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IOWA CITY — A national nonprofit civil liberties group is calling on the University of Iowa College of Law to remove or revise a new question added to faculty evaluation forms asking how the professors have improved their law school’s “diversity, equity, and inclusion” — calling those terms “broad,” “subjective” and “political.”
“Incorporating such a question into faculty evaluations risks establishing an ideological litmus test for professors, which could impact promotion and tenure consideration and penalize faculty for holding a dissenting opinion on matters of public concern,” asserted The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE.
The UI law school added the question in fall 2020 at the suggestion from an anti-racism committee formed in the wake of that summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and after UI College of Law Dean Kevin Washburn issued a statement committing to changes.
“At the College of Law, we embrace social justice as our responsibility and we commit to making anti-racism an integral part of our work, in the classes we teach, in the clinical and advocacy work we undertake, in the scholarship we produce, in the decisions we make, and in our everyday interactions within and without these walls,” Washburn wrote in June 2020. “We also dedicate ourselves to examine systems and processes throughout the law school — ranging from curriculum and alumni support to outreach and community building — in order to guard against institutional racism and implicit bias.”
The faculty evaluation form now includes the following statement: “The Iowa Law Anti-Racism Committee has encouraged me to ask each faculty member to identify any contributions you have made to improving our law school community in the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion. Please do so.”
UI officials told FIRE, according to an email, that law college faculty aren’t required to respond. But FIRE raised an eyebrow.
“If answering this question is optional, it certainly doesn’t read that way,” FIRE officials wrote in a statement. “Not to put too fine a point on it, anyone working for a law school, of all places, would most certainly recognize this. In fact, while this prompt is one of several that faculty members may choose to respond to, it’s the only one that ends with language (“Please do so”) suggesting that the response is mandatory.”
FIRE program analyst Sabrina Conza in a letter to Dean Washburn went further in asserting the prompt threatens discrimination.
“The text of the prompt leaves faculty members little assurance that their response — or lack of response — will be evaluated without respect to viewpoint, given the prompt’s compulsory language and absence of sufficiently precise and objective definitions of ‘diversity,’ ‘equity,’ and ‘inclusion,’” Conza wrote Oct. 11. “Absent more, these terms, which carry salient political connotations that are the subject of much debate and controversy, may serve as proxy for particular viewpoints or beliefs.”
In arguing diversity, equity and inclusion have taken on political meaning, Conza in a 2020 letter to Washburn suggested evaluating law school faculty on their “contributions to patriotism” — for example — would require “an inherently political, viewpoint-dependent calculation.”
Conza asked in the letter what would happen to a conservative professor who — believing his or her views aren’t represented in the college — offered attending the Conservative Political Action Committee, or CPAC, as contributing to diversity of thought.
Without clear “viewpoint-neutral” definitions and metrics for the new evaluative criteria, Conza argued, “Faculty members with personal or professional beliefs and commitments that differ from those of their peers or evaluators will be penalized.”
Washburn didn’t respond to either of FIRE’s letters in 2020 and this fall, prompting the organization to go public with its demands.
“At a minimum, Iowa Law must amend the prompt to state clearly that it is voluntary and applicants won’t be penalized for declining to answer,” according to Conza. “The prompt should also expressly state that responses will not be evaluated on the basis of viewpoint.”
She offered an example of a prompt her organization would support: “If interested, please use this space to discuss any contributions you have made to the law school community in the areas of diversity and inclusion. Responses will not be evaluated on the basis of viewpoint, and there is no penalty for declining to respond.”
FIRE noted Iowa isn’t the only institution adding diversity-related questions to faculty evaluations — pointing to University of California-Los Angeles’ mandate for a diversity statement from tenure-track applicants and Cornell University’s proposal to add diversity questions to course evaluations and promotion considerations.
“This trend shows no signs of slowing down,” according to FIRE.
In a statement to The Gazette, Washburn said, “Legal education requires asking difficult questions and asking them often.”
“I believe that our community and our nation need more conversation about important issues, not less,” he wrote. “I have repeatedly described Iowa Law's diversity of faculty viewpoints to be one of the College of Law's greatest strengths. As a dean, it is incumbent on me to encourage people to engage diverse people and views.”
Reiterating the evaluation addition is not a mandate, Washburn said he “simply encouraged faculty introspection as to this question.”
“While faculty are not required to respond,” he said, “the question has contributed to healthy discussion.”
Some professors have taken to social media defending the UI.
“The phrasing of the question at @IowaLawSchool is exactly as it should be: faculty are asked what they have DONE to advance inclusivity,” UC-Davis School of Law professor Brian Soucek wrote on Twitter. “It doesn't ask anything about what they BELIEVE. That's not viewpoint discrimination.”
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