The Golden State's ideological litmus tests are spreading across the country
What happens in California usually doesn’t stay in California — and that’s bad news for higher education.
In his latest piece for the New York Times, Michael Powell catalogs just how extensively the Golden State’s universities have embraced mandatory diversity statements when hiring faculty. From junior college to prestigious research university, scientists and scholars throughout the state must demonstrate their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to remain in good standing.
By now, this should come as no surprise, but it is striking to see some of the most egregious ways the policy plays out. In 2016, the piece notes, at least five University of California (UC) campuses decided to initially screen faculty job applicants based only on diversity statements. For one large hiring initiative at UC Berkeley — the Life Sciences Initiative — the faculty search committee eliminated three-fourths of the applicant pool on the basis of diversity statements alone. Berkeley’s rubric for assessing diversity statements, moreover, dictates a low score for candidates who speak positively about diversity but in vague terms. Even more remarkably, it gives a low score to candidates who say they prefer to “treat everyone the same.”
All of this is especially notable because of what California represents to American public higher education. Out of any state, California best embodies the American vision of universal higher education — its promises and perils.
In 1960, UC System President Clark Kerr spearheaded the “California Master Plan for Higher Education,” an attempt to modernise the state’s system of higher education. The Master Plan institutionalised a rigidly tiered system for California’s colleges and universities, reserving the UC system for the top 12.5% of the state’s graduating high school students, the California State system for the top 33.3%, and the California Community Colleges system for everyone else.
The plan captured the country’s strong faith in higher education, its aspiration to send virtually every young person to college. Kerr once jokingly quipped that the mission of the university is “to provide sex for the students, sports for the alumni, and parking for the faculty” — an amusing, and functionally accurate, description.
No doubt, California set the example. Today, it remains a powerhouse; according to the U.S. News and World Report rankings, the UC system includes six out of the top 10 American public universities.
California still sets the tone for American higher education. And for that reason, we might add one more item to Kerr’s tongue-in-cheek summary of the university’s mission: “DEI initiatives for the administrators.” The trend Powell describes — whereby enthusiasm for DEI, whatever that might mean in practice, has become a virtual job requirement for scientists and scholars —has trickled down.
Berkeley’s Life Sciences Initiative, for example, was designed to test whether universities could use a method known as “cluster hiring” to advance the goal of diversity. Basically, the approach involves hiring multiple faculty at once with a heavy emphasis on DEI. In a forthcoming National Association of Scholars report, I describe how DEI-focused cluster hiring has boomed since Berkeley undertook its Life Sciences Initiative.
In 2020, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center carried out a cluster hire — hiring researchers in cancer, infectious disease, and basic biology — which heavily weighed DEI contributions. In 2021, Vanderbilt University’s Department of Psychology undertook a cluster hire; it eliminated approximately 85% of its candidates based solely on diversity statements. And the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has allocated $241 million in grant money for cluster hires at universities around the country — with the condition that every search committee must require and heavily weigh diversity statements.
Berkeley’s rubric — the one that gives a low score to anyone who espouses race-neutrality — is likewise ubiquitous. Two of the universities receiving NIH money for cluster hires are the University of New Mexico and the University of South Carolina. Through a public records request, I acquired both universities’ rubric for assessing diversity statements, which was published earlier this year. Both universities use the Berkeley rubric verbatim.
As a consequence of these measures, trust in higher education will likely continue to fall, owing in part to a sense that some views are simply not tolerated. But DEI litmus tests do not merely diminish the public’s trust in higher education. They degrade higher education itself. Clark Kerr knew that the mission of the university isn’t sex, sports, or parking. It isn’t social justice, either. It’s the pursuit of truth, which, following California’s example, all too many universities seem to forget.