Chair of Math Department likens UC’s diversity statements to 1950 anti-Communist oaths in op-ed

Chair of Math Department likens UC’s diversity statements to 1950 anti-Communist oaths in op-ed

Photo Credits: SYDNEE RODRIGUEZ / AGGIE

Following publication of piece, discussion and debate ensues

Diversity statements are political litmus tests, according to an editorial notice published in the December issue of the American Mathematical Society (AMS) Notices penned by Dr. Abigail Thompson, a professor in and chair of the UC Davis Mathematics Department. This notice was later expanded upon and appeared as an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Both articles have drawn varying reactions — including from the chancellor — and have garnered discussion on both a campus and national level.

When The California Aggie reached out to Thompson for comment, she said she was currently swamped with requests. The College Fix recently reported that Thompson would be writing a general response about her opinion piece and what followed from it, saying that she wanted to release the statement “hopefully in the next few weeks.” 

In October 2018, the UC Regents changed the Academic Personnel Manual, resulting in the consideration of “contributions to diversity” under “Criteria for Appointment, Promotion, and Appraisal.” According to Melissa Lutz-Blouin, director of UC Davis News and Media Relations, all tenure-track faculty at UC Davis must submit a “Contributions to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” statement. The statement is scored with a rubric and factored into the hiring committee’s evaluation of candidates. 

“Applications with ‘weak’ diversity statements may or may not proceed to the next step of hiring; this is left to the discretion of the recruitment committee,” Lutz-Blouin said. 

In the “Knowledge” section of the College of Engineering’s diversity statement rubric, a score of 1-2 — 1 being the worst and 5 being the best — is given to applicants with “little demonstrated understanding of diversity trends” and who are “unaware of personal challenges faced by under-represented groups.” The same score, in the “Track Record” section of the rubric, is given to applicants with “no participation in activities related to diversity and advancing inclusion.” The “Plans” section of the rubric states that a 1-2 score will be given to applicants who have “vague or no statements about what they would do if hired” and whose statements “describe only activities that are already the expectation of all faculty (e.g. mentoring, treating all students the same).” 

After seeing a similar rubric made public by UC Berkeley, Thompson, who is also a vice president of AMS, referred to these diversity statements as “a political test with teeth.” She said requiring faculty to submit such statements was political because it required faculty candidates to treat people differently according to their identity — a reflection of one’s belief about the way the world is organized.

“Faculty at universities across the country are facing an echo of the loyalty oath, a mandatory ‘Diversity Statement’ for job applicants,” Thompson wrote. 

Chancellor Gary May and Vice Chancellor Renetta Tull wrote a response to Thompson’s comparison of diversity statements to the loyalty oath.

“We disagree strongly with this premise,” the response said. “It is inaccurate, at once illogical and rhetorically inflammatory, and reminiscent of historical attempts to blunt substantive actions aimed at desegregation and broadening participation.”

The UC loyalty oath controversy happened between 1949 and 1950, during which time all UC faculty were mandated to sign a statement confirming they were not a member or supporter of the Communist Party. Thirty-one faculty members, including Edward Tolman, the leader of the non-signers and the namesake of UC Berkeley’s Tolman Hall, and David Saxon, a physicist who later became the UC’s president, were fired for refusing to sign. 

Dr. William Casey, a UC Davis chemistry professor, applauded Thompson “for her article about the reappearance of loyalty oaths at the University of California” in a statement published in the Wall Street Journal editorial section.

Casey recalled the Standing Order of the Regents 101.1d, which says that “no political test shall be required of applicants for jobs at the University of California,” as trying to eliminate viewpoint discrimination. 

“Why should your opinion on the right to life or gay marriage or electric cars — why should that have any bearing on your ability to discharge your abilities of teaching, service and research at the University of California?” Casey said.

Unlike the administration’s response, Casey said there was no position that would be the unified voice of the faculty. 

“In the first loyalty oath controversy, the faculty approved the oath by a factor of four to one,” Casey said. “So don’t look for unanimity in issues of free speech. It’s always controversial speech that needs protection.” 

The AMS opened up a response form to Thompson’s op-ed, which generated three letters. Two supported Thompson’s arguments and accumulated a total of 890 signatures. One that opposed Thompson’s arguments gathered 621 signatures. The letters were published online on Dec. 13, 2019, as part of the AMS Notices’ January 2020 edition. Additionally, the AMS Notices’ editor-in-chief posted a Twitter response acknowledging that Thompson’s piece was not representative of the views of AMS and apologized “to those who understood it as such.” 

One response in AMS Notices in support of Thompson directly addressed a response posted on the Institute for the Quantitative Study of Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity (QSIDE) site, calling it an attempt “to intimidate a voice within our mathematical community.” Authored by Chad Topaz, a Williams College mathematics professor, the response called for those who disagreed with AMS’s decision to publish the piece to contact UC Davis “to express […] concerns about diversity in the Department of Mathematics and about Thompson’s role as Chair.” It also encouraged faculty to direct students not to attend UC Davis.

Topaz, the director of QSIDE, submitted a preprint of a data science study that examines ethnicities, genders and other demographics of people who signed the three letters published in the AMS Notices. Using the platform Amazon Mechanical Turk, he and his fellow researchers crowdsourced the gathering of demographic and academic data of the signatories. 

They found that those who has signed on to what they termed Letter A — the letter opposing Thompson’s arguments — represented a broader range of institution types and levels of professional security and contained more women and members of minoritized ethnic groups. Those who signed both Letters B and C were “overwhelmingly inferred to be tenured white men at highly intensive research universities.”

Topaz said he hoped the research prompted people to reflect on mechanisms of power and added that he believed free speech, diversity, equity and inclusion were not in conflict.

“If someone doesn’t want to teach, they might not be appropriate for teaching positions,” Topaz said. “Just like if people don’t want to at least orient themselves toward diversity, equity and inclusion, for the relevant members of the university community, they might not be appropriate for certain jobs. It has nothing to do with speech. It’s a job qualification.”

Topaz identifies as a “social-justice-oriented professor” on his Twitter bio and said he started seeing how “discouraging” the mathematics landscape was after seeing the Society of Industrial and Applied Math’s announcement of their 31 fellows, 29 of which were men.

With regard to Thompson referring to diversity statements as political litmus tests, he said the way “political” has been used bothered him. 

“We could then say that insisting a candidate be good in a classroom is political,” Topaz said. “That doesn’t have anything to do with politics.”

UC Davis alumna Stephanie Chang, who signed Letter A, said her first reaction was one of shock. 

“I didn’t know what to say. I was extremely disappointed,” Chang said. “It was something I was shocked to see come from Davis itself. Diversity statements show people know we don’t live in a vacuum where we’re all born equal — it’s not just ‘if you work hard, you’re fine.’” 

Thompson has also received recent pushback when the Math Department, under her leadership, brought Yuval Peres, a math professor with a series of sexual misconduct allegations leveled against him, to speak at UC Davis. Peres’ lecture and Thompson’s op-ed made Chang feel that Thompson should be removed as chair of the department. 

“I’m not a huge fan, given her current opinion and her inviting him,” Chang said. “You’re saying that his work is more important than his character.” 

Chang, who now works as an engineer at GoDaddy, said she heard other opinions regarding the op-ed, where people agreed with Thompson’s sentiment but not her reasoning.

“I’ve heard that it can be hard for people who are struggling financially or mentally — who can’t do outreach because they don’t have time — to write a diversity statement that’s sufficient enough,” she said. “I can see that point, but Thompson’s point wasn’t that at all. It was a false equivalency.”

Chang said she agrees with the intentions behind diversity statements and affirmative action, but cannot speak about whether the execution is perfect. 

As a student, Chang was secretary of the Davis Computer Science Club for two years and vice president during her senior year. With the club, she held a yearly Gender Diversity in Tech conference supported by the department. 

“It was almost as if the onus for diversity, equity and inclusion was left to our club,” she said. “If I didn’t hold the event, there wouldn’t have been anything else going on. They weren’t against diversity, but they weren’t proactive about it, though they did try to hire more female professors.” 

With regard to hiring, Casey said search committees have done a “fine job” at making sure no one or their application is overlooked. 

“They don’t underrepresent minority and women candidates, they overrepresent them by a factor of about two relative to the applicant pool,” said Casey. “The problem isn’t with the search committees.” 

Casey believes that Thompson’s notice is not about anyone’s specific opinion about how to eliminate the achievement gap or achieve diversity. 

“The question is whether they’re even allowed to have an opinion that has not passed a narrow ideological filter that was determined by University of California administrators,” he said. “It’s not about my opinion. It’s about my right to have an opinion.” 

Written by: Janelle Marie Salanga — campus@theaggie.org

1 Comment on this Post

  1. Thompson and Casey are 100% right, of course. This is an attempt at pushing ideological homogeneity and nothing more — it’s a power move by arrogant fanatics who will not accept any deviation from their worldview. Trying to masquerade it as something noble or “justice”-oriented is the kind pernicious propaganda that gives rise to dogma and zeal.

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