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UC Davis professor under fire for opposing required ‘diversity statements’

Nearly 600 academics have come out against her position

A mathematics professor at the University of California, Davis, has faced significant pushback for criticizing university-mandated “diversity statements,” testimonies that purportedly help determine the degree to which job applicants will be able to advance and promote diversity on campus.

Abigail Thompson, who in addition to her work at UC Davis is a vice president of the American Mathematical Society, wrote an essay for that organization’s journal in which she argued that “using a political test as a screen for job applicants should send a shiver down our collective spine.”

The phenomenon of “diversity statements” has been growing in recent years, with an increasing number of schools stipulating that faculty hires must list their diversity bona fides before getting hired. The University of California, Los Angeles, mandated last year that professors seeking tenure track must provide a statement demonstrating a “record of success advising women and minority graduate students.” At the University of California, San Diego, meanwhile, applicants must list their past and future efforts to “advance equity, diversity and inclusion.”

In her essay, Thompson likened the practice to a similar mandatory statement required of California university professors in the mid-20th century.

“In 1950 the Regents of the University of California required all UC faculty to sign a statement asserting: ‘I am not a member of, nor do I support any party or organization that believes in, advocates, or teaches the overthrow of the United States Government, by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional means, that I am not a member of the Communist Party,” Thompson wrote. She claimed that 31 faculty members were fired for their refusal to adopt this political statement.

“Whatever our views on diversity and how it can be achieved, mandatory diversity statements are equally misguided…Mathematics must be open and welcoming to everyone, to those who have traditionally been excluded, and to those holding unpopular viewpoints. Imposing a political litmus test is not the way to achieve excellence in mathematics or in the university. Not in 1950, and not today,” Thompson wrote.

The mathematician wrote that diversity statements are increasingly a key factor for educators looking to secure a university job.

“The diversity ‘score’ is becoming central in the hiring process. Hiring committees are being urged to start the review process by using officially provided rubrics to score the required diversity statements and to eliminate applicants who don’t achieve a scoring cut-off,” she said.

Blowback against ‘dangerous’ argument

Reached for comment via email, Thompson declined to answer any questions, indicating that she was swamped by the responses to her essay.

“I’m really overwhelmed with requests right now. I’ve decided I will be writing a general response about my opinion piece and what followed from it, and I can let you know when that is available,” she told The College Fix, adding that she wanted to release the statement “hopefully in the next few weeks.”

Thompson has indeed weathered significant criticism for her arguments against diversity statements. Chad Topaz, a mathematician at Williams College, wrote in a Facebook post that Thompson’s article was a “travesty” and that it was a “grave and very damaging mistake” for the mathematical society to publish it.

“I don’t know why Abigail Thompson would think this stuff, nor why the American Mathematical Society would publish it,” he said in the post. He encouraged readers to “tweet at UC Davis…to provide some good ‘ol [sic] public shame.” He also wrote that he would direct his students to avoid applying to graduate school at the University of California, Davis.

Topaz did not respond to repeated requests for comment from The Fix. In an article on the website QSide, he suggested that Thompson may be in violation of UC-Davis campus rules.

“If she has gone on record in a very public way as being opposed to diversity statements, and if UC Davis requires them, the school must look into whether or not she has been abiding by institutional policy,” he wrote.

Thompson has also been sharply criticized in a letter signed by nearly 600 academics from a vast array of institutions. Calling her essay “ignorant…and dangerous,” the signatories state that Thompson “[spun] this issue with partisan wording,” and that the essay’s publication “sen[t] a message to the profession about how diversity is viewed by those with power and responsibility in the AMS and a major university department.”

Though she has been slammed for her essay, in that piece itself Thompson argued in favor of a more diverse field of mathematical study.

“Mathematics has made progress over the past decades towards becoming a more welcoming, inclusive discipline. We should continue to do all we can to reduce barriers to participation in this most beautiful of fields,” she wrote.

“There are also mistakes to avoid. Mandating diversity statements for job candidates is one such mistake, reminiscent of events of seventy years ago,” she added.

MORE: Mandatory faculty diversity statements ‘an affront to academic freedom,’ scholar argues

MORE: Faculty forced to pledge allegiance to diversity or lose their jobs

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About the Author
Addison Smith - Liberty University