America's Largest System of Higher Education Proposes Political Litmus Tests

John D. Sailer

In 2019, the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office adopted its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Integration Plan. The plan lists more than a dozen strategies for integrating DEI into the California Community Colleges system, one of which reads: “Encourage diversity-focused criteria in employee evaluations and tenure review.”

On March 11 of this year, the Chancellor’s Office announced a policy proposal that would carry out this strategy, formally establishing “DEI competencies” as a condition for promotion, tenure, evaluations. The policy itself is thorough and unequivocal, and other documents released by the Chancellor's Office—including a list of sample DEI competencies—show exactly how such requirements would play out. If it passes, the largest system of higher education in the country will require its faculty to demonstrate their commitment to today’s narrow orthodoxy.

New Regulatory Language

The “new regulatory language,” according to the Chancellor’s notice, makes DEIA competencies (the “A” is for “accessibility”) “a minimum standard and a system-wide requirement.” While many institutions, from large research universities to stand-alone medical schools, promise similar requirements, the policy provides a glimpse of what this might look like in practice.

What does it look like? “To advance DEIA principles in community college employment,” the policy mandates that community college districts must:

include DEIA competencies and criteria as a minimum standard for evaluating the performance of all employees;

place significant emphasis on DEIA competencies in employee evaluation and tenure review processes to support employee growth, development, and career advancement;

include a self-reflection and a comprehensive evaluation from appropriate evaluators who reflect a range of perspectives on an employee’s performance. The evaluation process shall provide employees an opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of DEIA and anti-racist principles, including how the employee has operationalized DEIA in the performance of their job responsibilities.

Already, this language makes DEIA—and its implied set of political commitments—an explicit job requirement. And it reiterates that requirement several times. For example, it establishes role-specific DEIA obligations, detailing expectations for faculty (“employ teaching and learning practices and curriculum that reflect DEIA and anti-racist principles”), administrators (“include significant consideration of DEIA and anti-racist principles into existing policies and practices, funding allocations, decisionmaking, planning, and program review processes”), and staff (“promote and incorporate culturally affirming DEIA and anti-racist principles to nurture and create a respectful, inclusive, and equitable learning and work environment”).

Already, terms like “culturally affirming DEIA” and “anti-racist principles” connote a set of highly debatable concepts. The “anti-racism” of Ibram X. Kendi calls for the wholesale transformation of modern society. The notion of “equity” requires establishing equality of outcomes as an explicit policy goal. Both concepts depend on viewing the world through the lens of oppression. Of course, faculty should be free to espouse such views, but requiring adherence to them amounts to an ideological litmus test, a straightforward violation of academic freedom. Such required adherence is the stated purpose of the newly-proposed policy. This is perhaps best exemplified by the policy’s definition of “cultural competence,” which entails an ongoing transformation of one’s beliefs and a continued acknowledgment of “axes of oppression”:

“Cultural Competency” refers to the practice of acquiring and utilizing knowledge of the intersectionality of social identities and the multiple axes of oppression that people from different racial, ethnic, and other minoritized groups face. The development of cultural competency is a dynamic, on-going process that requires a long-term commitment to learning.

The Competencies

The policy also requires the Chancellor’s Office to publish detailed “DEIA competencies and criteria”—and recently, a group charged with implementing DEI measures in the California Community Colleges system developed a draft set of competencies. These fell under such themes as “Self-reflection,” “Self-improvement,” and “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Pedagogy & Curriculum.” Under each theme, the draft lists recommended descriptions. A selection is worth quoting at length:

Demonstrates an ongoing awareness and recognition of racial, social, and cultural identities with fluency regarding their relevance in creating structures of oppression and marginalization

Demonstrates an understanding of the lived experiences of culturally diverse students, employees, and communities in the District and uses that understanding to contribute to student success, equity, and inclusion

Engages in self-assessment of one’s own commitment to DEI and internal biases, and seeks opportunities for growth to acknowledge and address the harm caused by internal biases and behavior

Demonstrates a commitment to continuous improvement as it relates to one's DEI and anti-racism knowledge, skills, and behaviors to mitigate any harm caused (whether intentional or not) to minoritized communities

Promotes and incorporates DEI and anti-racist pedagogy

Accommodates for diverse learning styles and utilizes holistic assessment methods

Participates in training to incorporate culturally affirming pedagogy

Includes a DEI and race-conscious pedagogy and/or curriculum in campus activities for students, faculty, and/or staff

Contributes to DEI and anti-racism research and scholarship

Demonstrates the implementation of DEI and anti-racism practices in teaching and/or service in the evaluation process

Adopting such competencies, as the Chancellor’s Office intends to do, would place an immense silencing pressure of faculty members who dissent from today’s orthodoxy—those who object to the mainstream notions of “anti-racism” or “equity,” reject “race-conscious teaching,” or have no intention of engaging in “DEI and anti-racism research.”

By adopting these competencies, the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges would not only violate academic freedom and enforce adherence to a dubious political ideology. It would also transform teaching throughout the entire system, under the pretense of “culturally affirming pedagogy” and “holistic assessment methods.”

DEI in Curriculum

The new policy would require faculty to “employ teaching and learning practices” that “reflect DEIA and anti-racist principles.” The proposed competencies call for “culturally affirming pedagogy,” “race-conscious pedagogy,” and “holistic assessment methods.” Last year, a workgroup for the curriculum committee created a set of guidelines titled “DEI in Curriculum: Model Principles and Practices,” (embedded below) which shows exactly what such innovative pedagogies might entail.

The very structure of the document is revealing. It lists a series of “Traditional Eurocentric Practice[s]” alongside alternative “Equity Principle,” “Culturally Responsive Classroom Practices,” and “Culturally Responsive Practices for Curriculum Committees and Local Senates.” While some of the proposed practices are innocuous, such as lowering the cost of textbooks, many are deeply ideological in nature.

The “Eurocentric” practices include “Student[s] facing documents and descriptions focused on deficit-minded language,” “Classroom experiences, assignments, and assessments are built from an individualist perspective,” and “Course syllabus is approached from a compliance and/or teacher-centered perspective.” The alternatives: “Use asset-minded and decolonized language,” “Shift to a collectivism perspective to engage authentic lived experiences and relate to students cultural norms,” and “Democratize the student/teacher relationship and empower students’ agency over their own learning.” Against the assumption that “only certain disciplines can address antiracism, diversity, and equity,” the document suggests faculty use “culturally responsive practices and a social justice lens in all disciplines.”

The guidelines go beyond euphemism, explicitly calling for the abandonment of academic freedom. Against the supposedly “eurocentric” practice of “Institutional culture of deference to discipline faculty as the only experts on curriculum,” the corresponding equity principles include “Interrogat[ing] systemic and institutional barriers,” “Dismantl[ing] institutional deference to hierarchies that perpetuate barriers,” “Mov[ing] as a faculty collective toward antiracist critical consciousness.” The culturally responsive classroom practice, which the document offers as a concrete alternative, is most telling:

Protect the cultural integrity of an academic discipline to support equity by no longer weaponizing “academic integrity” and “academic freedom” that impedes equity and inflicts curricular trauma on our students, especially historically marginalized students.

Saying the quiet part out loud.

The California Community Colleges system consists of 116 community colleges, serving almost 2 million students. And many students choose to go to community college for a single reason: cost. A policy that transforms community colleges will disproportionately affect the neediest students. Those students will bear the brunt of these disastrous competencies.


Photo by Coolcaesar at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15864431

Editor's Note: This article was updated on March 22nd at 11:20 am EDT. A previous version stated that there were "112 community colleges" in the CCC system, there are actually 116.

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