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In a debate over ‘diversity statements’ in mathematics, free speech is winning

It’s some welcome good news in higher ed

In writing a simple essay, U.C. Davis professor Abigail Thompson probably did not imagine she would generate controversy of such depth and breadth. The mathematics professor recently authored an article for the journal of the American Mathematical Society in which she argued against the use of “diversity statements” in faculty hiring. This convention, which asks teachers to outline how they’ve supported diverse academia in the past and how they’ll support it in the future, amount to little more than “a political test as a screen for job applicants.”

Thompson’s perfectly defensible argument generated a sadly predictable response from much of academia. One professor, Chad Topaz of Williams College, has been prominent in leading a substantial revolt against Thompson, urging people to publicly “shame” her university and vowing to steer his graduate students and fellow academics away from U.C. Davis. Hundreds of professors signed a letter deeming Thompson’s argument “dangerous,” which of course it is plainly not; slightly more than 600 faculty have signed that petition.

Thankfully it’s not all fire and doomsaying. A backlash to the backlash arose in the past week, with numerous professors publicly defending Thompson—not necessarily her argument against diversity pablum, but rather in support of the principle that “important issues should be openly discussed in a respectful manner.” That letter has been signed by over 750 academics, proving that, even in these increasingly unbalanced times, not all is lost at the academy.

An hysterical, quasi-terrorist response to a simple argument is not, of course, “respectful;” it’s the stuff of catty teenage pettiness, the sort of thing designed to shut down any sort of debate before it begins. That’s the point: Many activists and faculty members in higher education are not interested in having thoughtful, interesting discussions, they’re interested in ritually destroying anyone who offends them and sending a warning to anyone who might consider offending them. Abigail Thompson made a fine, reasonable argument; whether or not you disagree with it, there’s no point in acting like she’s some sort of modern-day Nazi. Thank goodness more than a few professors still understand that.

MORE: Hundreds of academics sign letter in support of prof who criticized ‘diversity statements’

IMAGE: Robert Kneschke / Shutterstock.com

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