Last year, Utah State University sought a professor in solid earth geohazards. To apply for the job, scientists had to submit a “statement of contributions and vision of approach toward diversity, equity, and inclusion.” For a position in insect ecology, the university likewise sought scientists with a “demonstrated capacity” to contribute to “justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.” And the job advertisement for a role in lithospheric evolution noted successful candidates would likewise “advance diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Each of these jobs was a part of a Utah State cluster hire in the sciences. Cluster hiring involves recruiting multiple faculty in different fields focusing on the same general topic. For Utah State, while the jobs were mostly in the hard sciences, the overarching theme of the cluster was “justice, equity, diversity and inclusion” — sometimes called “JEDI.”

To apply, scientists had to submit a separate statement on diversity.

This isn’t a phenomenon unique to Utah State University. Diversity statement requirements like these are exceedingly common in higher education. They are also increasingly controversial, and for good reason. At the very least, they signal a priority that many would question — making it possible for the most competent biologist, geologist and mathematician to be turned down for not being sufficiently zealous about social causes. At worst, they invite ideological screening.

For Utah State’s cluster hire, diversity statements played a significant role. Through a public records request, I acquired the scoring rubric for several of the jobs. They show how diversity, equity and inclusion contributions were weighed heavily in the selection of faculty, at times on par with research and teaching abilities.

For a position in mathematical biology, for example, candidates could receive 20 points for “Teaching Efficacy,” 15 points for “Research Potential” and 15 points for “JEDI.” This means an outstanding teacher and researcher might indeed be passed over in favor of a not-as-outstanding candidate who wrote a better DEI statement. Similarly, for a position in lithospheric dynamics and evolution, “Contribute to Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity” was one of five screening categories.

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Another rubric explicitly required search committees to assess candidates’ knowledge and understanding of diversity. For a role in the department of biology, the rubric scored candidates in three overarching categories: teaching, research and JEDI — giving seemingly equal weight to each. Under the “JEDI” category, the rubric prompts search committees to assess a candidate’s “knowledge and understanding.” This broke down into three topics: the “dimensions of diversity,” “underrepresented groups” and “personal challenges.” 

In other words, Utah State assessed potential biology faculty for their understanding of the “dimensions of diversity.”

DEI often connotes a wide variety of controversial social and political views. A University of California, San Francisco, DEI toolkit defines racism as “the prioritization of the people who are considered white and the devaluation, exploitation, and exclusion of people racialized as non-white” — defining away the prejudice of those who aren’t white. A University of North Carolina School of Medicine DEI task force proposed requiring all of the school’s medical students to advocate for “radical reform of the U.S. criminal justice system.” An “equity lens framework” adopted by the Utah System of Higher Education takes “Critical Race Theory” as its conceptual “cornerstone.”

Herein lies the basic problem with DEI evaluations. No doubt, some prospective faculty, maybe even a large number, embrace the ideas expressed in each of these documents, but it’s impossible to characterize them as noncontroversial. And again, each falls under the banner of DEI. Given that DEI is frequently associated with contestable political and social views, it’s not hard to see how DEI evaluations invite ideological screening.

That’s not a hypothetical point. A few years ago, Texas Tech University’s department of biological sciences adopted a DEI resolution that promised to require and heavily weigh diversity statements in its hiring process. Through a records request, I acquired copies of several of its DEI evaluations, which were published earlier this year. One candidate was flagged for not properly explaining the difference between “equality” and “equity,” a distinction that amounts to a progressive talking point. Another candidate was flagged for saying that DEI was “not an issue because he respects his students and treats them equally.” According to the evaluators, this basic expression of race-neutrality indicated “a lack of understanding of equity and inclusion issues.”

Texas Tech’s evaluations are not exceptional; they follow well-documented best practices in academia. UC Berkeley openly touts its “Rubric for Assessing Candidate Contributions to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging.” The rubric penalizes candidates who state their intention to “treat everyone the same.” It likewise gives a low score to candidates who express their belief that diversity is important but do so with vague language. Remarkably, universities around the country have adopted the Berkeley rubric verbatim.

Mandatory diversity statements echo an earlier controversy in American higher education — namely, the mandatory anti-communist “loyalty oaths” of the McCarthy era. In a decision deeming one such loyalty oath unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the First Amendment “does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.” 

Diversity statements could be said to enshrine a new orthodoxy, which is why a growing number of free speech organizations have called for the end to the practice. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression has long opposed DEI statements and evaluations, pointing out the First Amendment issues. The Academic Freedom Alliance likewise released an open letter calling on universities to end diversity statements. A recent FIRE survey of university faculty — who, as a group, are well to the left of the average American — showed that half of the respondents consider diversity statements to be ideological litmus tests.

Some university systems have responded to the pushback. After I published my investigation of Texas Tech’s biology department, the university immediately announced it was ending its use of diversity statements; other university systems in Texas quickly followed suit. Since then, the public university systems in Missouri, North Carolina, Georgia, Wisconsin and Arizona have also ended the policy.

But DEI litmus tests remain alive and well in Utah and beyond. The University of Utah is currently seeking a professor of neurology with expertise in neuromuscular disorders. To apply, candidates must submit a diversity statement.

When reached for comment about its previous postings, Utah State University’s associate vice president for strategic communications said the STEM-JEDI cluster hire is no longer active, and the university is “committed to creating an inclusive workplace where everyone can thrive.” Meanwhile, Utah State is currently seeking professors in adolescent literacy education and audiology and speech-language pathology. A minimum qualification for both: “a commitment to advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion in research, teaching, and mentoring.”

Biologists and mathematicians shouldn’t be subjected to ideological tests, nor should their scientific contributions be weighed alongside their social activism. It’s a failure of priority that every institution that values academic freedom ought to jettison.

John Sailer is senior fellow and director of university policy at the National Association of Scholars. His writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Tablet Magazine and City Journal.