Yoel Inbar, a noted psychology professor at the University of Toronto, figured he might be teaching this fall at U.C.L.A.
Last year, the university’s psychology department offered his female partner a faculty appointment. Now the department was interested in recruiting him as a so-called partner hire, a common practice in academia.
The university asked him to fill out the requisite papers, including a statement that affirmed his belief and work in diversity, equity and inclusion. He flew out and met with, among others, a faculty diversity committee and a group of graduate students.
Dr. Inbar figured all had gone well, that his work and liberal politics fit well with the university. Some faculty members, he said, had even advised him on house hunting.
But a few days later, the department chair emailed and told him that more than 50 graduate students had signed a letter strongly denouncing his candidacy. Why? In part, because on his podcast years earlier, he had opposed diversity statements — like the one he had just written.
Not long after, the chair told Dr. Inbar that, with regret, U.C.L.A. could not offer him a job.
Diversity statements are a new flashpoint on campus, just as the Supreme Court has driven a stake through race-conscious admissions. Nearly half the large universities in America require that job applicants write such statements, part of the rapid growth in D.E.I. programs. Many University of California departments now require that faculty members seeking promotions and tenure also write such statements.
Diversity statements tend to run about a page or so long and ask candidates to describe how they would contribute to campus diversity, often seeking examples of how the faculty member has fostered an inclusive or antiracist learning environment.
To supporters, such statements are both skill assessment and business strategy. Given the ban on race-conscious admissions, and the need to attract applicants from a shrinking pool of potential students, many colleges are looking to create a more welcoming environment.
But critics say these statements are thinly veiled attempts at enforcing ideological orthodoxy. Politically savvy applicants, they say, learn to touch on the right ideological buzzwords. And the championing of diversity can overshadow strengths seen as central to academia, not least professional expertise.
“Professions of fealty to D.E.I. ideology are so ubiquitous as to be meaningless,” said Daniel Sargent, a professor of history and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. “We are institutionalizing a performative dishonesty.”
Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of Berkeley’s law school and a free-speech scholar, describes much of the criticism as an attack on diversity, even as he acknowledges that the requirement could be misused.
The point of the statements, he said, is to push applicants to think through how they can reach students. “I’ll tell you, the professors who don’t recognize the diversity in their classrooms are going to struggle,” he said. “Some of the best teachers are quite politically conservative, but they’re still aware of who’s in the classroom.”
The debate occurs as D.E.I. officials and programs of all kinds have become a powerful presence on campuses. Universities have hired hundreds of administrators, who monitor compliance with hiring goals and curricular changes, and many departments write a variation on a D.E.I. policy.
The faculty senate at the University of California, San Francisco, urged professors to apply “anti-oppression and antiracism” lenses to courses. The public affairs school at the University of California, Los Angeles, pledged on its website to “decolonize the curriculum and pedagogy,” and the medical school vowed to dismantle systematic racism in its coursework.
The faculty senate of the California Community Colleges, the largest higher-education system in the country, has instructed its teachers on their obligation “to lift the veil of white supremacy” and “colonialism.”
Conservative Republican politicians demonstrated their disdain, and brought the power of the state to bear. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas signed bills shuttering campus D.E.I. offices. Florida barred curriculums that teach “identity politics” and theories of systematic racism, sexism and privilege.
Seven states, including North Dakota and Florida, have made requiring diversity statements illegal, according to a tracker by The Chronicle of Higher Education. And dissenting faculty members have filed several lawsuits. With the help of the libertarian Pacific Legal Foundation, John D. Haltigan, who has a Ph.D. in psychology, filed a lawsuit in May against the University of California that said such a statement is a “functional loyalty oath” and would make his job application futile, violating his rights under the First Amendment.
How It Started
A decade ago, California university officials faced a conundrum.
A majority of its students were nonwhite, and officials wanted to recruit more Black and Latino professors. But California’s voters had banned affirmative action in 1996. So in 2016, at least five campuses — Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Riverside and Santa Cruz — decided their hiring committees could perform an initial screening of candidates based only on diversity statements.
Candidates who did not “look outstanding” on diversity, the vice provost at U.C. Davis instructed search committees, could not advance, no matter the quality of their academic research. Credentials and experience would be examined in a later round.
The championing of diversity at the University of California resulted in many campuses rejecting disproportionate numbers of white and Asian and Asian American applicants. In this way, the battle over diversity statements and faculty hiring carries echoes of the battle over affirmative action in admissions, which opponents said discriminated against Asians.
At Berkeley, a faculty committee rejected 75 percent of applicants in life sciences and environmental sciences and management purely on diversity statements, according to a new academic paper by Steven Brint, a professor of public policy at U.C. Riverside, and Komi Frey, a researcher for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which has opposed diversity statements.
Candidates who made the first cut were repeatedly asked about diversity in later rounds. “At every stage,” the study noted, “candidates were evaluated on their commitments to D.E.I.”
According to a report by Berkeley, Latino candidates constituted 13 percent of applicants and 59 percent of finalists. Asian and Asian American applicants constituted 26 percent of applicants and 19 percent of finalists. Fifty-four percent of applicants were white and 14 percent made it to the final stage. Black candidates made up 3 percent of applicants and 9 percent of finalists.
Brian Soucek, a law professor at the University of California, Davis, and a leading academic defender of D.E.I. policies, sat on a hiring committee during this time and described the searches as “a partially successful experiment.”
“People realized that the traditional order of reading applications need not be set in stone,” he said in an interview.
By 2020, however, top officials at Berkeley concluded the hiring experiment had gone too far. That February, a vice provost sent a carefully worded letter to search committee chairs. Diversity statements, he wrote, should not be treated as a political litmus test or as the sole factor.
“The university is to evaluate candidates on multiple dimensions” including research, he wrote.
Many departments now twin diversity and research statements and often include teaching statements. But the diversity statement, professors and administrators say, remains a critical piece.
The New D.E.I. Standards
These new expectations upended Dr. Inbar.
He favored affirmative action. But five years ago, he questioned diversity statements in a podcast — “Two Psychologists, Four Beers,” that he hosted with another academic. He described the statements as “value signaling” that required applicants to demonstrate allegiance to a particular set of liberal beliefs.
“It’s not clear that they lead to better results for underrepresented groups,” he said.
On another episode in 2022, he noted that a professional society of psychologists officially opposed a Georgia law banning abortion. He favors abortion rights but argued that professional associations represent members of many ideological shades and should avoid taking political stances.
All of this angered the graduate students. “His hiring would threaten ongoing efforts to protect and uplift individuals of marginalized backgrounds,” the students wrote. They argued he was not committed to a “safe, welcoming and inclusive environment.” The students sent the letter to the entire psychology faculty and posted it online.
Dr. Inbar’s research in moral intuition and judgment, the students added, lacked proper grounding in the progressive politics of identity. The faculty was split; at least one member of the search committee argued the views expressed on the podcast were unacceptable.
But a professor in social psychology at U.C.L.A., Matthew Lieberman, noted in a Substack essay that Dr. Inbar’s credentials were easily “above threshold” for a hire.
Dr. Inbar was not offered a faculty position, he wrote, “because he publicly questioned” diversity statements. Dr. Lieberman acknowledged that he wrote the essay with some hesitancy. He did not personally have a problem with the statements, and he worried that his students might question his support of diversity.
In an email to Dr. Inbar, Annette L. Stanton, chair of U.C.L.A.’s psychology department, expressed disappointment she could not offer him a job. “There is no doubt that unusual events occurred surrounding your visit,” she wrote.
“I felt as if I had been ambushed,” Dr. Inbar said in an interview. “It felt a lot like an ideological screening to weed out people with beliefs seen as objectionable.”
Professor Stanton did not reply to an interview request, and university officials declined to discuss Professor Inbar’s case.
The U.C.L.A. press office stated only that “faculty hiring at U.C.L.A. follows a rigorous process.”
The A-Plus Diversity Statement
No objections were raised by Dr. Inbar’s diversity statement in his job application. But according to the scoring rubrics used by the University of California, Dr. Inbar’s spoken reservations about diversity statements would not have passed muster.
Many University of California campuses post their scoring methods online. These are widely used but not mandatory, and make clear which answers by an applicant are likely to find disfavor with faculty diversity committees.
An applicant who discusses diversity in vague terms, such as “diversity is important for science,” or saying that an applicant wants to “treat everyone the same” will get a low score.
Likewise, an applicant should not oppose affinity groups divided by race, ethnicity and gender, as that would demonstrate that the candidate “seems not to be aware of, or understand the personal challenges that underrepresented individuals face in academia.”
To argue that diversity statements politicize academia and impose a point of view is also a mistake, according to the faculty diversity work group at Santa Cruz. “Social justice activism in academia seeks to identify how systemic racism and implicit bias influence the topics we pursue, the research methods we use, the outlets in which we publish and the outcomes we observe.”
A cottage industry has sprouted nationally and in California to guide applicants in writing these statements. Some U.C. campuses post online reading lists of antiracist books and examples of successful diversity statements with names redacted.
The entire process has long troubled a number of senior faculty members at Berkeley. “If you write: ‘I believe that everyone should be treated equally,’ you will be branded as a right winger,” Vinod Aggarwal, a political science professor at the university, said in an interview. “This is compelled speech, plain and simple.”
Professor Soucek, at Davis law school, said ideological diversity is not the point.
“It’s our job to make sure people of all identities flourish here,” he said. “It’s not our job to make sure that all viewpoints flourish.”
To Dr. Inbar, that is a hazy distinction. He said that he appears to have been denied a job at U.C.L.A. not because he was insensitive to campus diversity but because he expressed qualms about diversity statements. He remains at the University of Toronto. His girlfriend has delayed her decision for another year.
“Your ability to mentor students from a diverse background is absolutely a relevant question,” he said. “But this felt like they used it as an ideological filtering mechanism and that should be a red flag.”
Vimal Patel contributed reporting.