App State’s Magical Vanishing DEI Committee

If university officials can dodge records requests, public oversight is no longer possible.

Last May, Inside Higher Ed reported that Appalachian State University was building a summer ’22 “working group” to address how the institution solicits and evaluates “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (DEI) statements. Though not every App State job posting asks prospective faculty members to submit such a document, many do. Was the university planning to create a blanket rule, thus forcing all academic departments to politicize their hiring? Naturally, the Martin Center was concerned.

What followed was a cat-and-mouse game of attempted public oversight that can best be described as Kafkaesque. First, the Martin Center scoured the university’s labyrinthine website for any mention of the working group’s existence. No dice. Next, we submitted, via online form, an official media request with three questions: Did such a group exist, who were its members, and what was its specific remit? Silence. Following that, we emailed Dr. Jamie Parson, who had recently been named App State’s chief diversity officer, a cabinet-level position. No response. Finally, following existing law, we created a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in which we asked for “any work product from the 2022 ‘DEI in Faculty Hiring Working Group’.”

To be clear, that committee name was not provided to the Martin Center by any university official. Nor does it turn up results when entered as a complete phrase in the App State website’s search box. (A search for the individual words does result in a number of hits, but none appear to be relevant.) Instead, the Martin Center was given the committee’s name by a well-positioned source. We believe our information to be correct, but, even if we’re wrong, we certainly provided the university with sufficient material to effect a records search.

App State is a public university beholden to North Carolina’s public-records laws.It is worth pausing to remind the reader that App State is a public university beholden to North Carolina’s public-records laws. Though such statutes contain exceptions (for, e.g., confidential legal communications and criminal investigations), nothing in the Martin Center’s request fell into an exempt category. Furthermore, the state’s laws require public institutions to answer requests “as promptly as possible.” As the Martin Center has recently argued, state-level open-records requirements need tightening. Still, we expected our request to be honored in due time, and we settled down patiently to wait.

And wait we did. Filed in early July ’22, the Martin Center’s FOIA request was finally answered in mid-December. While the delay was understandable given what is presumably a large backlog of inquiries, the content of App State’s response was not. In a terse email, the university stated that “there are no work products for the 2022 ‘DEI in Faculty Hiring Working Group’.” Later that same day, App State sent a second email alerting us that our request had been closed: “The record you asked for does not exist.”

It was at this point that The Case of the Vanishing DEI Committee reached its preposterous climax. Having received the university’s communiqués, the Martin Center emailed the App State communications office and (separately) completed a second formal media request. Was it App State’s contention that we and Inside Higher Ed had our facts wrong? Did App State deny that any such working group had ever existed? Or was it the university’s position that the group did exist but kept no minutes, had no formal membership list, and produced no recommendations?

Within 24 hours, and to our surprise, two replies arrived in our inbox. The first, from the Public Record Request office, stated the following:

There are no work products or records that exist under the name “DEI in Faculty Hiring Working Group.” No records exist under that group. If you would like to be more specific with your request we can help you fulfill your request.

The second, from chief communications officer Megan Hayes, added the crucial disclaimer, “Our [records-search] software uses the exact language submitted.”

The reader will note at once the absurdity of these twin rationalizations. Having received no answer to the initial queries described above—and having found nothing on App State’s website—the Martin Center was forced to rely on a source for the name of the committee. Yet App State’s formal position was that we had the name wrong, and our records search could thus not commence. In other words, the very detail that the university was denying us had become the key to effecting a proper investigation. Without the committee’s name, we couldn’t get the records. But we needed the records to learn (among many other things) the committee’s name.

Without the committee’s name, we couldn’t get the records. But we needed the records to learn the committee’s name.To her credit, Hayes responded politely when the Martin Center suggested that a human being could quickly find the work product in question, irrespective of the software’s limitations. Sadly, however, her promise to “look into this and get back to you after we re-open in January” was not kept. As of this writing, the Martin Center has received no further communication from the university.

Still, the story continues. Since these December conversations, the Martin Center has become aware of more DEI activity in App State’s faculty-hiring processes, most prominently a series of mandatory training events for existing professors who plan to serve on faculty-search committees. Labeled “Faculty Diversity Recruitment Training” by the university, these sessions are designed to “familiariz[e] committee members with emerging practices in diversity hiring, including outreach efforts and training intended to reduce the impact of unconscious bias throughout the search process.” (No, ChatGPT did not write that bureaucratese … to our knowledge.) While the university’s Office of Human Resources states plainly that “search committees should not give preferential treatment to individuals from underrepresented groups,” it isn’t difficult to imagine so-called Unconscious Bias Training prompting search committees to do just that. In any case, such training sessions are a clear indicator that App State has indeed politicized its search processes.

Are these training sessions the fruit of the mysterious summer working group? We don’t know. Yet we have been told—this time by a different well-positioned source—that the group’s activity is said, around campus, to be continuing. Of course, one possibility is that the UNC System’s Board of Governors will shut down the entire practice of “diversity statements” with its forthcoming policy banning compelled speech. Another is that committees like this one will help the university wriggle around any BOG decree—operating, in effect, as the brains of the “resistance.”

Yet even if that troubling scenario doesn’t come to pass, App State’s refusal to share what its DEI committee is doing violates the spirit of the state’s public-records laws and prevents legitimate public oversight. All involved should be ashamed of themselves.

Graham Hillard is the managing editor of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.