Spectacular examples of cancel culture seem to happen weekly. Last month, the University of Michigan banished from the classroom one of its distinguished professors, Bright Sheng—a MacArthur Fellow and composer—because he had shown a classic movie, Olivier’s Othello. (Pauline Kael, the former doyenne of film criticism, once said that Olivier’s performance had left her with “a sense of exaltation and the wonder of sheer admiration.”) And Yale Law School tried to wring a public apology from a second-year student because he used the term “trap house” in a party invitation. (He refused to apologise, even after administrators threatened his future career prospects—implying that there would be long-term consequences if he didn’t knuckle under, because the “legal community is a small one.”)
These stories made national news in the US because these are among America’s most prominent schools, and because the actions were so blatantly outrageous, crude and heavy-handed. But what happens to people whose stories fly below the radar? There are subtler ways for woke university administrators to police what faculty say and do, methods which fall short of banishment or overt threats but are still chillingly effective. They amount to what one might call soft coercion.
This is how it’s done at the institution where I teach, San Diego State University. SDSU is known as the jewel in the crown of the California State University system; it has a student population of roughly 35,000; it educates a large percentage of the region’s future teachers and is a major driver of San Diego’s economy. What happens at SDSU matters. And last year, a single administrator changed the criteria by which faculty are evaluated for retention, promotion and tenure. This was soft coercion in two distinct ways.
First, the change introduced a novel and troubling evaluation criterion: faculty under review must submit a diversity statement describing how they have demonstrated their “responsiveness to diversity” in their teaching, research and service. Until last year, teaching had been evaluated on student feedback and course syllabi, research by the number and calibre of publications in peer-reviewed venues, and service by participation on various departmental, college or university committees. (Teaching and research were generally given much more weight than service.) The content of classroom lectures and research was unrestricted and not considered in the evaluation process. As long as professors taught Shakespeare in a Shakespeare class or physics in a physics class, they were free to take whatever approach to teaching and research seemed right to them. And no particular type of service was mandated.
Of course, responding to diversity is unequivocally a good thing. The student body at SDSU is incredibly diverse. Anyone walking around the campus immediately sees that SDSU students come from all over the world. It makes for better teaching and more interesting research to take their various national origins, ethnicities and sexual identities into account. Responding to SDSU’s diversity is not the problem. Instead, the problem is that the diversity statement implicitly requires faculty members to profess particular beliefs about diversity, and to concretely demonstrate their allegiance to those beliefs in their teaching, publications and service.
To be sure, the diversity statement does not explicitly require a particular attitude. And it doesn’t overtly threaten the career of anyone who fails to conform to those beliefs (unlike what happened at Yale and the University of Michigan). But everyone who is familiar with the current culture on campus knows what the evaluators will consider to be acceptable beliefs: only those that conform to a particular philosophy—namely, critical social justice theory and its various offshoots.
Traditionally, faculty had been encouraged to think independently and to follow their research preferences wherever they might lead. The mandatory diversity statement discourages this. Instead, it seeks to corral faculty into philosophical conformity and uniformity. It subtly pushes them to get with the ideological programme or suffer the consequences.
For example, it’s unlikely that any untenured assistant professor hoping for promotion will be brave (or foolish) enough to write a diversity statement saying that they believe they should treat all students equally, regarding each one as an individual rather than as a representative of a particular ethnicity or other identity group. It’s unlikely that anyone would dare to acknowledge that they agree with the views expressed by John McWhorter in his recent book, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, or that they find Ibram X. Kendi’s definitions of racism and anti-racism a vast oversimplification, or that they believe all white people are not equally complicit in racism. That’s why the diversity statement requirement is soft coercion: who would take that risk, when it could mean the end of their career?
There is a second, distinct way in which the diversity statement represents soft coercion: the requirement was introduced by administrative fiat, contradicting SDSU’s longstanding explicit commitment to shared governance and democratic norms and traditions. Any SDSU policy change that affects the faculty is supposed to be presented to the university senate, debated and then voted on. But that is not what happened. Instead, Joanna Brooks, the Associate Vice-President in charge of the evaluation process, simply changed the contents of the form that faculty have to submit in advance of their evaluation by adding the diversity statement category and labelling it as required in large, boldface type (larger, in fact, than the rest of the form). As the senate had not discussed and voted on the change—it should, at a minimum, have been labelled optional.
After I pointed this out in 2020, when this change first appeared, Brooks eventually acknowledged in an email to the university senate that the diversity statement should indeed have been labelled optional, and she promised that her office would “locate the source of the erroneous omission of ‘optional’ from the … instructions.”
And yet, this year, the diversity statement is once again “required.” A mistake made twice is no longer a mistake, but a deliberate choice. When I once more raised the issue, the administration bobbed and weaved. No one directly addressed the concerns I raised: first, that an administrator changed the evaluation criteria without due process; second, that the new criterion continued to be described as required even though Brooks acknowledged that it should have been optional; and third, that faculty must demonstrate allegiance to a particular viewpoint with respect to diversity.
Senate President Wil Weston responded, “given our university’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion … some senators are proposing a policy change that would require diversity statements to be part of the RTP processes moving forward.” Obviously, this answer ignores the fact that the diversity statement has been “required” for the last two years. Next, a dean incorrectly implied that the normal procedure of submitting proposed faculty evaluation changes to a senate vote was somehow unnecessary because the Senate Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee had recommended the change. (The administration cannot change policy based solely on a committee’s recommendation). Finally, Brooks inaccurately characterised this policy change as merely a change in format: “Forms may be changed on request from faculty or Senate committees. The statements were mandatory as per the form, not Senate policy.” After that incoherent hairsplitting, if anyone still doubted that this was, on the contrary, a substantive change, those doubts were resolved when Brooks provided guidelines stating that faculty evaluation committees should each include an “equity monitor,” one of whose tasks is “to make sure the Diversity Statement is read and heard.”
Regardless of how one feels about diversity statements, the fact that the administration imposed this requirement should alarm all faculty. If we allow an administrator to unilaterally alter the evaluation criteria, we are implicitly abandoning the traditional devotion to democracy in favour of top-down rulemaking. A precedent has been set whereby administrators can change retention, promotion and tenure policies without any input from the faculty as a whole. If administrators can make one such change by fiat without being held accountable, what other changes will they make in the future?
Presumably, some faculty members were troubled by this assertion of administrative authority because it contradicts not only SDSU’s explicit commitment to shared governance, but also its commitment to academic freedom and to providing students with “the widest possible range of viewpoints” (I’m quoting from the SDSU Senate Policy File). Yet most remained silent. And that is the most worrisome aspect of this affair. On the one hand, many professors feel free to express alarm at the embrace of illiberal democracy by politically conservative governments—such as the recent spate of new voter-suppression laws or legislatures forbidding the teaching of “divisive concepts” in state colleges and universities. On the other hand, when the same illiberalism sprouts in our own backyard—when an administrator imposes a rule that squelches intellectual diversity—few speak up.
People have different reasons for staying silent: some agree with the change, and do not care that it was imposed from above; some may dislike it but don’t want to burn their bridges with administrators (perhaps hoping to become administrators themselves); some fear retaliation—or even being cancelled, which has happened at SDSU—and some (perhaps most) assume that the change won’t have any practical effect on them.
But anyone who thinks this change does not matter is mistaken. Mandating a diversity-equity-inclusion loyalty oath is an authoritarian compelling of speech that, ironically, makes our community less intellectually diverse and less inclusive. In place of intellectual freedom, a compulsory diversity statement nudges faculty, gently but firmly, into ideological conformity. If we accept this imposition without protest, where will our silence lead?
We should not forget that those who mandate certain types of speech usually end up proscribing others.