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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Abigail Thompson: Diversity statements are not “political litmus tests”

Diversity statements reflect job applicants’s commitment to equal access to education

UC Students deserve professors, lecturers and other university professionals who understand who we are. We are a diverse student body, made up of people from myriad races, ethnicities, religions, nationalities, sexualities and genders. The people who are at this university, who teach us and guide us, should be vocally committed to advancing diversity at all levels.

Abigail Thompson, chair of the UC Davis Mathematics Department, sees things differently, as represented in two recent op-eds in American Mathematical Society Notices and the Wall Street Journal, in which she rallies against mandatory “Diversity Statements” in the UC’s hiring process. She amounted these diversity statements to nothing more than “a political test with teeth.”

The Editorial Board resoundingly objects to this argument.

There’s an issue here: Diversity should not be seen as political. The realities facing students because of their intersectional identities are only political because there has been a concerted effort for generations — conducted by politicians and other powerful individuals in this country and elsewhere — to systematically discriminate and subjugate us. 

As the UC Davis Principles of Community say, “We acknowledge that our society carries within it historical and deep-rooted injustices and biases.” The scourge of racism, gender-based violence, white nationalism and xenophobia are ever-present in our lives, especially in recent years. We have seen multiple incidents of overt racism and anti-Semitism on this campus, as white nationalist propoganda has been posted multiple times over the past two years.

In this environment, equal access to education is at risk. Mandatory statements that describe an applicant’s commitment to diversity help preserve and maintain access to a UC education for all.

The history of education in this country is replete with moments where a lack of understanding of diversity has prevented access to schooling. It was only in 1954 that the U.S. Supreme Court mandated public schools to desegregate, a process that continues to this day — such as in one town in Mississippi that was ordered to desegregate its schools in 2016.

To this end, we will admit that maybe diversity is political — but it is only political because the only way we can end discrimination is through our politicial systems. When we give equal weight to two different arguments — one saying that diversity is good and must be mandatorily advanced, and another one that says that it should be done passively — we are faced with a moral fallacy. 

A commitment to upholding diversity actively in the UC system is a moral good. “True commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion is active and not passive,” said Chancellor Gary May and Vice Chancellor Renetta Garrison Tull in a response to Thompson’s op-eds. We agree. Passive action won’t right the injustices that minorities and other marginalized populations have experienced throughout history, especially in the U.S. — a stance that Thompson advocated for by saying that “encouraging students from all backgrounds to enter the mathematics pipeline” would be enough to improve diversity in mathematics.

Thompson, hear it from students at your own university: Support diversity actively and brazenly. Contributing to diversity means that a candidate is intrinsically more qualified for a position at this university.

7 COMMENTS

  1. There is an enormous problem with the “advancing diversity at all levels” narrative.

    Take women in STEM fields. Countries with *more* gender equality tend to have *fewer* women in STEM fields (Finland, Norway); countries with *less* gender equality tend to have *more* women in STEM fields (Indonesia, United Arab Emirates). That is, greater gender equality is very strongly correlated with *less* gender diversity in STEM fields.

    Yet those pushing the “advancing diversity at all levels” narrative would look at STEM in Finland and conclude that something is wrong because there isn’t enough gender diversity; and would point to the United Arab Emirates as a beacon of gender quality because STEM representation is more equal. This should, I hope, strike you as absurd and should, I hope, make it abundantly clear that diversity is a terrible measurement of equality and injustice.

    That’s the terrible measurement you not only insist on using, but criticize others for not turning off their brains and simply doing the same. Garbage in, garbage out. Taking action and judging success based on such a flawed and misleading metric is only likely to lead to bad outcomes: to that end, it constitutes an astounding moral and intellectual failure all wrapped into one.

    The shallow and short-sighted “advancing diversity at all levels” narrative is therefore political to its core, because “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies” (Ernest Benn). Being forced to endorse the nebulous, misleading platitudes of the “advancing diversity at all levels” narrative is absolutely a political litmus test because there are plenty of grounds for objection. This opinion piece is terrible because it disproves its own point: the authors, who clearly have not done their homework, are trying to publicly shame into silence the disagreement of those who actually have done their homework.

    • This is spot on. The “advancing diversity at all levels” crowd are implicitly assuming that equality of opportunity must necessarily lead to equality of outcome. So when they see inequality of outcome, they conclude erroneously that there must be inequality of opportunity. This is confirmation bias at work because it feeds nicely into the simplistic versions of privilege theory and intersectionality theory that scaffolds their worldview.

      But as the Gender-Equality “Paradox” makes clear, their assumption and conclusions are erroneous. Diversity is too noisy a signal to imply anything good or bad about how Demographic X compares to Demographic Y, and that’s why objecting to it is not only sound but probably smart.

      In other words, diversity statements are built on flawed premises. Those of us who place intellectual standards over ideological loyalties have a duty to object. That being intellectually accountable enough to object is seen as a failing says a lot about The Aggie, none of it good.

  2. “There’s an issue here: Diversity should not be seen as political.”
    This is extraordinarily naive. One has to consider how diversity can be achieved and how the lack of diversity arose in the first place. Diversity statements are an attempt at imposing a top-down solution to a bottom-up problem (which never works), and such an imposition requires multitudes of political considerations. No one has yet to give a compelling explanation of how mandatory diversity implies anything other than demographic quotas, a manifestation of artificial and superficial pseudo-diversity that only serves to make everyone look bad. (Incidentally, this is always when happens when things are analyzed through the lens of intersectionality, where actual unique individual human beings are reduced to whichever demographic checkbox the activists can exploit for their own agenda.)

    And it always causes backlash — the anti-PC movement didn’t exist before the PC moment became excessive; the “intellectual dark web” didn’t exist before they were deemed unsavory. No one wants to be lectured by a bunch of quasi-educated 20 year olds about what to think and how to act, but that’s what you’re doing, totally oblivious to your own moral and ethical over-reach and the consequences thereof.

    “Thompson, hear it from students at your own university”
    What a tremendous and alarming degree of narcissism at display here. It is insanely presumptuous to think that you speak on the behalf of students at this university. You speak for yourselves and only yourselves. You sure as shit don’t speak for me.

    Of all the self-righteous pablum The Editorial Board has been responsible for over the years, this is the worst.

  3. The Editorial Board don’t know how to express themselves without being arrogant and condescending; read literally any of their opinion pieces. Anyone who disagrees *must* have malicious intent, there are no other possibilities.

  4. I am a lifelong proactive advocate of improving the status of women and underrepresented minorities (heather.cs.ucdavis.edu/matloff.html), but I agree with Profs. Kuehl and Thompson. There is no denying that computing someone’s “diversity score” is inherently political. For instance, a likely question in some diversity rubrics would concern Affirmative Action (AA). I strongly support AA, but it is clearly political, e.g. the subject of ballot measures like Prop. 209 that restrict AA, and the more recent SCA 5.

    It’s sad that some of Prof. Thompson’s critics equate her concerns on process with being anti-diversity, and even sadder that the Aggie editorial board chose to resort to rudeness toward her in its piece. If vigorous but calm and polite exchange is not possible in a university, it’s no wonder that we’ve had political gridlock in the US for the last 20 years.

  5. I read with great interest this editorial posted on the Aggie news website, especially as I have been following the debate related to the diversity statement since Prof. Thompson’s initial opinion on the AMS website. I am still surprised to see that many of the op-eds that have been published since then and who reference Prof. Thompson’s original op-ed do not convey her message adequately. Prof Thompson does not oppose diversity, or even the fact that candidates to faculty positions be required to provide a diversity statement. She is not promoting a passive approach to uphold diversity within the UC Davis community, and I believe that her actions as chair of the Math department have shown her own engagement on this issue. However, she raises concerns on how those diversity statement are being used within the hiring process, and I fully agree with her on this point. A diversity statement is political, and there is nothing wrong with that. The criteria we use when scoring those diversity statements are equally political, and I have a problem with those.
    I am already unclear as to what diversity covers. This needs to be defined precisely. Are we focusing on positive actions that promote diversity for individuals historically excluded based on gender and ethnicity? What about a statement that would instead highlight diversity related to socio-economical backgrounds? Or a statement that emphasize handicap? How would we compare and rank three such statements, all three supporting active actions within their definition of diversity, without a political definition of diversity? By making such a political definition of diversity, aren’t we reducing diversity itself?
    It is interesting that there has not been a more open forum to address this issue of the use of diversity statements during hiring processes (and I repeat, not the diversity statements themselves, but the role they play in the hiring process and the criteria that are used to score them). There are many silent voices on campus that deserve a chance to weigh in on this debate. It is maybe time for the academic senate to step in and organize a vote on this issue.

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