Psych! You Don’t Have the Job.

In January, University of Toronto psychologist Yoel Inbar interviewed for a role at UCLA. His girlfriend had received a job offer from the psychology department, and like many universities, UCLA has a dual career program designed to facilitate partner appointments. The interview went well, and as Inbar notes in a recent podcast, he thought that an offer was likely.

A few days after the interview, he received not an offer but, rather, news that a group of more than fifty students signed a letter demanding that he not be hired. Shortly thereafter, he was told that the ad hoc committee to whom the letter was addressed declined to recommend him for a full-department vote. He wasn’t getting the job.

Put simply, Inbar said the wrong things about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), which provoked the ire of students. To be clear, Inbar is no critic of DEI. He’s certainly not a conservative. In this respect, the letter is remarkable. It doesn’t just call for what is likely illegal viewpoint discrimination, but it takes issues with opinions that are, at most, only modestly controversial. It’s thus remarkable for a second reason: it perfectly illustrates growing concerns about the effects of far-reaching university DEI policies.

Here are the main points of the letter, which the National Association of Scholars has posted on its website:

Inbar voiced skepticism about the use of DEI statements. According to the letter, Inbar said in a podcast episode from 2018 that diversity statements “seem like administrator value signaling,” that is it unclear “what good they do,” and that they signal “an allegiance to a certain set of beliefs.” He made a similar point about the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP), which piloted mandatory diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism statements for its conference submissions. “These comments,” according to the letter, “frame diversity statements as a threat to ideological diversity, and reflect a lack of prioritization of the needs and experiences of historically marginalized individuals across the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability.”

Inbar advocated for institutional neutrality. Specifically, in another podcast episode, he said that professional organizations should not take stances on controversial political issues. While expressing his support for abortion, he noted that the SPSP should not weigh in on a Georgia law banning abortion past six weeks. This, likewise, prompted condemnation: “His flippant conflation of this issue with a political disagreement (i.e., Democrats vs. Republicans) trivializes the necessity of bodily autonomy that all people, regardless of political ideology and governance, ought to be entitled to.”

Inbar said that his research doesn’t deal directly with issues of identity. The letter notes, somewhat confusingly, that “Dr. Inbar’s responses call into question not only his implicit and explicit biases on an interpersonal level, but with respect to his research. A systemic failure to consider the objective fact that groups experience certain phenomena and interactions differentially is an ongoing issue which the field of Psychology is actively working to overcome, and his response leads us to believe he does not understand and/or appreciate the importance of this issue as one of intellectual merit.”

Inbar allegedly transgressed “inclusive” etiquette in several interactions with students. Students asked him about his approach to mentoring minority students. He said that he typically “just asks what’s going on because graduate students will tend to tell you”—a wrong answer, apparently. “This response leads us to believe that he does not appreciate the importance of power dynamics or invisible barriers that prevent students from feeling empowered to advocate for themselves, particularly students from URM [underrepresented minority] backgrounds.” Likewise, the letter reports that he referred to one student, “who is a woman of color,” as “intense” in a conversation with another professor. According to Inbar, this student denounced the psychology department as racist, and even abusive, during the student interview. Later, in a conversation with a faculty member, he referred to that student’s digression as “intense.”

Notably, nearly every paragraph of the letter makes reference to UCLA policy or a statement made by UCLA administrators. 

The letter was emailed to the entire UCLA psychology faculty and was circulated widely, even beyond the department. By mid-February, I received the link to the letter from someone affiliated with UCLA. A smaller group of students sent a letter in support of Professor Inbar. (When I contacted Inbar, he declined to comment.)

[Related: “Science is Rotting from the Top”]

For now, we can’t know whether the letter made a difference in the hiring decision, though there’s good reason to think it did. He was given a flyout interview for a partner role. The department was not choosing between multiple candidates, and it had already judged his CV worthy. They told his girlfriend to fly out, too, so the couple could look for housing together. One UCLA faculty member told me that it would be unusual not to hire after getting to this stage of the partner-hiring process, barring any obvious red flags in the interview. Of course, nothing is ever certain in faculty hiring.

The department chair’s rejection letter to Inbar, which he shared with the Chronicle of Higher Education, was also revealing. She noted that “unusual events occurred surrounding [Inbar’s] visit,” and said that, after “much consideration and consultation,” she had decided that “following the department’s standard process spanning more than two decades is the right way to go.” She added that she was “disappointed with the outcome.” It’s telling that the department chair considered, and even sought, advice about not following standard procedures.

UCLA could easily clarify what happened and, most importantly for its own interests, demonstrate that it did not engage in illegal viewpoint discrimination. But so far, the university has taken extra steps to avoid transparency. In February, I submitted a records request for correspondences between the ad hoc committee members in charge of recommending Inbar. UCLA first estimated that those documents would be available on May 31, then on June 30, and now on July 28. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), likewise, submitted a records request for the ad hoc committee’s report on the hiring process and a few other related documents. Even after Inbar waived his privacy rights, the university delayed, and then outright rejected, FIRE’s request.

Some students also wrote a counter-letter in support of Inbar.

But regardless of whether the letter made the difference, it represents a broken academic culture. More than fifty graduate students in one of the country’s top psychology programs demanded that their university, in effect, violate academic freedom.

This isn’t limited to activism-prone graduate students. As the controversy gained attention online, many established scholars spoke out in support of the letter. Megan Stevenson, professor of law and economics at the University of Virginia, tweeted that “This letter seems completely reasonable to me. Students should have a voice in the hiring decision. And this guy does not seem to share their (very defensible) values, either in his approach to research or in what he would bring to the community culture.” Kelly O’Connor, a postdoc at Virginia Commonwealth University, added, “I applaud the brave students who advocated for themselves & the future climate of their program. Dr. Inbar has the right to free speech, but so do these students 👏🏻 The message is loud & clear: the next gen of scholars value DEI. And that gives me hope.” J. David Jentsch, a psychology professor at Binghamton University, tweeted that “Dude applies for said position, but is inadequate with respect to those criteria by evaluation of the larger department community. Dude gets upset that he doesn’t get job. Did I get that right?” 

Evidently, many in academia think that the student’s reasons for objecting to Inbar are perfectly valid, but the letter, in fact, shows the opposite. It illustrates a key argument against diversity statements and using DEI as a criterion to evaluate professors. On the basis of DEI evaluations, an otherwise qualified job candidate can be disqualified for expressing opinions that ought to be discussed within the confines of the academy—not just highly controversial opinions, which ought to be protected, but even opinions with which most Americans likely agree. Already, savvy prospective faculty members know that they have to be careful about what they say and how they say it. No doubt, Inbar’s example will only exacerbate that caution.

It also shows that DEI policies have a special status in higher education and are functionally self-insulating. If your job is advancing DEI, any opposition to DEI policies could be construed as a basic failure to do your job. If DEI represented nothing more than a synonym for “basic human decency,” that might not be a problem. But that’s clearly not the case, as DEI has come to connote a set of substantive political and social views. 

[Related: “Litmus Tests for Nuclear Scientists”]

It also illustrates the importance of institutional neutrality. In 1967, the president of the University of Chicago appointed a committee to make a statement on “the University’s role in political and social action.” That statement, known as the Kalven Report, argues that colleges and universities ought to stay silent on matters of social and political controversy to help ensure free inquiry. Institutions, per the report, “cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.” When they do wade into controversies, “it places pressure on faculty to conform to their position.” In a rare positive development in higher education, some universities have recently moved to publicly adopt the Kalven Report, most notably UNC-Chapel Hill.

Inbar expressed a similar commitment to institutional neutrality. His protest letter quotes him saying that “when we align ourselves with a political side or faction it’s bad for our science.” As if it was designed to prove his point, the letter quickly appeals to the leadership of both UCLA and the University of California system: 

The UCLA community’s position on this issue was made abundantly clear when the UCLA Office of the Chancellor issued a statement on June 24th, 2022 to all UCLA community members that stated “as University of California President Michael Drake wrote today, this decision is antithetical to the University of California’s mission and values. Our university firmly supports individuals’ ability to access necessary health care services and make decisions about their own care in consultation with their medical teams.”

In other words, the letter appealed to the university’s official proclamation on a controversial issue to say that one should not even caution institutions against taking stances on controversial issues. Imagine if Inbar expressed opposition to abortion.

The principle of institutional neutrality can be instructive for the broader debate over diversity, equity, and inclusion. If these values merely represent a commitment to treating everyone with respect and decency, there would be little reason to object. But today, DEI increasingly implies a set of substantive social and political views, including a commitment to race-consciousness and the belief that disparities are per se indicators of racism. Thus, a strong endorsement from the university can easily silence—or punish—those who object.

Image: Unsplash, Public Domain


5 thoughts on “Psych! You Don’t Have the Job.

  1. Prof Inbar’s plea that universities not take positions on controversial cultural issues reminded me of a group of psychiatrists within the American Psychiatric Association (APA) back in the 90’s–American Psychiatrists for Neutrality on Abortion (APNOA). I was one of the founders, and president. Several of us had become aware, because the APA had invited Faye Wattleton, then president of Planned Parenthood, to give, if my memory serves, an important keynote address. We investigated, and found, not much to our surprise, that the APA’s official position was that abortion should be a decision between a woman and her doctor without interference from laws that might represent the interest of the unborn. I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it. Boilerplate. And an irony that most women getting abortions in free-standing, for profit clinics like Planned Parenthood don’t meet their “doctor” until they’re sedated with their feet in the stirrups. It was APNOA’s view that APA’s was indeed an advocacy pro-choice stance, one that ignored the real debate about what right to life the unborn had or didn’t have, but more pertinently, made it very morally dicey for pro-life psychiatrists to be members of their professional organization, in good conscience, and pay hefty dues to support it. Instead, we wanted the APA to simply have no position on abortion or abortion law at all. Nothing. Just the sound of silence. Most of the members of APNOA were pro-life but we never asked that the APA endorse our views. Of course we often got the usual response that the APA’s position was in fact neutral already.

    We made some headway, however–I was appointed by the then APA president Joe English, (who was sympathetic to our cause), to the Committee on Women, which was responsible for the official position. We were recognized as a subgroup in the APA and had an official booth at the annual convention where we distributed literature and talked with visitors. The conversations were civil. My reception by the Committee on Women was chilly, since they knew I had been appointed precisely to provide viewpoint diversity. It was lonely there, and I think it’s always best to send two like-minded migrants into hostile territory whenever possible, but Joe English couldn’t do that as only one position was open. I had no experience in organizational politics–totally naive and thrown in with very visible and politically experienced, rabid pro choice female psychiatrists who had no intention of surrendering any organizational cover for their personal views.. I’m ashamed to admit that I was relieved that abortion was not an agenda issue that year, nor did I raise any question on the APA position. The Committee met in person maybe twice a year, and the agenda was very formal and fixed. However, if I’d had more courage, and maybe some company in that foxhole, it’s possible I might have made some waves, which is all we could have been able to do anyway, and that would have been good enough for right then.

    At our height, APNOA had probably200 to 300 people on our mailing list. My year’s tenure on the Committe on Women ended, and a new APA president took over. I don’t recall his name but he wrote us a very civil letter, inviting APNOA to participate in some consideration of a revision of the APA position, but with the message, as I read the situation, that it would still have to be a pro-choice position, with no restrictions. But was I reading right? Some of us, myself included, felt any change would be only cosmetic, and we’d be compromising ourselves and our goal, and our personal pro life views, when we might have to sign off on any Potemkin villiage. For this, and other reasons, APNOA eventually folded its tents and disbanded. And the APA I guess still has its old abortion position, and many more since on hot button issues. I’ve long since left the APA, though I would prefer to be a member if I could.
    In retrospect, APNOA, and especially myself, were likely wrong to have been so bloody pure minded, and just stuck in there, making our views clear even if we were just whistling in the wind. Didn’t Woodly Allen say something like just showing up is 95% of any game, and we should just have kept showing up, just to stir the pot and maybe allow more people to rethink an entrenched orthodoxy. I don’t think we as a group, and certainly not myself, had the leadership and political skills to just keep pushing, keep talking even when it seemed hopeless. A lot of voices crying in the wind do eventually get heard.

    Just thought you guys, and especially Prof Inbar, if he ever might read this, might be
    interested in some ancient history. What I’ve said re a professional organization staying out of the cultural fray is of course 100x even more true of a university, especially with regard to hiring faculty

  2. DIE is garbage. Thank God Inbar opposed it. Every sane individual should.

    So when he’s accused of being so demonstrably sane, standing as he does in strong opposition to the idiocy of DIE Initiatives, Diversity Statements, and the use of DIE criteria to evaluate the quality of research, the University should celebrate! The students should applaud!

    “Huzzah! Huzzah! At last! At last! We’ve found someone who has not swallowed the Blue Pill…who refuses to jump down the Progressive Rabbit Hole. We have a candidate who is neither Dr. Tweedledum nor Professor Tweedledee with her ‘shared values’ (we have enough of them). We should hire him in a split instant!”

    Indeed, they should. Because the School is “committed to academic freedom in its fullest terms”… Because they “value open access to information, free and lively debate conducted with mutual respect for individuals, and freedom from intolerance”. And because DIE stands insanely against all that… someone who opposes what UCLA explicitly tells us must be opposed should absolutely be the ideal department hire.

    But he’s not..and he wasn’t. Because the Bruins’ Mission Statement which begins with a Bang by embracing ‘academic freedom in its fullest terms’ ends by burying itself in Woke Boilerplate Whimper: “ In all of our pursuits, we strive for excellence and diversity, recognizing that openness and inclusion produce true quality.”

    No it doesn’t. It can’t. It never has. And anyone who believes such Mad Hatter nonsense should talk with the Red Queen.

    Excellence is excellence and has absolutely nothing to do with social justice demographics. When our heart has stopped and we’re being wheeled into the Operating Theater, what we distinctly do NOT want to hear is, ‘Good News, Patient Smith, your Diverse Cardiac Surgery Team consists of 1 Hispanic Non-Binary who never passed math, 1 Black TransWoman, 1 Native American Asexual who is intellectually challenged, and 3 CisGendered Women who are Gender Fluid Gender Studies Majors!” No! What we all want to hear is “Good news, they’re all the very best at saving lives!” And we know this because each one passed the toughest and most rigorous hurdles to get there. Who cares how they all look or what appetites they may possess?!

    Inclusivity is the terminal opposite of Merit; it is the death of Quality.
    Life is a competition and the strongest, the best, and the brightest are the ones who very exclusively succeed.

    As for Equity, the most poisonous of the triumvirate, equity is inhumane. No one is equal, each to the other, save before God & the Law. Given our natural inequality, given the natural variation in human ability, human talent, human drive, and human ambition… given the constancy of luck and the unpredictability of circumstance – life itself is always inequitable. It can’t be any other way. Truthfully, we wouldn’t want it any other way. We are incented to do more and do better because by being ‘better’ we earn better and INEQUITABLE outcomes: our life inequitably improves.

    To “strive for Diversity” is to strive for Mediocrity. To believe that inclusion somehow, magically, produces Quality is to believe that pigs can fly.

    Inbar opposes this pig-flying insanity; UCLA evidently embraces it. He should actually be the one celebrating his escape.

  3. The ultimate irony here is that the “hire the spouse” was designed for the wife of someone you wanted to hire — it was not only intended to help you get the man you wanted to recruit, but also to recognize that women had careers and you didn’t want to ask them to sacrifice theirs to pursue their husband’s career.

    There is no shortage of feminist angst — and likely a few doctoral dissertations — in how this was essential for equity and all other good things. And as long as the woman was minimally qualified, you found something for her, often involving teaching freshmen.

    And now, when a minimally qualified man is following the woman, it suddenly is a case of minimally qualified not being good enough. Do these minimally cognizant graduate students realize the irony of this?

    In case they don’t, *they* would be out burning the campus flat if the institution didn’t hire the *woman* — and yet the same standard doesn’t apply here.

    The other thing here is something that truly terrifies me — this is a psychology program, those jack-booted Nazis will graduate in a few years and then have the legal authority to deny the rest of us our liberty — to declare us mentally ill and have us locked up in a cage. That’s the truly scary thing here….

  4. I find the students’ question “what is your approach to mentoring minority students?” offensive and racist. The question implies minority students need a different approach when it comes to mentoring. How demeaning and insulting.

    I don’t mentor a minority student any different than a non-minority student. Nor do I specially seek out minority students to mentor. No doubt that would make the fragile, puerile students really go ballistic.

    1. Patti — my response is the exact opposite of yours, and I say this as one who (a) has served on search committees and (b) would want to hire someone with attitudes such as yours.

      30-40 years ago, you could presume that a professor — a good one — would do what you say, and that if the professor had successful graduate students (easy enough to find out if you want to) you then knew that he/she/it wasn’t a racist.

      And you also weren’t dealing with faculty who have “Retired in Place” — who didn’t mentor *any* graduate students, nor do much of anything else other than pick up their paychecks. (Although at one point the UMass School of Education had to fingerprint everyone on the payroll to determine who actually existed and who was a fictitious person who didn’t…)

      The three questions I would have are (a) is this candidate some zealous DIE advocate or a sane person, (b) does this candidate even care about students — not all faculty do, and (c) has this candidate ever advised successful minority graduate students.

      I like to think that I would have worded the question in a slightly more neutral manner, but these *are* things that are needed to know — questions which you *did* answer and which *I* would have decided to vote to hire you on.

      I’m saying this as a (then) student who took time he didn’t have to volunteer to be the student member of search teams — and that’s what disgusts me here, where were these students when the admin was begging for a student to volunteer to be on the search?

      Not to mention all the stuff I say above/below. But in 2023, you do need to explicitly ask questions like this — the fact that no one did is how all the crazies got hired in the first place…

      What I am suggesting is that sane faculty need to find the time to be on search committees, and that sane faculty need to ask questions like this so as to know who not to hire. And why the Jennifer Keeton case of a dozen years ago is so incredibly problematic — that’s what lead to the incredibly ideological (i.e. fascist) student body in the psych programs today.


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