University of Washington Violated Non-Discrimination Policy, Internal Report Finds

John D. Sailer

A faculty hiring committee at the University of Washington (UW) “inappropriately considered candidates’ races when determining the order of offers,” provided “disparate opportunities for candidates based on their race,” and ultimately used race as “a substantial factor” in its hiring decision, according to a UW report acquired by the National Association of Scholars. 

The report—issued by what is now the UW Civil Rights Investigation Office (CRIO), and based on a review of emails, recorded faculty meetings, and one interview—shows how the Department of Psychology’s Diversity Advisory Committee pressured one hiring committee to re-rank finalist candidates on the basis of race.

The position, titled “Diversity in Development,” was designed to recruit psychologists with expertise in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The job reflects a growing trend in academia, whereby universities attempt to increase faculty diversity by focusing on DEI as an area of specialization.

On paper, this approach does not involve any consideration of candidates’ racial identities, which would violate UW’s non-discrimination policy. UW’s Executive Order 31 explicitly states that the university “will recruit, hire, train, and promote individuals” without regard to demographic categories like race, color, and sex.

Originally, the Diversity in Development hiring committee appeared to follow this policy. According to the report, at the conclusion of the search, the hiring committee “unanimously decided” on a ranking of finalists, which placed a white candidate first, an Asian candidate second, and a black candidate third. The report notes that this ranking “appears consistent with the faculty surveys providing evaluation of the candidates.”

Yet, members of the Diversity Advisory Committee (DAC)—which was involved in the hiring process, and which was also expected to eventually endorse the hiring report—did not approve of the ranking. Their objections, according to emails quoted in the report, focused substantially on the candidates’ demographics. One DAC member wrote in an email:

I was unsettled about the offer-order outcome for the following reasons: First, with three above threshold candidates (Black, Asian, White), it just seemed optically-speaking to look bad that offer #1 goes to the White candidate whom is the most junior and whose research content is less directly and explicitly connected to matters of race/ethnicity, compared to [name redacted] and [name redacted]. This made me think/suspect that some degree of undetected/unacknowledged bias had slipped in to result in this outcome.… Fourth, apart from [name redacted], the area visibly seems like it could use more diversity in faculty constitution.

The DAC eventually chose not to endorse the hiring committee’s report. In an email, a DAC member stated that, while the hiring report claims that the hiring committee was unanimous and enthusiastic about its decision, at least one committee member objected to the ranking. This led to a series of meetings wherein the hiring committee reassess its rankings. As one member put it, the key divide was between those who wanted “to consider both DEI and Research” and those who were “only considering DEI.”

Ultimately, the hiring committee members who supported the original rankings agreed to a revised order. In the words of the report, they “acquiesced.” The new ranking placed the black candidate first, the Asian candidate second, and the white candidate third.

The report notes that the holdout committee members “do not appear to have changed their minds about which candidate is most qualified” and that “at no point does the documentation show that they concurred” with the other committee members. Rather, according to the report, they indicated five reasons for eventually agreeing to the change the order:

  • “So as not to create a ‘Bloodbath’ at a faculty meeting”
  • “So the Developmental Area is not accused of ‘not prioritizing DEI’”
  • “Because they were worried junior faculty will hear a lot of ‘nasty stuff’ said at the faculty meeting and wonder if they were hired simply because of their races”
  • “Because they thought it would result in a failed search”
  • “Because it was creating personal stress on them, to the point that [name redacted] stated ‘I wish I could quit this job’ and [name redacted] wrote, ‘I cannot condone this search process and do not want to be asked to speak about it in person.’”

This re-ranking of candidates is the most serious violation of university policy described in the report. As the report puts it, “Based on the information evaluated, we conclude race was used as a substantial factor in the selection of the final candidate,” in violation of Executive Order 31. 

Washington State law, though not mentioned in the report, is no doubt also relevant to the incident. I-200, a ballot initiative adopted in 1998, mandates that “the state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or groups on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting.” In a recent webinar, UW Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement Chadwick Allen described I-200 as “basically an anti-affirmative action measure,” noting that “we can’t discriminate against people, we can’t give them preferential treatment, based on their demographic markers.”

The report raised issues about other practices, some of which appear to have been commonplace within the department and promoted throughout the university.

The report suggests that some faculty members treated DEI statements as a tool to target specific racial groups. In one email quoted in a footnote, a department member noted “you get a lot of people focusing statements on URM [underrepresented minority] mentoring as their main activity and that tends to advantage White women rather than the intended target groups.”

The Diversity in Development hiring committee also tracked the race of candidates throughout the hiring process, against the explicit advice of the dean’s office. As the report notes, the practice of tracking the race of candidates was “not without precedent” within the department. It was recommended in a document titled Promising Practices for Increasing Equity in Faculty Searches, a case study and set of recommendations created by the department, which the DAC treated as unofficial hiring policy.

Faculty members involved in the search kept their attention to race hidden from official documentation. “I advise deleting the statement below,” one department member commented while editing the final search report, “as it shows that URM applications were singled out and evaluated differently than non URM applications (which is not allowed as [redacted name] noted).” As the report notes, this comment did not suggest the sentence was incorrect, “just that it should be deleted because it is not allowed.”

The report also notes that one psychology department member “asserted that the Department had an official policy to hire URM candidates.” The faculty member again cited the department’s case study. “The policy that our department is prioritizing DEI, operationalized as focusing on increasing hiring of URM candidates, is mentioned in the promising search practices handbook,” the committee member wrote in one email.

According to the report, it was the case study that established the policy of requiring the “official DAC endorsement of faculty hiring recommendations.”

Until recently, the case study document—a copy of which was acquired by the National Association of Scholars—carried the imprimatur of the university’s administration. The case study itself notes that it was created “with funding from UW Natural Sciences Divisional Dean Dr. Daniel Pollack.”

In 2022, Dean Pollack circulated a set of hiring guidelines and resources. This hiring guide, a copy of which was acquired by the National Association of Scholars, places the case study second in its list of recommended resources, noting that it was “distributed by email.” 

In April 2022, Associate Vice Provost Chadwick Allen hosted a webinar with psychology department faculty member Sapna Cheryan. The webinar—a recording of which was acquired by the National Association of Scholars—suggests that Allen played a pivotal role in developing some of the case study’s key recommendations.

In the webinar, Cheryan described the case study in detail, often noting Allen’s involvement. When discussing the creation of job advertisements, the case study document recommends that search committees tailor their language to specific scholars. “If you could pick anyone, with an eye towards URM scholars, which current scholars in your field would be the best fit for this job? How do they describe their work and goals? Consider using similar language to communicate your unit’s priorities.” In the webinar, Cheryan notes that “Chad told us to, as we were writing our job ad, to think about a list of about ten candidates that we would really love to see in our pool… So we made a list of ten candidates, and then Chad recommended, go to their websites and see how they word their research… we actually just pulled wording, keywords, from the way they described their research.”

The case study likewise recommends “deciding who was above threshold for the position and then focusing on the optimal order to make offers… rather than trying to identify the ‘lone superstar’ among the final candidates.” In the webinar, Cheryan notes, “we also, based on some recommendations from Chad, thought about the offer process this time as not so much of a, like, we need to find the superstar best… but really think about who's above threshold and what is the right order to make offers.”

In a meeting discussing the result of the Civil Rights Investigation Office report, UW administrators announced that the department and university as a whole should no longer use the case study, as it was now considered inconsistent with UW’s nondiscrimination policy, according to faculty members present at the meeting. Thus, after widely promoting the case study, and contributing to its creation, the UW administration has concluded the document encourages discriminatory practices.

The Department of Psychology, meanwhile, is suspended from tenure track hiring for the next two academic years. At the end of the two year suspension, the department will work with the provost’s office to determine how to move forward with its hiring practices.

In April 2023, the National Association of Scholars made a public records request for emails and other documentation related to several UW faculty job searches, including the Diversity in Development search. The university estimates that it will respond to our request on December 14 of this year.


Photo by Lokesh Masania on Unsplash

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