The Volokh Conspiracy

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University of Toledo Backtracks on "Inclusive Excellence Award" to Conservative Professor Lee Strang


As at most law schools, the faculty at University of Toledo leans strongly to the left. Nevertheless, in an admirable display of ideological ecumenicism, the law school faculty overwhelmingly nominated their conservative colleague, Lee Strang for the university's second annual Inclusive Excellence Award, and the university announced that he would receive the award this year. [Update: A university release state that Strang "received an overwhelming number of faculty nominations." I thought that meant he was nominated by his colleagues. I've been informed that this was an error, and instead means that of faculty members, he received an overwhelming number of nominations, assumedly from students.] According to the university's chief diversity officer:

The individuals who nominated Strang for the award recognized his conservative point of view as a minority in academia and a benefit to legal debate.

One nomination read: "Professor Strang always welcomes students to present and defend their perspectives while respectfully challenging them to consider points of view contrary to their starting point. I believe the academy at its best is a place where truth claims and viewpoints can contend with one another based on their own merits and scholars from all life experiences have the opportunity to wrestle with the arguments of others as well as their own assumptions."

Another wrote, "As much as any demographic measure of diversity, the diversity of thought and perspective is at the very heart of our identity as an academic institution."

It is for these reasons Strang was recognized with the 2021 award.

Unfortunately, you can guess what happened next. Giving the award to Strang created an uproar among students, who started an online petition to revoke the award. In the course of doing so, students dug up an article from 2003 in which Strang argued in favor of discouraging homosexuality. Strang, for his part, noted that he no longer would make the same argument today, and that he had indeed long since successfully asked the publisher to pull the article from its website.

What Strang wrote in 2003 should be neither here nor there. He was being awarded for his commitment to "inclusive excellence" while working at Toledo, and no one has suggested that he said or did anything to make anyone feel unwelcome during his tenure at the law school.

One suspects that most of the objecting students and others were crying foul because the university actually lived up to its commitment to "inclusive excellence" by giving an award to a white man with conservative views, a professor whom his liberal colleagues found expertly facilitated classroom dialogue between people of opposing political point of views. Surely that comes within a literal definition of "inclusive excellence."

But in fact, the common understanding of "inclusive excellence" in the university context is that concern for inclusivity is limited to designated minority groups, with the goal of making them feel comfortable; a white male Christian professor who devotes classroom times to making sure viewpoints on all sides are represented and debated not only doesn't fit that ideal, to a significant extent he contradicts it. This is especially true if one believes, as many do, that disagreement with woke orthodoxy makes people feel "unsafe" and may even constitute "violence." And "excellence" in the common understanding, when prefaced by inclusive, does not mean a commitment to academic excellence, it means "we are excellent in our inclusivity." This in turn precludes conservative voices who dissent from the progressive version of inclusivity described above.

So the university was faced with a choice: (1) live up to the literal, plain meaning of inclusive excellence, and defend the award to Strang because diversity of opinion is crucial to the academic enterprise, and a professor who facilitates difficult, ideologically laden discussions is a boon to the university; or (2) backtrack, and suggest the award was a mistake.

Again, you can guess the rest. The university's diversity officer in essence promised reforms to ensure that such a mistake won't recur:

We have learned that more work is needed on our part to inform our campus community and our alumni of this recognition opportunity and to seek their nominations. Our UToledo alumni is an audience we had not actively engaged for nominations and will do so in the years ahead. In addition, we will broaden the review committee beyond the Office of Diversity and Inclusion to be sure we have diverse perspectives during the selection process for this honor.

In these first two years of the awards in 2019 and 2021, the recipients have been selected based exclusively on the nominations submitted. We are working to revise the nomination and review process to be sure we take a comprehensive approach in selecting the recipients to ensure their bodies of work represent our diversity and inclusion values.

As an institution we are committed to promoting a campus environment where every member of the UToledo community feels included and respected. I will continue to do my best to acknowledge and facilitate respectful discussions that enable us all to grow and do better.

That said, at least University of Toledo has not completely embarrassed itself. Near as I can tell, it has not announced a decision to revoke the award.

[UPDATE: I see while composing my post, Josh Blackman wrote a post on the same topic.]