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Executive director's corner / EDI statements: A threat to academic freedom?

Executive director's corner / EDI statements: A threat to academic freedom?

By David Robinson

With some universities and colleges now asking job candidates to submit EDI — equity, diversity and inclusion — statements with their applications, CAUT has been asked whether this practice violates academic freedom. A sub-group of the CAUT Executive Committee considered the matter and determined that the answer to the question is, as lawyers often say: “It depends.”

CAUT policy has long stated that all hiring and promotion decisions should be based only on considerations that are relevant to the effective performance of one’s professional responsibilities. Arguably, such professional responsibilities today include the ability to teach an increasingly diverse and inclusive student body and to conduct research in increasingly diverse and inclusive environments. Consequently, asking prospective professors about their awareness of barriers to equity-deserving groups’ academic success and steps that can be taken to lower and eliminate those barriers seems entirely appropriate and relevant to the job.

On the other hand, we have also seen more prescriptive requirements that ask candidates to submit statements demonstrating how their work aligns with the institution’s specific EDI strategy. This can violate academic freedom in so far as it requires a commitment to a particular perspective of EDI when there are many different and competing views about what constitutes justice, fairness and equity that should be recognized in EDI statements.

For example, law professor Lisa Pruitt submitted a diversity statement to the University of California, Davis that described her experience of growing up in a rural, working-class community and her scholarly work on rural poverty issues. Pruitt’s understanding of diversity, however, was not welcomed by her department’s leadership, which edited out the parts of her statement that focused on class.

The key point is that an institution’s particular perspective on EDI must not restrict alternative viewpoints, nor should it infringe upon the right of academic staff to express their opinion and criticism of the administration and its policies.

In a similar vein, we need to ensure that EDI statements are not administrative-led directives that circumvent collegial decision-making. When it comes to academic appointments, academic freedom requires that decisions be made by faculty peers who are disciplinary experts. If EDI statements constitute standards of appointment that are imposed and assessed from above by administrators, then they can violate academic freedom.

EDI statements are controversial within our membership, but whether they violate academic freedom really does depend. The statements are not necessarily in themselves problematic for academic freedom if they are demonstrated to be relevant to the job. What matters is what is being mandated, what kind of statements are being required, and who is evaluating them.

To that end, we can better ensure that academic freedom is upheld if no matter what is being asked and evaluated with EDI statements, academics are allowed to approach the topic in ways they see as most relevant to their work, to offer perspectives that diverge from or conflict with the administration, and even to speak for or against the values the statements are intended to advance.

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