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Canadian professor lambasted for 'diversity' article; German journal apologizes

TORONTO — A Canadian professor who criticized diversity hiring in an opinion essay has prompted a prestigious German scientific journal to retract the piece, and the publisher and his university to issue a public apology.

Amid a backlash over the article published June 4, the Angewandte Chemie, which bills itself as one of the world's prime chemistry journals, withdrew the piece written by Tomas Hudlicky, of Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.

"The opinions expressed in this essay do not reflect our values of fairness, trustworthiness and social awareness," Neville Compton, the editor-in-chief, said in a statement. "It is not only our responsibility to spread trusted knowledge, but to also stand against discrimination, injustices and inequity."

Compton said the publication was conducting an internal investigation, calling its acceptance a "clear mistake," and said two editors had been suspended.

Hudlicky's essay, called "'Organic synthesis — Where now?' is 30 years old. A Reflection on the Current State of Affairs," was intended to honour a scientific article written by Prof. Dieter Seebach, 83, three decades ago. While some of the essay is more technical, in surveying more recent trends in organic synthesis, Hudlicky also writes about "preferential" treatment given to women and minorities.

"In a social equilibrium, preferential treatment of one group leads to disadvantages for another," Hudlicky writes. "The rise and emphasis on hiring practices that suggest or even mandate equality in terms of absolute numbers of people in specific subgroups is counter-productive if it results in discrimination against the most meritorious candidates."

Hiring practices, he said, have reached the point where a candidate's inclusion in a "preferred" social group might override his or her qualifications.

Hudlicky, a Tier 1 Canada research chair in chemistry, refused to comment on Tuesday, saying it was on the advice of his faculty union.

However, he earlier told New York-based Retraction Watch that he was subject to a frightening witch-hunt.

"We are sliding back to Calvinism and burning at stakes. This is absurd," he said. "I expressed my opinions and my words were totally taken out of context."

However, the university had no compunction in condemning the article once it became aware of its publication on Friday.

In a statement on Sunday, the school's provost said the paper included "highly objectionable statements" that contrasted the promotion of equity and diversity with the promotion of academic merit.

"These statements are hurtful and alienating to members of diverse communities and historically marginalized groups who have, too often, seen their qualifications and abilities called into question," said Greg Finn, also a vice-president.

Finn said the school was considering unspecified further steps.

The article sparked an international backlash on social media. For example, Cathleen Crudden, a chemistry professor at Queen's, called on the journal to remove her from its editorial board. "I am resigning effectively immediately," Crudden tweeted.

In all, 16 members of the journal's international advisory board — which includes Nobel Laureates — denounced the essay and resigned.

"This moment in history demands actions that are highly visible," they said in a statement. "This action is intended to call as much attention as possible to the clear need for drastic change at Angewandte Chemie."

Heather Williams, a medical physicist with the Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester, said in a tweet: "This is a hair's breadth away from saying anyone who isn't a white man is only there because they're 'diversity hires'."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 9, 2020.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press

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