A Smokescreen for Discrimination?

Kali Jerrard

CounterCurrent: Week of 07/08/2024

Mandatory diversity statements and “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) considerations in faculty hiring are the bad romance of higher education. Administrators just can't stay away, and the government fuels the toxic cycle by funding the affair. 

DEI being utilized in hiring practices is not a new phenomenon—college and university administrators and leadership embrace the ideology as sacrosanct, even if not explicitly on paper. So it is unsurprising when John D. Sailer recently reported his findings—a trail of outright racial preferences in higher education hiring practices uncovered through a series of public records requests. But not only this, the widespread practice has been aided and abetted by the government.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) through its Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST) program gives grants to universities and medical schools for DEI-focused “cluster hiring.” Institutions who receive FIRST grant money must heavily value diversity statements in hiring decisions. “The creators of the program reasoned that by heavily weighing commitment to DEI, they could prompt schools to hire more minorities but without direct racial preferences,” Sailer explains. He continues to say that in the documents he obtained—emails, grant proposals, progress reports, and hiring records—many FIRST grant recipients seem to be restricting hiring on the basis of race or minority status, in violation of NIH policies and potentially civil rights law. 

Sailer has reported on the FIRST program before, as the program has been fraught with problems since its inception—even if the program was initially intended not to heavily weigh race and sex preferences, it was quickly infiltrated by DEI, providing a new front for discrimination in higher education. 

And Sailer’s newest trove of records tell an alarming story. Some schools, like Vanderbilt and the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and the University of Texas at Dallas, are bold in their approach—focusing on hiring minority, underrepresented groups, and women in their NIH FIRST program proposals. Sailer notes a lack of clarity in the FIRST program's aim. While the program states candidates should be evaluated on credentials, not race, schools often misunderstand the guidance, often reading between the lines to interpret the program’s purpose. Sailer says, “Records show a repeated tension between the NIH First program’s official nondiscrimination policy and how the funded projects have played out—which at times looks a lot like discrimination.” 

The colleges and universities exposed by Sailer’s records requests upheld clear instances of racial preferences in documents they sent to and were reviewed by the NIH. For instance, “A joint proposal from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the university’s Baltimore County campus states that all scientists hired through the program will meet the NIH’s definition of ‘underrepresented populations in science.’” The problem with such practices is that they skate the line of the law. Sailer elaborates,

This raises questions about compliance with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits race discrimination in employment. The First program’s website highlights regulations requiring that federal agencies ensure grant recipients comply with nondiscrimination law. The most basic implication is that universities can’t refuse to hire someone, or prefer one candidate over another, because of race or sex. But emails show that this has been happening.  

In one story which surfaced as a result of Sailer’s records requests, the University of New Mexico's FIRST leadership team heavily considered the race and sex of applicants in their hiring decisions. A list compiled by a math-and-statistics search committee was sent to the team via email—worth noting is that the team held veto power over job searches. The first choice was a woman recommended without qualifications, the second choice was a South Asian man recommended only if the leadership team determined him to be a “good fit,” and the third candidate was another woman, recommended as backup. The team decided the South Asian man did not count as underrepresented and nixed him. One team member wrote, “We’ve said that Math is really low on women.” While another noted that “their DEI statements are strong,” referring to the two remaining women. 

This story is not a singular instance. How this has been allowed to persist in higher education hiring processes is beyond comprehension. 

Universities and medical schools have been allowed to court DEI for too long. Congress should investigate the lack of oversight by the NIH officials managing the FIRST program. Diversity statements have provided a convenient smokescreen for discrimination, says Sailer. Lawmakers and those concerned with excellence in higher education should be taking a much closer look at the NIH FIRST program, posthaste.

Until next week.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by the NAS Staff. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Photo by Thomas Stephan on Unsplash

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