There is a tragic irony in the recent case of Yoel Inbar at the University of California, Los Angeles. Inbar is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and was close to joining UCLA’s Department of Psychology last spring. That was until 66 students signed a petition that urged UCLA administrators not to hire him for his views on diversity. Inbar was initially supported for the position by the faculty in the psychology department, but the student opposition seems to have led the university to not extend a formal offer. Students effectively vetoed the hiring of a well-regarded academic, and with that, higher education has moved into even more dangerous territory.
In an episode of his podcast, “Two Psychologists Four Beers,” Inbar mildly criticized diversity, equity, and inclusion statements as compelled speech and empty “value signaling.” This is not an uncommon position. Inbar also said, “It is not clear what good they do” and mentioned that he thought the goals of helping underrepresented communities were good but that he doubted the usefulness of diversity statements.
In response to Inbar’s ideas and views, the UCLA students wrote an open letter that stated that “Given the express priority of our university to consider DEI efforts and experiences in the faculty search and hiring process, we are adamant that the hiring committee enforce UCLA’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Office message”; they demanded that the school elect “to not extend a job offer to Dr. Yoel Inbar.” The psychology department decided not to hire Inbar even after Inbar met with some graduate students to discuss his work. If Inbar had refrained from expressing his skepticism, he may have landed the job. However, that would have meant accepting DEI statements, a confusing and unreliable practice.
The Inbar case highlights how threatened open debate and dialogue are on college campuses. Job candidates have increasingly been mandated to include diversity statements with their job applications; candidates are asked how they have promoted diversity, equity, and inclusion in their careers, and are forced to espouse ideas with which they might not fully agree. Outside of requiring candidates to submit DEI statements, and ignoring questions as to their legality, a significant question is what a “correct” statement looks like; if there is a correct ideological position, will a candidate be rejected for falling out of line?
Moving beyond these questions, the Inbar episode represents the next level of absurdity on college campuses. It is well known that present and potential faculty who deviate from fashionable academic ideas are being fired or suffer numerous adverse personal and professional consequences, including being denied tenure, or are otherwise disadvantaged in terms of the allocation of resources or teaching assignments. But the Inbar mess shows that higher education has moved well beyond the grasp of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives promoted by administrators and faculty.
The Inbar situation is a potent example of a university capitulating to students’ dangerous and uninformed demands about which professor can and should be hired. Such behavior is well beyond the scope of graduate and undergraduate students’ capacity; academic hiring should be done at the department level. Students are free to attend one of thousands of schools nationwide if they do not like the faculty at one institution.
While students are trying to make the decisions on the hiring of professors, administrators and faculty are empowering and encouraging them. Student “bias response lines” are popping up everywhere and creating a culture of fear and censorship. A student at Stanford University was reported for reading Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” through Stanford’s “Protected Identity Harm” system where students can report alleged “hate crimes” and “crimes based on hate,” illegal/unlawful and/or unconstitutional behaviors. The mere presence of the book sparked the PIH report. Although Stanford followed its commitment to freedom of speech, it is chilling to consider that students are attempting to prevent one another from even encountering a historically important text, albeit an abhorrent one.
A new survey from North Dakota State University’s Challey Institute shows just how ingrained the idea that students can censor others on campus is today. The Challey survey found that 74 percent of students surveyed believe that professors should be reported for saying something found offensive, while 26 percent disagree; 81 percent of liberal students and 53 percent of conservative students agree that a professor who is offensive should be reported. And, in terms of peers, 66 percent of liberal students and 37 percent of conservative students said they would also report peers who made offensive comments. This is the antithesis of a healthy collegiate environment and characterizes a powerful danger to both democracy and discourse.
A core value of a liberal education — viewpoint diversity — has been gradually eroded in higher education, and this must be reversed. What happens on our nation’s college and university campuses rarely remains on campus and becomes part of our larger sociopolitical fabric. The Inbar situation at UCLA raises numerous concerns about the legitimacy of litmus tests and diversity statements and is a troubling example of how students have become censors of what they see and hear. The fact is that college life should be challenging and upsetting, and professors and administrators should be encouraging growth and discomfort as opposed to coddling and balkanizing students. Biases should be confronted, and campus life is the last space that should promote a culture of intolerance, cancellation, and “gotcha-ism” that is infecting students.
Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Harvey A. Silverglate is a criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer and writer. He is coauthor of “The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses” and cofounder of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. Both Abrams and Silverglate are on FIRE’s board of directors.