Friday, November 16, 2018

Possible Backfire Effects of an Excellent Diversity Statement?

Applicants for faculty positions in the University of California must now include "Diversity Statements" alongside more traditional elements of their applications. Other universities have instituted similar requirements. Applicants might wonder how much detail and energy to put into a diversity statement. The question is trickier than it might seem, and there is, I think, some risk that an excellent diversity statement will backfire.

One of the most acrimonious and politicized issues in faculty hiring in the U.S. right now is the extent to which universities ought to prioritize increasing the demographic diversity of their faculty. On one side are faculty and administrators who think that applicants' race, gender, or other demographic features ought not to be considered at all in hiring; on the other side are faculty and administrators who regard demographic diversification as a very high priority in faculty hiring; and of course there is a range of nuances and intermediate positions. You can see the politics of this issue, as it manifests in philosophy blogs, for example here and here.

Because of these background politics, diversity statements that are too passionate or detailed might risk alienating some people on a hiring committee. In the current environment, such statements are not politically neutral.

------------------------------------------

At U.C. Riverside, where I work, it's clear that pursuit of demographic diversity is a high priority in the administration. Many faculty have the impression that if a proposed hire will contribute substantially to the "diversity mission" of the university, that hire is much likelier to be approved. Every search committee must have an "Affirmative Action Compliance Officer" responsible for monitoring affirmative action efforts and tracking justifications for the rejection of all rejected applicants. Also, all faculty on hiring committees must complete a thirty-minute online diversity training and attend a ninety-minute in-person workshop on "Promoting Faculty Diversity".

I attended my first diversity workshop a couple of months ago. It struck me that most of the attendees -- even those who thought that promoting diversity was a good idea -- felt resentful that they were required to engage in two hours of diversity training before being permitted to serve on a hiring committee. We're busy with all of our teaching and research, of course! The training is experienced as a needless, time-consuming interruption. We all already know, or at least think we know, pretty much what we need to know about these issues.

Diversity statements were a central topic of the workshop I attended. Examples of good and bad diversity statements were offered for our consideration. We were advised to treat the diversity statement as among the most important parts of the application. Indeed, it was suggested that we might do a preliminary screening of applications based on the diversity statement alone, removing from consideration any candidates whose diversity statements weren't excellent, before even looking at research or teaching. This particular suggestion was met with considerable hostility and incredulity among the faculty sitting near me in the back corner of the room, most of whom seemed to be bristling with rebellious anger, like the "bad" kids forced to attend some supposedly-educational high school detention hour.

What makes for a good diversity statement? I'm inclined to think that an excellent diversity statement would show concrete, detailed, and extensive evidence of one's commitment to and ability to contribute to the university's mission of promoting student and faculty diversity. Ideally, this would show in your research, and in your teaching, and in your committee service and other administrative roles, and in your broader life experience. (UC Davis offers some guidelines here; and here's some advice from Inside Higher Ed.)

I returned to my office and pulled up my own Diversity Statement (which I keep handy to trot out for various purposes when necessary). Having attended the workshop, my statement now struck me as too brief and lacking detail. It could be much better! I revised it, adding several different kinds of specific evidence of my commitment to enhancing the diversity of the university through my teaching and adding another ten or so specific pieces of evidence of my commitment to enhancing the diversity of both UCR and the profession as a whole through my research, committee service, and public philosophy. (If you follow my blog, you'll know that I have done considerable work on diversity issues.) What a wonderful Diversity Statement I had by the end, if I may say so myself, full of good, concrete evidence that I'm deeply committed to diversifying the profession!

And then I thought: How would Daniel Kaufman or Brian Leiter react a diversity statement like this? A lot of philosophers (maybe not Kaufman and Leiter in particular) might react negatively. For tenure-track job applicants especially, philosophers like Kaufman and Leiter, who believe that demographic diversity has recently been overemphasized, might understandably be hesitant to welcome colleagues who are passionately committed to the importance of demographic diversity. They might, on good grounds, fear that such a colleague would prioritize philosophy of race or Asian philosophy over some of the areas they might prefer to hire in, or that the colleague might be especially drawn to job candidates who are disabled, or women, or from other historically underrepresented groups, etc. The applicant's academic politics might be, in their view, all wrong. Such philosophers might prefer to see a bland, pro forma diversity statement that implicitly conveys the message that increasing demographic diversity is not high among the applicant's priorities.

Now I wouldn't suggest playing down your enthusiasm about diversity issues if you genuinely feel that enthusiasm. But I do think it probably makes sense to be aware that there might unfortunately be hiring contexts in which it's possible to do this part of the application too well.

------------------------------------------

Addendum:

Tanya Golash-Boza, in her advice at Inside Higher Ed, suggests that hiring committee members who feel that the "diversity agenda" has gone too far will tend to skip diversity statements, and so applicants needn't worry about their reactions. Hmmm... maybe?

------------------------------------------

Related:

See also Helen De Cruz's recent thoughts on the possible backfire effects of being portrayed as compassionate or as a dedicated teacher, in applications to research-oriented academic jobs.

[image source]

10 comments:

Duane said...

Oh good, another thing to worry about while on the job market! I wonder though whether the phenomenon you're pointing to as a potential problem is more probable at high-level research universities than the jobs I'm applying for at SLACs and community colleges. I suspect most of the people at most of these schools are on board with "diversity is a good thing" in a fairly non-politicized manner? The academic culture wars seem to be disproportionately playing out at more prestigious places than I'm worrying about.

Lee Roetcisoender said...

Diversity is an excellent framework within any culture and theoretically, diversity should promote understanding which results in greater tolerance. This move however, sounds more like a well disguised ruse to further discriminate based solely upon one's personality type. Soon it will be against the law to have one's own unique personality and opinion. Without literally passing legislation making it illegal to have one's own unique personality and opinion, I guess the next best thing is to deny one the ability to earn a living. Regardless of my own opinion however, this tactic is well suited for academia because fundamentally, secondary education as a whole is in the business of teaching conformity and compliance, so why not be inclusive and start with the staff.

Howard Berman said...

On the face of it, your school administration sounds as if they're just trying to be a force of good; but and a big but is that they see their university community as some kind of social community with some overarching agenda to make the world a better place rather than educate the young or yield further knowledge. First, your school is in California, where such a progressive mission is on the front burner and it is a public school. Second, the university is a pro social institution traditionally and the administration means well; third, there is a huge kulture kampf raging and they are picking sides (my library in Brooklyn does likewise with their clout); fourth, the university was a religious institution from the get go and Rieff wrote about this being secularized in Triumph of the Therapeutic

Anonymous said...

As a graduate student, I fear the day I have to apply for a job. As I see it, academia is ever "progressing," and this means that people like myself, who highly value individuality, will not get the job because we are not militant about politics or because we lack the appropriate ideology for "diversifying" academia.

On a side note: I find it funny that academic requirements for diversification often contradict the values my mother (a single parent, uneducated, low-income, immigrant from Mexico) instilled in me.

Anyway, the current state of affairs make it impossible to simply do philosophy for its own sake, and this is a bummer.

Graduates on the job market might have the concern that committees might reject their application on account that they are "too good" at diversification, some of us have had the concern that graduate programs will only accept you so they can boast about diversification. It's a shame that my application is "better" than another's just because of my s.e.s or ethnicity.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if this helps, but I am currently serving on my first hiring committee, and generally it is difficult to tell what a person's race or ethnicity is based on just their written documents, particularly the ones we read in the first speed round for long-listing. So many applicants are international, too, so many names sound non-American and the white/nonwhite boundary isn't as stark as one might fear. I can also report that merely working on phil race or nonWestern will not automatically make you more attractive to a whole committee (as a minority myself, I wish it did, but I suspect some of my colleagues have other preferences than me). I also haven't found myself preferring more of the non-White non-Western candidates on paper, although I have preferred some; because holistically there are many more White than non-White applicants and few schools that train well in Non-Western/GRIDS+ anyway.

I am finding tat the main thing that makes a candidate stand out is if I find their project interesting (can come from many factors), if their writing is good writing (lots of different styles possible, but mainly - not boring and not obscurantist), if they seem secure and thoughtful about their teaching record, and if their letters are positive (and complete - lots of applicants get letters in late!)

Hang in there. And be confidemt that if and when you get hired, it will be on your merits. We got over 200 applications for our job; whoever gets it really will have stood out on multiple fronts. No way to justify it otherwise.

Anonymous said...

"it was suggested that we might do a preliminary screening of applications based on the diversity statement alone, removing from consideration any candidates whose diversity statements weren't excellent, before even looking at research or teaching. This particular suggestion was met with considerable hostility and incredulity "

Of course it was. It looks like a standard Shiri Scissor attack (http://slatestarcodex.com/2018/10/30/sort-by-controversial/)

The people "bristling with anger" need to patch some cognitive exploits in their brain software, play along with the bullshit signaling game, then continue on as they normally would have when the time to make an actual choice comes.

You seem to know what's up though. Kudos.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Hi all, thanks for the comments!

Duane and Anon Nov 18: I hope it's not too bad. It's frustrating, confusing, and possibly fear-inducing to write these things!

To those of you skeptical about the value of these things, as probably comes across in the post, I have decidedly mixed feelings despite my seeing great value in diversification. I do think that the university's efforts are well-intentioned, as Howard says.

Anonymous said...

I am chairing a search committee right now -- must be my fourth or fifth/ I've lost count -- and as required by our university, we have a diversity statement in our advertisement. Aside from the administration-written anti-discrimination boilerplate, we have the following in the ad:

"They also should be able to demonstrate experience working in a diverse environment and/or with students from diverse backgrounds."

To which I have no objection.

With regard to the merits of the question, however, I have very little confidence (none, whatsoever, really) in the claim that diversity per se -- where what is meant is diversity with respect to the official legal categories -- is in itself a *pedagogical* good. (It may very well be a good in any number of other respects). Diversity of viewpoint clearly is, but it seems to me that there could be much better ways of insuring that than by picking people by skin color, ethnic background, sex, and the like. After all, it's not as if there are women's views, black people's views, gay views, etc.

Where we are located and given our demographics, the biggest challenge for teachers is not racial diversity or other forms of diversity like this, but rather, dealing with students from rural backgrounds, often with very weak primary and secondary schooling, and equally often first generation college students. This overwhelmingly is going to be a far greater challenge for a teacher at our university than the miniscule number of people walking around in hijabs or who are Latino or trans, so it would be absurd to emphasize skill with respect to the latter over skill with respect to the former.

Daniel Kaufman said...

Don't know why my last comment (#8) came out as anonymous. I am the Daniel Kaufman mentioned in the post.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the helpful comment, Daniel! I'm inclined to think that diversity of viewpoint is at least as pedagogically important as diversity in "protected" categories like race, gender, and disability. However, (1.) as an empirical matter, I'm inclined to think that life experiences that correlate highly with such categories can have an important influence on viewpoint (from which it doesn't follow that there is a "black person's view" as an sort of unified entity), and (2.) it is directly pedagogically valuable to have educational experiences alongside and in collaboration with others from a diversity of social categories, even independently of whether those social categories track viewpoint differences in some narrow sense of "viewpoint". (In a broad sense of viewpoint, people in any socially meaningful category will have had socially meaningfully different experiences as a result of their category membership.)