A college professor is expected to do all kinds of things apart from research and teaching. Those duties include cooperating with the admissions office to bring in students and working with the advancement office to bring in cash. That also involves joining committees devoted to academic standards, work conditions, athletics, technology, and diversity.
But for a growing number of universities, the last form of work is decisive, or so their job advertisements suggest.
In January 2019, I wrote about an emerging trend in higher education: The requirement that applicants for faculty positions submit, along with statements about teaching and research, “diversity statements.” In such statements, applicants demonstrate their commitment to drawing in students, staff, and faculty from under-represented groups, meaning oppressed groups. They prove their commitment to helping members of those groups feel welcome on campus and to removing arbitrary barriers to their success in class or at work. What was emerging then is more established now.
Later in 2019, Abigail Thompson, a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Davis, asserted that several campuses on the vast University of California campus were using diversity statements as a screening tool. “Hiring committees,” she wrote, “are being urged to start the review process by using officially provided rubrics to score the required diversity statements and to eliminate applicants who don’t achieve a scoring cut-off.”
Here is a job at Ohio State that has two rounds of consideration. The first includes a general cover letter and a separate “equity engagement statement.” Only if the candidate clears that round is she asked to submit full research and teaching statements. At the University of Hartford, candidates are required to write a “short essay” about their commitment to the college’s diversity goals. In it, candidates should demonstrate “knowledge of what it means to be anti-racist” and provide “examples of their own anti-racist values and actions.” A “review of applicant diversity statements will precede that of any other application materials.” In other words, the University of Hartford won’t look at your resume until you’ve established that you are just.
Efforts to justify these statements are unpersuasive. Yes, colleges and universities can expect faculty members to serve all of their students and to get on with all of their faculty and staff. Yes, where arbitrary barriers to advancement exist, universities should work to lower them. But no, even standard issue core university aims, like the free exchange of ideas or truth-seeking, should not be used as candidate screens.
One reason to avoid using them that way is that universities claim to value heretics even in core matters. The university has room for the Marxist, for whom the claim that universities seek truth rings hollow. It has room for the “academic abolitionist,” who thinks that the “neoliberal” university in which he plies his trade should be dismantled. It has room for economists who argue that many of the degrees universities sell aren’t worth the price. These diversity statements suggest universities have no room for dissenters against prevailing theories about the causes of and remedies for racial and other inequalities.
Abigail Thompson asks us to imagine a “classical liberal” naïve enough to say in a diversity statement that she seeks “to treat every person as a unique individual, not as a representative of their gender or their ethnic group.” Thank you. Next!
And yes, it’s possible to imagine a “diversity statement” that isn’t an ideological test. But the advice we hear about what to put into such statements suggests that diversity statements will often be just that. For example, Pardis Mhadavi and Scott Brooks disparage statements that focus on experiences that may be relevant to one’s concern for campus inequality and insists that candidates address the million-dollar question, “does this lead to fighting structural issues found in the academy?” But what if you think, as Glenn Loury of Brown University does, that “structural racism” is an “empty category?” What if you believe, as he does, that adherents to this idea would rather invoke “shadowy causes” for inequality and demand “solidarity” than investigate the multiple, complex, sometimes poorly understood drivers of inequality? Thank you. Next!
Or what if you think that Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Snyder, both left of center, are correct that diversity statements do more harm than good? Best not to air that view. You may be evaluated by one of their colleagues who thinks that “any professor who [is] not on board with the mission to “dismantle white supremacy” at their institution [cannot] possibly be making a contribution” to diversity, equity, and inclusion work. You’re not sure that the uber-progressive university you’re applying to is a bastion of white supremacy? Thank you. Next!
In the hands of faculty bodies that are already overwhelmingly left-liberal, diversity statements are likely to function as litmus tests that further narrow the ideological range of faculty. There is little evidence that such an ideological narrowing will do anything to promote education or justice in the academy. But perhaps it will make life easier for those who find dissent irritating.