Many of you likely know that my cohost, Yoel, had a difficult experience with a prospective job at UCLA. In short, he interviewed as a prospective spousal hire and was ultimately not offered the position. A graduate student petition, which may have played a significant role in the department’s decision, voiced concerns about views Yoel has expressed on the podcast, particularly his objections to diversity statements. You can hear about his experience in his own words here, and more information has been offered by UCLA faculty member Matt Lieberman here.
I’ve felt uneasy observing the responses to these events, which have sometimes devolved into anti-DEI rhetoric. Over the last few months, attacks on DEI have taken various forms in my neck of the woods: several states have banned education on LGBTQ topics, sometimes up to 12th grade, administrators have been fired for arguing that educators should be informed about structural racism, and at least one liberal arts college has been taken over by a governor bent on instilling it with Christian, conservative values. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I take issue with this line of argument being used to defend Yoel, and our podcast.
First, a quick caveat: given that these responses have typically been supportive of Yoel, and sometimes voiced by Yoel himself, I might come across as a bad friend for writing this. My view, however, is that meaningful friendships are ones that make room for this type of disagreement. I was sad to watch my friend get excited about a chance to live and work in the same city as his partner, only to feel blindsided when that opportunity was abruptly taken away. It seems clear from Lieberman’s post that the department neglected to following their standard voting procedures, a decision that was unfair to Yoel. Nevertheless, I think it’s important not to dismiss the concerns of graduate students and faculty members. Also, given that our podcast – a collaborative project for which we are both accountable – has been at the center of these discussions, I’ve felt an added responsibility to weigh in.
There are three types of responses to these events that I find most concerning:
Response #1: “Viewpoint diversity” is under attack.
First, I should admit that I cringe every time I hear the phrase “viewpoint diversity.” It’s not that I’m opposed to promoting a diversity of viewpoints; I think that’s a wonderful goal. However, almost every time I hear this phrase, at least in an American context, it is being pitched as a superior alternative to other types of diversity – like racial diversity, or gender diversity. For me, the phrase has parallels to “all lives matter.” In isolation it sounds ok, but as a catch phrase aimed at undermining the message that “Black Lives Matter” it starts to sound a lot more like a denial of racial injustice than a statement that has anything to do with the value of human existence. In the same way, calls for “viewpoint diversity” sound like an abdication of our responsibility to start correcting for a long history of racism and sexism within academia.
The idea that favoring some views over others constitutes an emerging attack on “viewpoint diversity” seems to ignore the fact that people’s viewpoints have always factored into the hiring process, and they should continue to do so. If someone interviewing at the University of Alabama said, “I think it’s ok to make up data when you know you’re right” that would make me less likely to vote for them. Same if someone said “I find male grad students more intelligent than female grad students” or “I think most depressed people are faking it.” Even if you don’t share my aversion to these particular examples, I suspect the vast majority of people do consider viewpoints when hiring, even if they say they don’t.
If someone wanted to poke a hole in this line of reasoning they might point out that, if hiring committees can consider viewpoints, they can also reject people with viewpoints that I happen to agree with. Of course, this is true, but it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for viewpoints to be fairly incorporated into the hiring process. In fact, the notion of a viewpoint-neutral process seems sort of absurd. Our views – on things like social psychological theory, best research practices, the value of empiricism, the importance of collaboration – are on display in every piece of work we create. Moreover, they are relevant to the work we create, and some views make for better work than others. To me, then, it seems that we would get much farther talking about when and how hiring committees should consider viewpoints than we are talking about how we can ignore them.
I’m not a lawyer, and anyways I’m not sure that the law always gets things right (see above). Nevertheless, I thought Brian Soucek’s article on diversity statements provided a helpful analysis of how viewpoints should be weighed, according to the law. He argues that viewpoints are fair game when they are relevant to a position. When they are irrelevant, this is a different story, as captured by the “no political tests” rule. According to this analysis, eliminating a candidate for not signing an oath of loyalty to the Democratic party would not be permissible. On the other hand, eliminating a candidate because they say “I don’t feel comfortable teaching gay students” could be permissible (dare I say even desirable), even though such a view might provide a clue about the candidate’s political leanings.
Response #2: Podcast hosts shouldn’t have to be so worried about what they (we) say.
These responses are typically couched in the language of freedom of speech, or in our case perhaps academic freedom. The idea is that podcast hosts should be able to freely voice their views even if they are unpopular or critical of those in power. Even if you agree with this, being able to voice one’s views and being able to do so without consequence are two different things. Clearly, if podcast hosts can say what they like, critics can too.
Having a podcast as an academic is a pretty good gig. First of all, more people than usual listen to what you have to say (however modest that audience may be). Also, there are tangible professional benefits. I have seen the way my own podcast experience has opened doors, sometimes in obvious ways (e.g., being asked to speak in a symposium on podcasts) and sometimes in more indirect ways (e.g., being recognized when otherwise people would have had no idea who I was). Arguably, this greater platform and recognition warrants greater accountability. Furthermore, if hosting a podcast can be a professional asset, the flip side of that coin is that it can also be a professional liability.
None of this is to say that all criticism is valid, or that any professional consequence would be fair game. It is to say, however, we should be aware that what we say has an impact and be prepared to take responsibility when that impact is harmful. In particular, I think this is the case when it comes to challenging DEI efforts. In my experience, people who challenge DEI initiatives fall on a continuum. At one end are those who are genuinely disturbed by injustice embedded within institutions like academia, and who think it’s imperative that we critique, and thus improve, efforts to address it. And at the other end are people who harbor very real racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic views, and use anti-DEI sentiment as a veil, or worse a dog-whistle for those views. I want to be part of an academic community that leaves no doubt about where on this continuum we fall.
Response #3: The graduate student petition was taken too seriously.
This response is rarely articulated directly, but it is implied when people assume that the UCLA graduate students signed their petition through some combination of coercion and ignorance. Given that graduate students are typically impacted by hiring decisions without having much of a say in the process, we should commend collective action like that that took place at UCLA. Arguably, the fact that the graduate students wrote a petition in the first place exposes a widespread failure to provide systematic ways of collecting and incorporating their feedback.
Moreover, graduate students have a unique perspective when it comes to DEI in that they are typically more vulnerable to misguided, inadequate, or non-existent DEI policies. In some ways this should make their feedback in this domain even more valuable than that offered by faculty. In part for this reason, learning that a large cohort of UCLA graduate students and postdocs had concerns about content from our podcast, including one episode where I was cohost, was a red flag for me. It dredged up fears I had from the very first episode I was on: Does 2P4B have an established political identity that isn’t reflecting my own? Are friendly debates inadequate when addressing topics that weigh heavily in the real lives of people uninvolved in the conversation? Is the podcast reinforcing the status quo rather than pushing academia to do better? I’m still unsure about the answers to these questions, but I read both the petition and the counter-letter carefully, and I will do so for any future feedback that comes our way.
I know Yoel to be a thoughtful, irreverent, and principled person, and I really enjoy getting to talk to him every couple of weeks. At the same time, I hope that I’ve been able to challenge an interpretation of what happened at UCLA that demonizes DEI. If what we take from these events is that DEI has gone too far, we risk forgetting that DEI has not gone nearly far enough.