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Professor hits back at critics of 'diversity' essay in top science journal

Last Updated Aug 3, 2020 at 12:24 pm EDT

TORONTO — A Canadian professor who sparked a backlash by using a prestigious international scientific journal to question the impact of diversity hiring on the quality of scientific research has hit back at his detractors, saying he was the victim of a social media tempest.

In a lengthy statement, Tomas Hudlicky, 69, of Brock University, says he stands by his views, which he argues were misinterpreted.

“Social media rage led to the intimidation of the executive staff of a major journal, attacked me personally (and) induced Brock University into issuing a strong moral condemnation of my views and my values with threats of taking further action against me,” Hudlicky says. “It rapidly became a full-fledged storm.”

Hudlicky’s seven-page opinion essay published in June in Germany-based Angewandte Chemie, which bills itself as one of the world’s prime chemistry journals, surveyed recent trends in organic synthesis. In it, he decried “preferential” treatment given to women and minorities.

Publication of his essay sparked a furious backlash. In an open letter, the school’s now former vice-president academic condemned what he called the “highly objectionable” and “hurtful” statements and apologized publicly, as did the publication, which withdrew the piece.

Angewandte also suspended two senior editors. Directors, including Canadian academics, resigned from its board. Accepting the paper, the journal said, had been a “clear mistake.”

Hudlicky has his supporters, who decry what they see as an attack on freedom of expression. The Canadian Association of University Teachers and Brock University Faculty Association defended him, while Derek Pyne, a professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C., said he was suspended for a year for supporting criticism of Brock.

“It is tragic to see that, in several Western democratic societies, open discourse and debate can apparently be easily superseded by censorship, persecution and condemnation, propagated by social media,” Hudlicky says.

“The appearance and pursuit in recent years of certain new and politically correct ideologies has led to the establishment of a society in which any opposition or any dissenting opinion regarding the new norms are silenced and punished rather than discussed. This is a very dangerous trend.”

Hudlicky, a Tier 1 Canada research chair in chemistry, says Brock has damaged his professional standing. He says he has filed a grievance against the school in which he demands retraction of the critical letter along with a public apology.

“The university has nothing further to add to this discussion,” Kevin Cavanagh, a Brock executive director, said on Monday.

Angewandte Chemie did not respond to a request for comment.

Given the peer-reviewed essay generated “apparent misunderstandings and misinterpretations,” Hudlicky has edited and republished the document on his website.

“I stand by the views I wished to express in the essay, some of which are common knowledge, while others were duly cited from primary and secondary sources,” he says. “Those who condemned the essay and slandered me should have read the content more carefully, and not jumped to politically motivated conclusions.”

Among other things, Hudlicky argues hiring should be based on merit, not on a candidate’s identification with a particular group. He does say he could have been clearer and more diplomatic, and should have shown the “positive influence” of diversity on the field of synthesis.

“I do not oppose diversity in the workforce and did not oppose it in the essay,” he says. “I opposed preferential treatment of any group over another.”

Hudlicky acknowledges what he calls harmful “structural inequalities and systemic bias,” but says the best way to diversify university faculties is to hire the best candidates, who can train and mentor a diverse and inclusive group of next-generation scientists and scholars.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 3, 2020.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press