DEI tenure requirements threaten academic freedom (opinion)

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A recent report by the American Association of University Professors shows that academic freedom is caught in an economic and ideological pincer movement. It is especially bad news for academics who question diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. It is even more troublesome for those who are sympathetic but have limited opportunity to promote DEI, as they compete for fewer tenure-track faculty lines and face new DEI requirements for tenure at the same time.

According to the report, 53.5 percent of the institutions surveyed have replaced tenure lines with contingent appointments in the last five years. Administrators do this because they rightly see that contingent positions are cheaper and allow for greater institutional flexibility. As my colleague Michael Poliakoff has noted, the tenure system has pros and cons, and it might be reasonable to reconsider it. But any reconsideration would also have to take academic freedom into account, since administrators take advantage of contingent contracts to get rid of professors who express positions that challenge campus orthodoxies.

Consider the case of Gregory Manco, a former visiting assistant professor of mathematics at St. Joseph’s University, where he’d taught since 2005. In spring 2021, he was placed on leave and investigated over a post on his personal Twitter account. In response to a report that the Biden administration was studying reparations for Black Americans, he tweeted, “Suppose your great-great-grandfather murdered someone. The victim’s great-great-grandson knocks on your door, shows you the newspaper clipping from 1905, and demands compensation from you. Your response? Now get this racist reparation bullshit out of your head for good.”

Manco’s language is clearly abrasive, and his analogy is imperfect. Reparations, however, are a highly controversial topic and inevitably material for vigorous and contentious debate. But when students complained, he was placed on leave. The forced leave was unjustified, and the university found no grounds on which to discipline him further. Still, the university chose not to renew his contract, arguably because of his extramural speech. He is now suing for discrimination, and the case is in court.

Examples of nonrenewal to punish unwelcome ideas, of course, abound. In the last two years, Collin College in Texas chose not to renew the contracts of three professors, Michael Phillips, Audra Heaslip and Suzanne Jones, all of whom spoke out against the college’s COVID-19 policies. In 2020, Collin College also chose not to renew the contract of Lora Burnett after she tweeted during the vice presidential debate that “The moderator needs to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up.” She sued and was awarded a $70,000 settlement.

These episodes illustrate what can happen when contingent faculty say something that attracts negative attention. They also encourage self-censorship, as other contingent faculty see what might happen if they step out of line. Unlike with tenured faculty, administrators do not need to make a case and fire them for cause. They can simply not renew a contract a year or two down the road.

It is DEI initiatives, however, that present a particularly widespread challenge to the academic freedom of all faculty. Even those who manage to secure a tenure-track position might find their academic freedom threatened by DEI, as the AAUP report also found that 21.5 percent of respondent institutions include DEI criteria in their tenure standards.

The report does not detail what these criteria are, and it does not recognize them as a threat to academic freedom, noting, rather, that “AAUP policy generally does not provide substantive grounds to oppose tenure practices and standards that promote DEI.” This is perhaps not surprising, since the AAUP has not spoken out against requirements for diversity statements and has defended affirmative action in admissions. But consider the case of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which is planning to require diversity statements as part of its tenure process. A guide to the process produced by the university states, “Given the significance of DEI to the success of the University, it is important when making promotion and tenure decisions to understand how faculty have contributed to the DEI mission—just as it is important to understand how they have contributed to the University’s research, teaching, and service missions.” So the requirements for tenure and promotion are research, teaching, service—and DEI? One of these is not like the others.

This kind of requirement is clearly a political litmus test. It is also an attempt to compel every single faculty member to bend his or her work toward a particular set of issues when there is an almost infinite number of topics worth studying. It is the kind of policy that only a university committee whose members are steeped in their own ideology could come up with. Do we really need every political scientist at a university to be working on DEI in some way? Should mathematics professors be worrying about how they can convincingly claim to be advancing the DEI cause when they go up for tenure?

Academic freedom demands that these sorts of requirements be removed from the tenure (and hiring) process. It also requires that we find ways to protect those who do not have tenure. Until we make these changes, the AAUP report suggests that the upcoming generation of scholars will find themselves increasingly trapped between the insecurity of contingency and the enforced orthodoxy required for tenure.

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