Recently, I read an interesting article that was published on New Discourses back on March 8, 2021. The article, “The University of California Drifts toward Conformism: The Challenges of Representation and the Climate for Academic Freedom in the Country’s Greatest Public Research University,” presents an interesting argument regarding the perceived conflicts between rationalism, objectivity, and academic freedom on the one hand and efforts in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) on the other.

According to the authors, the article is “a story of the interaction between two essential public university missions—one civic, the other intellectual—and the slow effacement of one by the other.” They also write: 

“The University’s expressed commitments to academic freedom and the culture of rationalism have not been abandoned, but they are too often considered secondary or irrelevant when confronted by new administrative dictates and social movement activism related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.” 

When reading this article, I was immediately struck by the implicit assumption that these principles are inherently in opposition and that one can only increase with the decrease of the other. Why, you might ask, am I commenting on the interaction between DEI and academic freedom and rationalism in a blog that is focused on undergraduate education? For me, the parallels between the arguments presented in this article and many of the challenges to reforms in education are illuminating because they highlight what is so often absent from the discussions in this sphere. 

One of the major examples the article uses to illustrate the conflict between “civic” and “intellectual values” is the use of DEI statements in Berkeley’s hiring process. The authors state that “at every stage of the hiring process, candidates were eliminated because they were perceived as being insufficiently committed to DEI, regardless of their academic qualifications.”

The key problem I had with the authors’ argument is that they separate “DEI statements” from “academic qualifications.” I may have missed it, but despite reading the article multiple times, I couldn’t find a definition of academic qualifications or any evidence that the Berkeley case produced finalists with lower academic qualifications. The conspicuous absence of any definition of academic qualifications is striking. It highlights the false dichotomy established between a candidate’s academic qualifications and their commitment to DEI. Based on this article and my own experience, it seems clear to me that there is no evidence that DEI statements (even as an initial selection criterion) result in hires with lower academic qualifications. Notably, what this article does show is that it clearly changes the distribution of the final pool of candidates along other characteristics!

Another element of the article that I found problematic is the description of “objectivity” and “rationalism.” On the one hand, I completely agree with the authors that these are very important aspects of the university. The “traditional mission of dispassionately searching for truth” and rationalism that is “based, in principle, on contributions to knowledge measured by the discovery of facts, concepts, principles, and new interpretations that illuminate and explain” are lofty goals that I agree need to be valued and pursued as much as possible. And yet, the presentation of this argument in the article left me to wonder what questions are being explored by rationalism, and who is deciding what questions to explore? As with the discussion of academic qualifications, it is the absence of this essential element of who determines contributions to knowledge that I found most telling. The reality is that these decisions have been made almost exclusively by white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied males. This fundamentally limits the rationality and objectivity of these efforts and is the driving force at the heart of DEI issues!

A similar pattern emerges when one considers the article’s discussion of academic freedom. Academic freedom is always framed by “professional standards,” so by definition, the application of academic freedom to any given situation evolves as professional standards evolve. The article focuses on cases in which people felt they could not challenge current approaches to DEI and the fact that this limitation might be a “violation of academic freedom.” Though intriguing and certainly a specific discussion worth having, there is not enough information in the article for me to comment on these particular cases. Reflecting on my 24 years of experience in hiring, promotion, and tenure cases and the experiences of my colleagues, too many decisions came down to statements that were limitations on faculty choices, such as “that area of research is not relevant/not interesting/not really physics (substitute appropriate subject)”. In these discussions, no one questioned the excellence of the work or the commitment to rationalism, or provided objective measures for the criticism —they questioned the choices and intellectual priorities of the person being reviewed. And, too often the faculty being criticized was from historically excluded groups.

I am saddened to say that in retrospect, some of these cases should have caused us, as a department, to revisit our understanding of academic freedom. Unfortunately, there was never a discussion of academic freedom in this context. The juxtaposition of concerns about academic freedom now and the lack of questions in past cases goes to the heart of the problem of who sets “professional standards.” In light of my experience, I would argue we are not experiencing a conflict between DEI and academic freedom. Instead, we are experiencing a moment in time where our professional standards need to be reframed with input from a more diverse set of voices. What was absent in the discussion of academic freedom was the need to meaningfully evaluate our professional standards so that academic freedom remains authentic and viable!

Finally, let’s consider the issue of “objective standards” and return to the example of “academic qualifications.” As I mentioned, “academic qualifications” was not defined in the article, but certainly academic pedigree has been a strong element of academic qualifications in many hiring situations. Again, I do not think my experience is singular in this regard—where a candidate received their PhD, who their advisor was, and where they did a postdoc are too often the method of making the first cut. How is this any more objective than a DEI statement? Actually, I would argue DEI statements are more objective. Academic pedigree provides limited insight into a candidate’s abilities to contribute to the mission of the university. However, as the authors acknowledge, DEI is core to our mission, especially as a public university, so it is natural to rate it high in the evaluation process. Absent from the discussion of objectivity was the role played by the subjective selection of the elements to measure objectively! (Not to mention the problem that not everything can be measured objectively.)

If you have managed to read this far, you are probably still wondering what all of this has to do with teaching! Hopefully, what I have made clear is that the article’s arguments about academic freedom, rationalism, and DEI created false dichotomies because of what was left unsaid, the hidden assumptions. The description of rationalism is excellent and compelling up to the point where it omits who was defining what gets studied and how. The description of academic freedom was great until it left out the history of limits defined by “professional standards” and how those limits were decided. Objective standards are great, but we need to understand the underlying subjective value system that produces them. 

When it comes to teaching, most of my previous posts are about identifying similar subtle absences in our discussions of equity, inclusion, and excellence in teaching and learning! Why would treating all students exactly the same be considered fair when they all start at different places? Why would requiring students to prove themselves in the first year when we claim to give them four years to learn be a reasonable application of standards? Also, the ambiguity around “academic qualifications” mirrors comments and arguments related to course rigor, leading to questions of the connection between rigor and just being hard. There are a host of analogous topics and questions that I discuss in my blog posts. 

On a final note, at one point in the article, the authors question the statement that “diversity is excellence.” And yet, it is well established by research that diverse teams outperform less diverse teams; so, by an objective measure, diversity is excellence. I would argue that a core challenge for the university is another hidden assumption that the relevant units of education are individual—individual courses, individual instructors, and individual students. In contrast, I have been arguing that the educational endeavor is collective—a four-year curricular experience; instructional teams leveraging diverse skills, experiences, and approaches; and a diverse set of students learning together through collaboration with each other and the faculty, bringing a diverse set of experiences and strengths to the process. In this vision of education, diversity is objectively excellence.