These days it is becoming more common for academic institutions to request diversity statements with job application materials. Today’s college students are demographically, ideologically, neurologically and culturally diverse, and diversity statements are seen as a way to recruit faculty and staff who will serve these students well.
However, diversity statements have come under fire in recent years. It has been argued that they serve as political litmus tests, with search committees sometimes evaluating applicants on the basis of their use (or avoidance) of politically favored terminology, and with diversity statements functioning like religious faith statements as ways to signal tribal loyalties. Some scholars have argued that if diversity statements are really being used as political tests, they are illegal (at least at public institutions). Others are concerned that diversity statements are serving as a dishonest or unethical method of affirmative action. Because of arguments like these, the Academic Freedom Alliance has called for an end to diversity statements in hiring and promotion, and the University of North Carolina Board of Governors recently voted to do just that. Going even further, the state of Florida is defunding diversity, equity and inclusion efforts across the state; Texas’s governor has warned against DEI in hiring practices; and Iowa, Utah and West Virginia are all considering bills that would defund DEI initiatives or eliminate DEI statements in hiring.
What are those of us within higher education to do? As authors, the two of us disagree about the legitimacy of these critiques of diversity statements. One of us thinks that we should abandon diversity statements altogether, and the other does not. But we agree that we don’t have to resolve the dispute over diversity statements in order to help our students. The appropriate response to the criticisms of diversity statements is not to give up on addressing equity issues in the hiring process but instead to improve what is requested, delivered and evaluated.
Our students face a wide range of challenges. Students may face barriers because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class or disability. Students may face challenges because they are transgender, because they are neurodiverse, because of economic disadvantages, because they do not share the cultural background of many people on campus or because they represent the first generation in their family to attend college.
This breadth of student diversity means that we need to hire faculty and staff who know that a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to serve our most vulnerable students. Instead, we want professors who will meet our students where they are. We want employees who are aware of the barriers our students face and have an empirically grounded set of strategies for reducing those barriers and meeting their needs. In short, we want faculty and staff who are equipped to support a demographically, neurologically and culturally diverse student body.
Given that need, what should we ask job candidates applying for academic positions? Whether hiring committees are requesting a diversity statement or not, it is important that these committees ask for and evaluate relevant information. Job candidates already submit cover letters for jobs, and they can use those letters to explain how they are qualified to serve students well. That’s what our institution, Fort Lewis College, does, and it’s been a great way to find faculty who are well prepared to serve our unique student body.
At least in the context of academic positions, a good application or diversity statement will (a) demonstrate awareness of the problems/challenges students face, (b) demonstrate knowledge of the empirical research for effective solutions to those problems and (c) provide examples of the applicant’s experience or willingness to implement that knowledge.
Regarding the first point, we want employees who have a clear grasp on the various barriers to success that today’s students face. While it’s obviously too much to expect applicants to know about all possible hurdles to student success, they should have a pretty good sense of specific challenges students face in their own discipline (e.g., women in engineering) or challenges faced by specific populations served at the institution to which they are applying (e.g., an historically Black college). And while understanding of general trends and specific challenges in an institution are important, there should also be a recognition of the ways race, gender and other factors interact, creating different challenges for different students.
Those crafting job ads should be specific about the relevant issues of equity they want applicants to address. If it is a teaching position, are you specifically asking them about how they address teaching diverse students in their course design and pedagogy? Or are you asking about how they address equity issues in their research? If it is an administrative position, be specific about how or where that position is expected to address problems of inequity. Specificity reduces the opportunity for vague political signaling.
For the second component, search committees should ask for and evaluate candidates on their knowledge of the empirical research on the problems relevant for doing the job well. Many faculty members have improved their teaching from personal experience, but a good teacher knows their own experiences are limited and that they are often blind to how those limitations affect their teaching. A good job candidate will be aware of the research on how they can do their job effectively.
If a candidate is applying for a teaching position, ask what they know about the scholarship of effective teaching. For example, what do the applicants know about the research on improving outcomes for first-generation students? What does the research show about the barriers faced by students who are neurodiverse and what has been shown to be effective in removing those barriers? Does the candidate have any knowledge of the literature on culturally responsive teaching or universal design? In other words, are candidates able to articulate specific evidence-based strategies for course design or pedagogy that create a rich and inclusive learning environment for students with diverse identities, backgrounds, challenges and strengths?
For the final component, it’s appropriate to ask candidates to provide concrete examples of how they have implemented their knowledge of this research or how they would do so if hired. This is a chance for professors to explain how they have adjusted their pedagogy, assignments, course content, etc. to align with the principles described in the empirical research. Asking candidates to be clear about this isn’t political, since it’s based on empirical research and relevant to their everyday jobs.
This approach gives search committees important information about a candidate’s ability to do the job well. It gives job applicants clear guidelines that help them move past trite statements about social justice and political posturing. Best of all, this approach is more likely to help students by focusing on what the best research shows they need and sorting candidates on their ability to meet those needs, rather than their political ideology. That’s something people from all sides of the political spectrum should support.