in your best interest to conform politically, because professors are willing to openly admit to discriminating against more conservative viewpoints.
The data are there to support your concerns that such statements are an ideological hurdle. One study of American faculty found that 22 percent were willing to explicitly discriminate against a Donald Trump supporter in a hiring decision, and nearly half of the graduate students surveyed endorsed ousting faculty members who expressed conservative views.
But let’s say you pass that hurdle and make it into MIT. You’ve landed in perhaps the greatest science university in the entire world, only to find the environment on campus quite chilled. MIT came in 136th of the 248 schools listed in FIRE’s campus free speech rankings.
As one member of the MIT class of 2023 put it, “I never feel like I can express my views around my classmates, even a lot of my close friends. They frequently talk about how evil all conservatives are and even talk about how they’d wish they’d all just die.”
FIRE’s rankings rely heavily on student surveys, which found that at MIT:
- Sixty-nine percent of students are uncomfortable “publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial topic.”
- Fifty-nine percent of students are worried about damaging their reputations because someone misunderstands something they’ve said or done.
- Forty-three percent of students are uncomfortable “expressing [their] views on a controversial political topic to other students during a discussion in a common campus space, such as a quad, dining hall, or lounge.”
Despite overwhelmingly reporting a chilled environment on campus, your fellow MIT students don’t have such a great record on free speech themselves. Only 49 percent say it’s never OK to block students from attending a speech. And just 26 percent of your classmates say it’s never okay to shout down a speaker.
While this social pressure alone is enough to silence most people, your school and many others have also set up bureaucratic systems in the form of bias response teams—often including a hotline you can call at any time to report your classmates and professors for offensive speech. In a survey of over 2,000 undergraduates published this summer, over 70 percent said a professor or class instructor should be reported to the university for saying something offensive. FIRE’s 2022 survey of professors found that one in six were threatened with punishment or actually investigated for their speech. And students experience a similar climate.
In a more recent FIRE survey of 2,000 students, nearly one in 10 students say they were disciplined or threatened with discipline for their expression and almost two in five say that something they have heard someone say on campus is an “act of violence.”
As an MIT student, you will surely be aware of prominent geophysics professor Dorian Abbot’s canceled speech about exoplanets. Why was he disinvited? Because in summer 2020 he wrote an op-ed in Newsweek arguing that promotions should be based on merit rather than race. Affirmative action has nothing to do with exoplanets, but MIT canceled the event anyway.
You may have heard about cancel culture and the myriad unhelpful ways of thinking and arguing that make social media and our public discourse a nightmare to deal with. Well, they’re also thriving on your campus. But, hey, let’s say you made it through and dodged all the attempts to tear you down so far.
The next stop on the road to becoming a professor is applying to Ph.D. programs. Good luck with that! Here comes another round of DEI statements—which, again, are evaluated by faculty who are willing to openly admit they would discriminate against their political opponents in the evaluation process. And since college faculty and administrators overwhelmingly lean left—and since your criticisms of lefty overreach will be coded as “right-wing” or “conservative” by most, if not all, of them—this means your application is in dire straits.
But let’s say you manage the minor miracle of clearing that hurdle into a Ph.D. program at a top school. What’s next?
You’ll continue to face all the previously described pressures to conform or be silent—but this time in an even less politically diverse environment. At MIT the faculty liberal-to-conservative ratio is only six to one, so count yourself luckier than most. At Harvard, in the College of Arts and Sciences, it’s a whopping 27 to one. A survey last year put it at 56 to one.
Now it’s time to start doing some student teaching. This is an easy time to get canceled, though, considering that at MIT:
- Thirty-eight percent of faculty believe the administration is “not very” or “not at all” likely to defend controversial speech.
- Forty-one percent of faculty believe the administration’s stance on free speech is “extremely” or “somewhat” unclear.
- Forty percent of faculty were “more” or “much more” likely to self-censor on campus in summer 2022 compared to before the start of 2020.
- Thirty-seven percent of faculty believe that requiring a DEI statement with a job application is a “justifiable requirement for a job at a university.”
Here’s something you probably don’t know unless you’ve learned it the hard way: There are secret hearings at universities all over the country, and too often they are focused on investigating and/or punishing professors for protected speech.
The Kafkaesque nature of these hearings has been highlighted by authors such as The Atlantic‘s Anne Applebaum and Northwestern University media studies professor Laura Kipnis, in her 2017 book Unwanted Advances. Readers may recall that Kipnis was herself subjected to a secret hearing after she published an article saying Title IX was being used to squelch speech on campus. Ironically, she was subsequently investigated by Northwestern’s office of Title IX.
With that ever-present threat, it shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that faculty reported enormous concerns over academic freedom in FIRE’s most recent faculty survey.
A whopping 91 percent of professors said they were at least somewhat likely to self-censor in their speech on social media, in class, in their publications, or online. (Compare this with the 9 percent of social science faculty during the Joseph McCarthy era who answered yes to the question, “Have you toned down anything you have written lately because you were worried that it might cause too much controversy?”) The survey also found that:
- Sixteen percent said they had either been disciplined or threatened with discipline for their speech, teaching, or academic research.
- Twenty-nine percent say they’d been pressured by administrators to avoid controversial research.
- Seven percent said they had actually been investigated for speech. Extrapolate that to the population of professors across the country and that equals tens of thousands of professors.
If you’ve gotten this far in your quest, that means you’ve managed to get through another round of personal and DEI statements, navigated a system that allows your coworkers and students to anonymously report you, avoided cancellation attempts online, and have somehow overcome the growing tendency among scientists to self-censor—as a recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study by Cory J. Clark, Lee Jussim, FIRE’s Komi Frey, Musa al-Gharbi, and others outlines. Where do you go from here?
If you’re somehow not totally sick of this venomous environment and still want to continue in academia, you’ll probably want to become a faculty member. Good luck getting tenure! It’s increasingly rare, and the process is entirely opaque. That means those biases against you can be confidently aired and the rationale behind decisions kept entirely secret. As the internet writer Tim Urban told us, “The entire purpose of tenure was to protect faculty from mobbish fads, and what we’re seeing today is faculty being left unprotected by a mobbish fad. Completely defeats the purpose.”
We think the odds you get through the tenure approval process are probably pretty low. But you’ve been a miraculously successful hypothetical thus far, so let’s just say you do.
You’ll then find that your tenured status actually provides less protection to your academic freedom today than ever before. Since 2000, a total of 60 tenured professors have been fired for speech that is—or in public settings would be—protected by the First Amendment. More than two-thirds of those firings have happened since 2015 alone. Tenure is increasingly toothless.
It seems like just about everyone is coming for your academic freedom. Even representatives of the American Association of University Professors—a group meant to support you—are agitating for a more constrained view of academic freedom that would make it even easier than it already is to get you fired.
In the extremely unlikely event that you make it to tenured professorhood with your independent mind intact, your research will still be called into question. If anything you discover is too controversial, it might not get published. The journal Nature Human Behaviour has admitted as much with its dedication not to publish anything that could subjectively “harm” certain groups. Just as the academy operates under a social-reputational system for hiring and promotion, it does for publishing as well.
Even if you do manage to somehow publish controversial research, be prepared to be labeled as “right-wing” and face the possibility of cancellation. Alternatively, you may have your work entirely ignored, misinterpreted, suppressed, or metaphorically “burned.” And if you manage to anger the right wing instead, watch out also for professor watchlists and religious nonprofit organizations that could target you.
The Case for Nonconformity
Conformity in higher education is a serious problem begging for reforms. We need a system of academic advancement that is nonideological enough that, at every stage, it encourages professors and students alike to do what the 1974 Woodward Report at Yale so loftily outlined:
The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable. To curtail free expression strikes twice at intellectual freedom, for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others of the right to listen to those views.
Unfortunately, Yale, the very university which commissioned this report, has drifted far away from that ideal in the years since. For that matter, most of our elite schools come nowhere near meeting these lofty goals.
If we want a better society that produces better solutions to the problems it faces, we need to be teaching nonconformity at every single level of the education process. Not even our most sacred cows can be spared from devil’s advocacy and thought experimentation.
Yet our education system is incentivizing conformity and groupthink. Unless this environment drastically improves—and quickly—we shouldn’t be surprised that trust in the accuracy of professors’ and experts’ findings diminishes. Mistakes abound when groupthink goes unchallenged.
“Where all think alike,” the essayist Walter Lippmann once wrote, “no one thinks very much.”
This article was adapted from The Canceling of the American Mind by permission of Simon & Schuster.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline “The Conformity Gauntlet”.