Jonathan Haidt, professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, just published a deeply moving piece about why he is resigning from his primary professional society, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). Haidt argued that his society recently asked him to violate his “quasi-fiduciary duty to the truth” because, in order to present research at the society’s conference, “all social psychologists are now required to submit a statement explaining ‘whether and how this submission advances the equity, inclusion, and anti-racism goals of SPSP.’” As such, Haidt decided that he is “going to resign from SPSP at the end of this year, when [his] membership dues run out, if the policy on mandatory statements stays in place for future conventions.”
I want to laud Haidt for his decision. He is absolutely right that by overtly promoting a political position and making it an explicit part of the research and dissemination process, the SPSP now becomes at odds with its stated goals of promoting the, “best practices to foster innovation, rigor, transparency, and integrity.” Even partially evaluating research submissions based on political goals alters the very nature of scientific inquiry, such that research is not conducted neutrally but with a clear, often predetermined, ideological bias.
As the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression notes, “vague or ideologically motivated DEI statement policies can too easily function as litmus tests for adherence to prevailing ideological views.” Janet Halley of Harvard Law School goes further, noting that, “academics seeking employment or promotion will almost inescapably feel pressured to say things that accommodate the perceived ideological preferences of an institution demanding a diversity statement, notwithstanding the actual beliefs or commitments of those forced to speak.”
The SPSP’s move to add a political litmus test to its conference procedures unquestionably conditions and narrows research to fit within diversity, equity, and inclusion and anti-racism goals. It even inhibits scholars from asking certain questions, using particular approaches, and investigating certain topics. Haidt is right to be “especially dubious of the wisdom of making an academic organization more overtly political in its mission, especially in the midst of a raging culture war, when trust in universities is plummeting.”
What needs to be added to the conversation is that many scholars are in a bind and do not have the ability to take as strong and principled a stance as Professor Haidt has.
For junior scholars working toward tenure and seeking to establish their research agendas, professional organizations like the SPSP, along with their journals and conferences, are the paths to success and stability. While many professors take issue with politicizing their work and scholarship, they may simply have no alternative path. Even with more open-access publishing, professional organizations act as conduits through which careers, research, and knowledge dissemination flow. While it may be appealing to consider creating alternative paths, the fact of the matter is that so many scholars do not have the bandwidth or ability to do this. They are thus captured and conditioned by these new policies and directives. This has the capacity to deeply alter many research agendas as well as limit real expression, and thus viewpoint diversity. Senior and tenured scholars can disconnect for a bit, but junior scholars may have no alternatives.
Moving beyond extra-collegiate professional organizations, a serious issue that is beginning to affect many university- and college-based scholars is the huge rise in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statements. The American Association of University Professors found that almost a quarter of universities require DEI statements for tenure evaluations, and that nearly 40 percent of institutions reported they are considering the idea. Many applications for either internal or external grants—the financial lifeblood of research—require these statements.
Moreover, what is to prevent colleges and universities from demanding DEI statements in syllabi, on professional webpages, in labs, and in other settings as a condition for employment, promotion, or professional benefits? Schools are already posting guidelines for such statements and offering suggestions for what to write. Junior and senior scholars are at risk for non-compliance and for challenging these directives, as there is not a robust job market for most professors and in most fields.
Solving this acute problem is not easy, because walking away from one’s career and life’s work is impractical. Many faculty can “voice” their concerns and hope to improve the situation, as Haidt attempted to do with SPSP, but even questioning diversity initiatives is perilous for most professors.
What can be said is that Haidt is correct that the rise of DEI and anti-racism statements makes research overtly political and ideological, and that this changes the very foundation of academic work. Being inclusive, supportive, compassionate, empathetic, and open to diversity are goals that all academics share, because they improve research and innovation—but forced political bias is dangerous.
If professional organizations and higher education institutions continue establishing such DEI requirements, the entire enterprise of viewpoint diversity, open inquiry, and discovery could come to a grinding halt. While the goals of these schools and research organizations are openly debated and range from the promotion of curiosity to critical inquiry and the search for truth, the fact of the matter is that all of these objectives are hindered by political ends. As such, those who care about the future of education and inquiry must push back when and where they can and demonstrate the peril of injecting politics into research and inquiry.
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