What’s going on when a public university feels entitled to ask potential faculty members questions clearly aimed at ferreting out their political and social commitments? Such questions, reminiscent of loyalty oaths and the demands of totalitarian regimes would seem to have no place in an educational institution in modern-day America. But for some years now, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, as at many other universities, the administration has allowed and actively encouraged precisely such interrogations.
In fact, the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity at UMass thoughtfully provides Supplemental Search Instructions, including suggestions for typical questions to be asked during interviews. These invite search committees to fill in the blank with the name of the “protected group” of their choice.
The suggested questions include the following representative queries:
- How have you demonstrated your commitment to (____) issues in your current position?
- Which of your achievements in the area of equity for (____) gives you the most satisfaction?
- In your current position, have you ever seen a (___) treated unfairly? How would/did you handle it?
- How many of the top people at your current or previous institution are (___)?
- What did you do to encourage hiring more (___)?
Where, one may well wonder, in the context of a public university supposedly committed to education rather than indoctrination, could such questions come from? They turn out to be based on a nearly 30-year-old report entitled, It’s All in What You Ask (Association of American Colleges, Project on the Status and Education of Women, 1988), which contained scores of questions for job searches reaching into every part of the university – faculty, administrators, and staff – all aiming to uncover candidates’ underlying commitments to promoting particular groups.
But where the original document aimed at promoting women and merely mentioned in passing that the questions “can easily be adapted to apply to minority and disabled persons,” UMass Amherst has corrected that narrow perspective by providing its long (but not exhaustive) list of identity groups.
In other respects, however, the guidelines largely replicate (and credit) the specific language of the original document, which makes no effort to disguise the “gotcha” mentality underlying the entire endeavor, despite a disingenuous assurance that there are no “right” or “wrong” answers. The rationale is spelled out:
When prospective employees are asked, “Are you concerned about and supportive of these [identity group] issues?” they will invariably give an affirmative reply. Unfortunately, that gives little indication of their level of concern or commitment. Asking some of the questions listed [here] may help you gain a better understanding of a candidate’s position on these issues.… Many candidates will not have prepared answers to these questions in advance. These questions will, therefore, be useful in drawing out the candidate’s opinions rather than the “correct answer.”
The problem with these questions may not be primarily their legality—although there should be some concern about the possible unconstitutionality of anything smacking of an ideological qualification. The main problem is the overshadowing of genuine education by the demand for conformity and an explicit display of one’s politics. The result is likely to be a monolithic corps of new employees, selected for their political commitments as much as, perhaps indeed more than, their professional qualifications.
Nor is this is happening in isolation. It has been accompanied, for years, by an out-of-control growth in administrators and staff whose explicit task is promoting and protecting certain identity groups. Who knew that after thirty years of tireless efforts, universities would still be in desperate need of measures to combat their allegedly exclusionary policies toward all who aren’t able-bodied heterosexual white males?
All Diversity All the Time
Whereas certain parts of the academic world – Schools of Social Work, for example, and Schools of Education — have for some years insisted on overt expressions (on the part of both students and faculty) of correct political attitudes, it’s important to recognize how such demands are built into the entire job search procedure itself.
In addition, at UMass Amherst, as at other universities around the nation, the key documents about proper search procedures place a persistent and ceaseless emphasis on diversity, as required by equal opportunity regulations. Pages and pages of details are devoted to spelling out the efforts to identify and recruit “diverse” candidates, providing suggestions for every stage of the process. Ironically, detailed lists are also provided of questions that are prohibited (having to do with ethnicity, race, gender, national origin, ancestry, and so on. And to ensure that this process is fully complied with, search committees must meet with a representative of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity for orientation and “coaching” sessions.
Yet, though we are repeatedly told that, “An applicant’s potential contribution to workforce diversity is an asset that should be carefully considered,” at the completion of the search process, everything changes. Despite the relentless emphasis on “diversity-enhancing measures” up to this point, and the careful documentation of these efforts that are required, when final recommendations are made by the search committee and sent up the chain of command, we are told that the candidates’ race, sex, and other identity markers should not be mentioned, only the excellence of their qualifications:
When describing candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, the committee’s rationale must focus strictly on their qualifications for the job itself. Do NOT comment on their race, ethnicity, accent, personal appearance, clothing, personality, age or maturity, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, or marital status. . . . The process will move much faster if the Chair, or, as a last resort, the Dean has made sure that all recommendations focus on qualifications for the job and do not make inappropriate references to protected personal characteristics.
In other words, after dominating the search and hiring procedure in multiple ways, the obsession with identity politics needs to be disguised at the very end, when all talk reverts to academic qualifications alone.
Thus, to the entire overdetermined process is added, at the last stage, a whiff of utter fraudulence. There’s the part where everyone is put through their diversity paces; then there’s the part where you cover it up.