The Volokh Conspiracy

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The Problem with Mandated Diversity Statements in Faculty Hiring and Promotion

Improving diversity is a worthy endeavor. But compelled “diversity statements” are a form of social engineering that, ironically, can be exclusionary.


This is the fourth in a series of five guest posts we are publishing this week as the co-authors of a new book from Oxford University Press titled "Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education." The previous guest posts from this series can be found here, and here, and here.

One of the trends among institutions of higher education is to require applicants for faculty positions, as well as already-hired faculty who are up for internal promotions, to submit a statement documenting their contributions to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). UCLA, which is one such institution, provides a list of examples of relevant activities that can be cited in an EDI statement.

The examples, which fall under the categories of teaching, research, professional activity, and university and public service, include "Teaching at a minority-serving institution," "Developing effective teaching strategies for the educational advancement of students from under-represented groups," "Studying patterns of participation and advancement of women and minorities in fields where they are underrepresented," and "Presentations or performances for under-represented communities."

As we explain in the book, these are all worthy endeavors. But they also function as a filter that itself is exclusionary, as it favors faculty and would-be-faculty whose academic research happens to involve activities that can be cited in a diversity statement. And what about the candidates who are doing research that doesn't focus on such activities? As we write in the book:

[C]onsider a newly graduated mathematics Ph.D. who is looking for a mathematics faculty position. Let's assume that her work is uniformly regarded as groundbreaking, and that her peers and mentors are in universal agreement that she is one of the world's brightest young mathematicians, and is likely destined for a decades-long career of important mathematical breakthroughs. But let's also assume that she hasn't done any of the things listed above as examples that could be listed in an EDI statement….

What she has done, over the course of her doctoral research, is publish paper after groundbreaking paper to advance her field of mathematics. And, let's suppose that she has demonstrated that she is an excellent teacher as well. Are the best interests of society or a university really served by placing this person at a substantial disadvantage in the faculty application process because she hasn't done any of the things that the university wants to see in a diversity statement? Clearly, the answer is no.

Of course, as diversity statement requirements for faculty position applications become more widely adopted, aspiring faculty members will naturally react analogously to the way many high school students have long done when told that college admissions officers want to see lots of extracurricular activities: They will make calculated decisions to engage in activities for the express purpose of enhancing their applications….

It is possible to be a strong believer in the value of diversity while also posing the question of why this topic in particular is the one that warrants this sort of social engineering of future faculty members. After all, without in any way discounting the value of diversity, it's possible to identify any number of other worthy topics for which universities are not applying similar filters.

Take, for example, charity. There's a strong case to be made that part of being a good citizen and role model is engaging in charity. Why then are universities not requiring "charity statements" in which prospective (or current) faculty members outline the efforts they have undertaken to engage in charitable endeavors?

Or what about community engagement? People who devote time and effort to better their communities are vital to the health of any society. So why do university hiring committees not ask for "community engagement" statements that would allow a faculty applicant who has been a consistent and passionate participant in his or her community for years to shine? And so on….

Is the ideal outcome to end up 10 years from now with university faculties in which every single faculty member is continuously engaged in some form of compelled diversity-related activity? Or, with respect to endeavors that can improve our universities and our society, are we perhaps better off letting people pursue their passions, giving support and encouragement to those who wish to make diversity a focus of their efforts, while also supporting and valuing the work of those who wish to find other ways to enhance their communities? Our belief is that the latter will lead to a healthier, more balanced higher education system and society.