Academic sues UCSC over requirement that candidates submit diversity statements, citing First Amendment

John D. Haltigan, plaintiff in a lawsuit against UC Santa Cruz
John D. Haltigan, plaintiff in a lawsuit against UC Santa Cruz.

John D. Haltigan shelved his application for a tenure-track psychology position at UC Santa Cruz after seeing a requirement to submit a statement on diversity and equity. Now the Pennsylvania resident is suing the school, with his lawyer saying Haltigan feels the requirement infringes on his free speech because it compels him to adopt certain beliefs as a condition of applying for the job.

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A former University of Toronto assistant professor hoping to apply to a tenure-track psychology position at UC Santa Cruz is suing the school, alleging that its requirement that candidates submit a statement on their beliefs about diversity and equity violates the First Amendment.

John D. Haltigan, a Pennsylvania resident, is currently unemployed and seeking employment in university psychology departments around the country. A U.S. citizen, he finished working as an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto earlier this year. He has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from the University of Miami.

Anticipating the end of a grant that funded his position at the University of Toronto, Haltigan saw the UCSC position after it was posted in July 2022, according to one of his lawyers, Wilson Freeman of the Pacific Legal Foundation. The Sacramento-based organization is a nonprofit that provides free legal representation in cases alleging government overreach and abuse.

Haltigan felt the position was a good fit for his skills given his academic background. However, after seeing a requirement to submit a statement on diversity and equity as one of the two items needed for the initial screening of applications, he stopped his application.

Haltigan filed his lawsuit on May 18 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Jose. The lawsuit also names as defendants University of California President Michael Drake, UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive, psychology professor and psychology department chair Benjamin C. Storm and social sciences dean Katharyne Mitchell.

Freeman said because the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) statement is a screening tool for applications, and because UCSC’s rubric scores some DEI statements higher than others, Haltigan is “essentially barred from his application.” He added that Haltigan feels the requirement infringes on his free speech because it compels him to adopt certain beliefs as a condition of applying for the job.

“So he’s suing in order to be considered for the position on equal terms with individuals that possess the correct viewpoints as seen by the university,” Freeman said. In his complaint, Haltigan called the DEI statement requirements “a thinly veiled attempt to ensure dogmatic conformity throughout the university system.”

On Tuesday, UC and UC Santa Cruz officials said they were not commenting on the case because they had not yet been served with the lawsuit.

UC Santa Cruz sign
(Via UC Santa Cruz)

A UC regents policy says the state’s diversity has been the “source of innovative ideas and creative accomplishments” and the university emphasizes the “acute need to remove barriers” for working and studying at UC campuses for staff and students from historically excluded backgrounds.

Historically excluded groups include Black and Indigenous people, as well as women and people identifying as LGBTQIA+. For example, Harvard Medical School accepted its first Black students in 1850, but because of the protests and opposition, none of those students graduated. The school didn’t accept more Black students until after the Civil War. More recently, New Orleans’ Tulane University, which dates back to 1834, admitted its first five Black students in 1963.

The UC’s policy is supported by numerous studies showing diversity leads to innovation and greater profits.

A UC spokesperson said each UC campus has its own hiring practices but didn’t clarify if they all required a DEI statement. However, job postings for tenure-track positions at UCLA and UC Berkeley also list the statement as a requirement. On a page about academic personnel, UCSC provides candidates a rubric showing how statements or experiences in DEI concepts and initiatives may score higher or lower.

For example, the rubric says if a candidate believes “it’s better not to have outreach or affinity groups aimed at underrepresented individuals because it keeps them separate from everyone else, or will make them feel less valued,” they’ll score lower than a candidate who “is aware of demographic data related to diversity in higher education.”

“The [UC] Regents Policy 4400 on diversity doesn’t talk about racial affinity groups. It talks about the need for equal opportunity. It talks about the need to treat people fairly,” Freeman said. “But the [UCSC] DEI statement policy does talk about those things. And it says, if you possess the view that racial affinity groups could be harmful, you will receive an extremely low score on your diversity statement.”

Freeman called such requirements “an inhibition on academic freedom” because the administration is telling departments within the university how to hire candidates. He also argued that if Haltigan applies, he could feel forced to self-sensor in order to be fairly considered for the job.

“He would prefer that the DEI statement be cleared and it’d be made clear that there’s no viewpoint discrimination on these issues,” he said.

Freeman said his client chose not to apply because “there’s simply no purpose in terms of him applying because of his views on these issues.”

He added that Haltigan supports diversity and his values are not inconsistent with the UC regents’ policy on diversity.

Haltigan posted a statement regarding the DEI requirement on his Substack in February. In it, he wrote, “I am committed to colorblind inclusivity, viewpoint diversity, merit-based evaluation, and value outreach to underrepresented groups in higher education.”

UCSC, and other campuses such as UC Merced, provide resources to candidates that say people who claim “they are ‘color-blind’ or ‘don’t see race’ for the sake of upholding a nonexistent meritocracy are perpetuating the discriminatory status quo by failing to acknowledge the systemic inequities facing BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color).”

Freeman said the next step in the case is to file a motion for an injunction, or court order, against the DEI statement. He said he didn’t have an estimated date for filing the injunction.

Freeman said Haltigan has applied to positions at UCSC before but didn’t have details of those positions.

The lawsuit comes at a time when a growing number of large companies are being hit with DEI lawsuits accusing them of failing to meet their commitments, according to a Bloomberg Law analysis. Bloomberg Law says many of the almost 40 lawsuits filed since 2020 argue that companies either failed to live up to their DEI promises, or their DEI goals don’t have anything to do with a company’s purpose to return value to shareholders.


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