Higher Education

OSU using DEI to hire plant physiology professor?

September 26, 2023

Ray Carter

In a recent job posting, Oklahoma State University requests that all applicants for assistant professor in plant physiology provide a statement, running up to three pages in length, that describes how the applicant will “address perspectives on understanding the challenges of, and improving the opportunities for, those from all populations.”

Critics see that requirement as an effort to impose controversial “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) mandates on job applicants without explicitly labeling them as such.

“The statement presumably is meant to be a version of a DEI statement that will avoid public notice and, conceivably, pass legal muster,” said David Randall, director of research for the National Association of Scholars.

While DEI mandates are routine in college settings, they are controversial among the broader public.

A December 2022 report by the Heritage Foundation on DEI programs noted, “At the heart of these multi-billion-dollar efforts—both public and philanthropic—are certain key assumptions: America is systemically racist; white America harbors unconscious racism; and equal rights, meritocracy, and the law itself reinforce a regime of white supremacy. Most of DEI’s practices violate the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act.”

Members of the Arizona Board of Regents recently announced that public universities in that state will no longer require “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) statements from university job applicants.

The decision to yank DEI statements from the college-hiring process occurred after the Goldwater Institute released a report finding that applicants were expected to support diversity statements to obtain 28% of job postings at the University of Arizona, 73% of job postings at Northern Arizona University, and 81% of job postings at Arizona State University.

In many instances, the report found the traditional cover letter had been replaced with a DEI statement at Arizona universities.

“Arizona’s universities appear to be using DEI statements in an attempt to circumvent the state’s constitutional prohibition against political litmus tests in public educational institutions,” the Goldwater report stated.

Policymakers in several states have taken action to rein in use of DEI in the college-hiring process, including in Florida, Texas, Missouri, and North Carolina.

However, Oklahoma policymakers have not taken similar action yet, and the hiring process at many Oklahoma colleges and universities pressures job applicants to express support for the political viewpoints embodied by DEI.

Oklahoma’s public colleges have spent at least $83.4 million on “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) programs and personnel over the last decade, according to estimates released by state higher-education entities in February.

The universities’ DEI spending included funding for drag-queen performances, a program on fostering “Trans and Non‐Binary Resilience,” so-called “antiracist” training, and a presentation on “Black Jesus.”

Oklahoma State University did not respond to a request for comment.

The requirement for a potentially lengthy statement discussing students “from all populations” is tucked within the OSU job posting, which otherwise mostly focuses on requirements that have a clear tie to work in plant physiology, such as requiring applicants to be able to “address fundamental questions in plant physiology at any level from molecules to whole organisms to ecosystems.”

“Research areas could include but are not limited to photosynthesis, respiration, plant hormones, transport, stress physiology, development, growth analysis, and ecophysiology,” OSU’s job posting states. “Candidates with computational, genetic/genomic, or molecular tools are especially encouraged to apply.”

Randall said state officials should review how OSU is using the required “all populations” statement in the hiring process.

“The Oklahoma public and policymakers should use (respectively) Freedom of Information Act requests and oversight capacities to reveal all internal documents related to job processes using such statements at Oklahoma public universities, to reveal exactly how they are used, and whether the universities continue to break federal or state law,” Randall said. “Oklahoma policymakers should follow up with measures to provide fuller accountability at Oklahoma public universities, both by financial sanctions against universities that continue to evade the intent of state and federal law and by sanctions against individual malfeasant personnel.”

The OSU job posting for professor of plant physiology also includes language suggesting that preference will be given to certain applicants based on their race or other identities, rather than merit.

“Candidates from groups historically excluded and underrepresented in science and academia are especially encouraged to apply,” the OSU job posting states.

Race-based hiring or similar practices are under increasing legal scrutiny.

This year, in its opinion in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, the U.S. Supreme Court held that colleges violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment when admission is given to students who might not otherwise qualify based on race.

“Many universities have for too long wrongly concluded that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned, but the color of their skin,” the opinion stated. “This Nation’s constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”

That ruling did not directly impact colleges’ hiring practices, but further legal challenges are expected as a result of the court opinion.

“The Supreme Court narrowly affected undergraduate admissions, and does not deal with faculty,” Randall said. “Further lawsuits will have to establish whether the principles of SFFA v. Harvard should be extended to faculty and staff hiring in higher education.”

[For more stories about higher education in Oklahoma, visit AimHigherOK.com.]