Numerous websites and articles help academic job seekers write their diversity statements, including two pieces by Tanya Golash-Boza and Victoria Reyes in Inside Higher Ed. That makes sense with such a new genre of job document and the variation in professional development provided across graduate programs. But there has been less guidance for the people on the other side of the hiring process: the committee members tasked with reading and interpreting such diversity statements.
Unlike the cover letter, the CV and, increasingly, the teaching statement, the conventions of the diversity statement are much less rigid, and committees can receive documents for the same search that vary from a few sentences to several pages in length. Candidates also provide vastly different kinds of evidence to support their contributions to diversity and inclusion. Many use the document as an opportunity to disclose their own personal characteristics, such as their ethnic background or gender identity, without describing how a commitment to diversity and inclusion informs their past and future professional contributions. (Such information is illegal to consider in and of itself in California under Proposition 209 and in Washington State under Initiative 200.)
And just as candidates approach the document in different ways, committees also vary in how they incorporate it into their hiring process and evaluative decision making. Some committees distribute applications and leave the decision up to individual members, while others use diversity statements as “tiebreakers” between candidates who appear equally qualified based on the other job documents. At our institution, the University of California, Riverside, the Bourns College of Engineering recently conducted a search where committee members read the diversity statement and the research statement first, which resulted in much higher numbers of traditionally underrepresented candidates succeeding at each stage of the hiring process.
Unfortunately, the question we posed in the title of this essay has no easy answer. Different departments and colleges have different values, serve different student populations and conceive of the work of scholars in different ways. You cannot simply look for candidates whose research addresses inequality or whose teaching foregrounds diversity-related issues, because academic work varies greatly between and even within disciplines. What you can do, however, is cultivate a continuing campus conversation about the diversity statement and its role in the hiring process.
At UC Riverside, we have worked to institutionalize this conversation by requiring search committee members to attend a workshop devoted to reading a variety of diversity statements and learning to identify and address implicit bias in the hiring process. Of course, no one wants to go to another training, especially faculty members who are already stretched in so many different directions. But we have found that when those from different disciplines come together in person to discuss what they are looking for in a diversity statement, everyone’s knowledge is deepened. Faculty members from highly inclusive fields or those who work directly on issues of diversity and inclusion are often amazed to hear from those working in fields with greater gender or racial imbalances, and vice versa. Giving faculty members the opportunity to talk with -- and often disagree with -- one another has allowed us to gain a better understanding of what we are doing well, where we could use some work and how to move our university forward.
While necessary, these are definitely not easy conversations to have. Some of our workshops have been highly contentious and revealed very concerning attitudes -- most notably, the conflation of considering contributions to diversity and inclusion in the hiring process with lowering research standards. But speaking face-to-face gives us the opportunity to reinforce that diversity and excellence are not antithetical to one another and, in fact, that contributions to diversity and inclusion are a highly valued qualification for professorial positions.
Resistance to incorporating contributions to diversity and inclusion into the hiring process can be deeply ingrained, and committing to such consistent, campuswide conversations can help create genuine culture change, even if some workshops are more difficult than others. It has been our experience that the difficult sessions are actually the most productive and move our thinking forward far more than the sessions where everyone is already in agreement.
Workshop leaders must also remain open to change. For the past three years, we have updated our workshop for every new hiring cycle and changed the delivery format for different kinds of information. We now offer a printed handbook of detailed advice for inclusivity at all stages of the search, from the development of the job advertisement to advice about hosting the campus visit. That has allowed us to make time in our workshop for more discussions of individual diversity statements.
Similarly, the portion of the workshop covering legal obligations in the hiring process is now available online, so committee members can review it if questions arise. We have also gradually increased the required participants from committee chairs, to chairs and affirmative action liaison officers, to all committee members to reinforce the idea that conducting an equitable search is everyone’s responsibility. By remaining open to feedback from the campus community and consistently evaluating the workshops, we hope to provide a space where faculty members not only gain knowledge about conducting equitable searches but also come together to articulate our values and learn how to live those values as an institution.
So how do you read a diversity statement? The best advice is to read it together. Practice reading and evaluating statements as an academic community and encourage search committees to read and discuss the statements as early in the search process as possible. We have found some evidence at our institution that our approach is working: 22 percent of new hires over the last two years identify as underrepresented minorities, or nearly twice our recent historical average for incoming cohorts.
While that is good news, we also know that we and other higher education institutions cannot diversify the professoriate through hiring alone. We have to deliberately engage our communities in ongoing conversations about our shared commitment to diversity and strive to create the kinds of inclusive campus climates where everyone has the opportunity to succeed.