By Ashley Killough and Ed Lavandera, CNN
One of the largest universities in Texas is now reviewing its hiring procedures after one department closely scrutinized candidates over their knowledge of diversity, equity and inclusion, more commonly known as DEI.
“We could see that this could be viewed as possibly exclusionary,” Texas Tech President Lawrence Schovanec said in an interview with CNN. “And so we wanted to step back and review the whole process.”
The biology department at Texas Tech University — set in deeply conservative West Texas — asked faculty candidates in 2021 to submit statements on their commitment to DEI. Some candidates received negative notes if their answers were deemed insufficient, such as not knowing the difference between “equality” and “equity.”
The process, which came to light earlier this month, prompted swift conservative backlash against the storied institution, with critics decrying such DEI screenings as litmus tests that discriminate based on ideology. The term DEI has become the latest target among conservative politicians in the recent era of racial reckoning, echoing the heated debates over critical race theory in schools.
DEI programs have become commonplace in the worlds of business, government, and education to promote multiculturalism and to encourage success for people of all races and backgrounds. But they’ve also become a focal point of those who describe them as another example of extreme political correctness.
In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said earlier this month he intends to ban state universities from spending money on DEI initiatives. “We want education, not indoctrination,” he said at an event in Jacksonville.
And in Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott this month issued a memo to state agencies and universities asserting that using DEI as a screening tool is illegal. “When a state agency adjusts its employment practices based on factors other than merit, it is not following the law. Rebranding this employment discrimination as ‘DEI’ does not make the practice any less illegal,” the memo said.
Schovanec said the school’s lawyers insist the biology department’s actions were not illegal, but the university is ending efforts that use DEI as a screening tool for faculty while it undergoes a review of its hiring practices campuswide.
‘Red flags’ for poor DEI understanding
A group called the National Association of Scholars first uncovered the situation at Texas Tech by obtaining DEI-specific notes and documents from the biology department’s hiring process through open records requests. The group published the roughly 100 documents online, along with an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, called “How ‘Diversity’ Policing Fails Science.”
The DEI portion was just one component of screening candidates in the biology department, according to the university. Each applicant was asked to submit a curriculum vitae, three representative publications, separate statements of research and teaching interests, three potential referees, and “a diversity statement that addresses any past contributions to diversity, equity, and inclusion and outlines plans and actions for advancing DEI” at Texas Tech. Finalists were also interviewed by a DEI committee.
According to the documents, candidates were flagged for being “reluctant” to answer questions about DEI or not having a “good grasp” of the concept. Under the “weaknesses” for one candidate, it was noted the candidate repeatedly used the pronoun “he” when talking about professors. The same candidate was “red-flagged” and hiring committee members wrote they had “reservations about sending him into a large, diverse undergrad classroom with his current understanding and strategies.”
Another candidate’s weakness was listed as: “Mentioned that DEI is not an issue because he respects his students and treats them equally.”
While the names of the candidates in the documents were redacted, Texas Tech University confirmed to CNN that some of the candidates featured in the documents were hired and not all of the positions have been filled yet.
Steve Balch is a former Texas Tech professor and founder of the National Association of Scholars, which has done considerable research on DEI efforts in universities to illustrate what it sees as an impediment to academic freedom.
“My quarrel isn’t with people who think diversity, equity and inclusion are good things,” he told CNN. “My argument and the argument of the NAS is turning them into dogma and then using them to vet faculty members, graduate students, undergraduate students — creating aversive environment in which you feel you have to swear fealty to a particular creed. I think that’s wrong.”
Caught in the political crosshairs
The issue at Texas Tech also came up in a state Senate hearing on February 8. Sen. Joan Huffman questioned Texas Tech’s chancellor Tedd Mitchell, saying she was “concerned and confused” over the incident.
“I do not believe in litmus tests of any type,” Mitchell said. “It’s no more appropriate to ask somebody about their position on DEI than it is to ask them if they’re a Christian or a Muslim. When we find out something like that has occurred, we stop it.”
Schovanec recognizes that Tech is in conservative part of a conservative state with many key conservative stakeholders, donors, and legislators involved in school funding.
“We have to be pragmatic in acknowledging issues that are being raised,” he said. “Our legislators are responding to their constituents. And in this country right now, education has many challenges.”
He stressed the importance of diversity at the school, which has its own DEI division. According to Texas Tech, 46% of this year’s incoming class are students of color, and 30% of faculty are faculty of color.
“So we’re totally committed to a diverse campus community, but those hiring practices could present the perception that certain candidates would be excluded based on their ideological views, as opposed to the real excellence related to that discipline and the ability to address the priorities of our mission here,” he said.
Schovanec said the school needs more diverse faculty, and he acknowledged that some prospective candidates might see the school’s recent move to end DEI screenings and question Tech’s commitment to diversity.
“Faculty and students have to judge us by our actions. Do we support them? Do we create an environment here where they feel they belong and this is a place where they can thrive? That’s a much bigger issue than certain elements of a hiring process,” he said “But that is a challenge that we have.”
‘Misappropriating the work that is being done’
Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education, said the political firestorm over the incident at Texas Tech is simply an “attempt to fuel the base” among those who don’t agree with longstanding efforts to increase diversity.
She’s concerned that DEI will follow the same path as critical race theory, or CRT, and become a term that’s twisted and misrepresented for political purposes.
“It’s demonizing efforts, not only within higher education, but I think within this country to create a more equitable, just United States,” she said. “On some levels it’s misappropriating the work that is being done and using it as a basis for saying we’re discriminating against others.”
Granberry Russell said she wants people to understand the nuance of DEI and that it’s designed to increase opportunities for people who have been historically marginalized or not well represented in higher education or the workforce.
“My hope would be that as we begin to think more broadly about inclusion, that people will better understand this is not a situation where some are intending to take access away, but to expand access,” she said.
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