How will you improve diversity at our school?” That’s a question often asked in faculty job interviews today. A more elegant version appears in a University of California, Davis document quoted in an advice column in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “The University is committed to building a culturally diverse and inclusive environment. How would you further this goal?” The field doesn’t matter. You may be an aspiring historian of science, a cognitive psychologist, or an expert in Medieval French—the question will come up. The hiring committee reviewed your scholarship and letters of recommendation. Maybe they have an appraisal of your teaching, too. Now, in the face-to-face or Skype meeting, they want to know what you will do to bring more underrepresented identities to the department and the college.
Most young candidates won’t have given the issue much thought. They’ve been immersed in their theses. They’ve had to pay rent and buy groceries, teach workaday classes in Freshman Comp or French 100, or TA in Art History or American History sophomore surveys. Faculty advisers wanted to see finished chapters of the dissertation, not expressions of diversity affirmation.
But in 2019, everyone who aims for an academic post had better have an answer to the diversity question. Have you taught many minority students in the past and pushed them forward to success? Have you any experience with trans students? Have you worked with LGBT groups? Did your research pay special attention to the challenges faced by minority groups past and present? Any service to immigrant populations?
Affirmative answers might demonstrate the right commitment to identity politics—which, of course, is the whole point. The question filters out anyone not on board with the diversity program. If you are so far inharmonious as to think that scholarly competence should remain separate from social engineering, what are you doing even talking to us?
Social and religious conservatives end up at the top of the list of the shunned. The UC Davis document assures us that “all of the questions are unbiased and appropriate to ask,” but the diversity question, especially in the Davis version, rules out people with a biblical conception of sexuality. Their belief in original sin, too, hampers the progressive vision of a discrimination-free environment, just as their endorsement of the traditional family as the healthiest situation for children is anathema in the post-Obergefell era. “Inclusivity” also excludes individuals with too strong a feeling of patriotism. The reigning trio, diversity-inclusion-tolerance, sounds benign and anti-discriminatory, a proper replacement of God-family-country, but it prescribes a clear distinction between acceptable and unacceptable persons. If a social or religious conservative wishes to hold a job in academia, he has to lie.
This is all well understood by conservatives. Mary Eberstadt’s essay “The New Intolerance” (First Things, March 2015) vividly describes the ironic and malign workings of diversity, which we see every time a conservative is ousted from a putatively open-minded institution. (A good example is Kevin Williamson’s five-second stint at The Atlantic.) What is less widely recognized, however, is the implementation of diversity as a gatekeeping tool. It is hard to spot bias in the lower levels of the hiring process, which is confidential and whose victims are junior figures with no microphone.
Hiring bias is worse than firing bias. It can be more subtle and systematic. In time, the conservatives who entered their fields when the guardians were less vigilant will retire. If young conservatives are screened out from the start, the progressive practices of the organization will go uncontested. Increasingly, they will appear neutral and normal. A political outlook will inform standard operating procedure, so that leftist ideas and values stand in for scholarly norms per se (or journalistic, or legal, or medical norms). To be a professional is to be a progressive. A medical student who objects to performing abortions doesn’t deserve his degree.
The diversity question is just one example of professional competence redefined. The genius of progressives is to have inserted political criteria into professional assessment and made them appear legitimate and benign.
Nobody knows this better than young social and religious conservatives with professional aspirations. At this summer’s National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C., several of them told me so. The meeting was controversial, with accusations of white nationalism swirling—strange, given the multi-ethnic roster of attendees. It included Tucker Carlson, which was enough to tar the whole thing in the eyes of the professional class. The young people to whom I spoke work in elite fields and hope to climb the ladder. They have to be careful.
One fellow, a thirty-year-old who works at a famous technology firm in its New York offices, came down for the conference because he likes the nationalist outlook. He was relaxed and smiling. When I asked whether others in the company were here as well, he laughed. “Uh, no,” he said. “They don’t know I’m here, and when I get back I’m not going to tell them.” I thought of asking him what happened to the Wild West days of the Digital Revolution, when you could think and say anything you wanted. But he would probably have answered something like, “You heard of James Damore?”
Another man I encountered is an assistant professor of law who has some misgivings about the nationalist approach to American affairs. When I mentioned I might quote him in a future piece, he replied, “Only if you don’t give my name.” He’s up for tenure this year and doesn’t want anything to complicate the process. Though his words would please colleagues who despise Trumpian nationalism, the bare fact of his attendance at the meeting might trouble them.
Another young man works in finance in D.C. He was well dressed, with the manner of an accomplished individual accustomed to dealing with prosperous people. But he expressed more anxiety than others did. National conservatism, he believed, is the only hope for social and religious conservatives. He shuddered at the thought of a Hillary Clinton presidency. Here’s how he summed it up: “We [young conservatives] fear that if Democrats gain control of all branches of government, we may have to go underground.” He, too, requested that I keep his name secret.
One more person to whom I spoke works at a small D.C. think tank. He noted, first, “the strong distaste for who we are as people because of what we believe.” He emphasized the word distaste, which captures well the visceral nature of the progressive attitude, which he said has intensified since his college days: “I’ve watched my former classmates, liberals back then, abandon live-and-let-live and become people who say, ‘Agree with me or get out of the public square!’”
When I mentioned that remark to Will Chamberlain, publisher of Human Events, who is in his mid-thirties, he replied, “Oh, yes, the left’s attitude toward heretics has changed.” Before, progressives accepted a few conservatives in their midst, but with the election of Obama, he continued, they believed a decisive turn in human history had been taken.
The aggression in areas of employment has certainly worsened in the upper echelons. Young conservatives who are working-class and blue-collar don’t have to worry so much. Progressives don’t control their job prospects, and so they are readier to espouse patriotism, family values, and American exceptionalism. It’s ironic: There is more freedom of speech and thought among the working class than among the highly credentialed. A liberal Democrat who works in a body shop needn’t fear for his livelihood. A social conservative at a top law firm, Coca-Cola, Georgetown, or ABC News had better keep quiet.
Young conservatives on the way up are nervous. They are intelligent, hardworking, and ambitious. They’re also ever on notice and on guard. Their beliefs jeopardize their prospects, however unrelated those beliefs may be to their jobs. Sometimes, perhaps, their fears are exaggerated. But it only takes a few well-publicized takedowns, such as that of Brendan Eich at Mozilla, to make everyone wary.
Rising conservatives don’t have tenure and they don’t have think tank money. There are not enough slots at conservative publications, organizations, and political offices to employ all of them and sustain a pipeline. While conservative intellectuals and activists were winning policy debates on Capitol Hill, the left focused on personnel. Conservatives won the argument; progressives seized office space. Years ago, after one of my graduate students had floundered on the job market, I handed him an op-ed that, I told him, nailed the professors good. He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter—they have the jobs.”
Mark Bauerlein is contributing editor of First Things.