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Diversity Statements as 'Litmus Tests'

Mathematician comes out against mandatory diversity statements, while others say they continue to be valuable -- with some caveats.

November 19, 2019
 
Abigail Thompson

December’s Notices of the American Mathematical Society contains a surprising column on Page 4, given that mathematicians have not been on the front lines of debates about diversity and campus speech.

The column, by Abigail Thompson, chair of math at the University of California, Davis, and one of the society’s vice presidents, says that today’s diversity statements are like the political litmus tests of the McCarthy era.

“In 1950 the Regents of the University of California required all UC faculty to sign a statement asserting that ‘I am not a member of, nor do I support any party or organization that believes in, advocates, or teaches the overthrow of the United States Government, by force or by any illegal or unconstitutional means, that I am not a member of the Communist Party,’” Thompson says. Those who refused to sign were fired.

Now, “Faculty at universities across the country are facing an echo of the loyalty oath, a mandatory ‘Diversity Statement’ for job applicants.”

The “professed purpose” of these statements is to identify candidates “who have the skills and experience to advance institutional diversity and equity goals,” Thompson wrote. But “in reality it’s a political test, and it’s a political test with teeth.”

What are the teeth, Thompson asks? Nearly all University of California campuses require that job applicants submit a “contributions to diversity” statement as a part of their application, and campuses evaluate such statements using rubrics, “a detailed scoring system.” She doesn’t name names, but says that “several UC programs have used these diversity statements to screen out candidates early in the search process.”

Thompson wrote that her thoughts are hers alone, and that math has made progress over the past decades toward becoming a “more welcoming, inclusive discipline.” Indeed, she says, “We should continue to do all we can to reduce barriers to participation in this most beautiful of fields. I am encouraged by the many mathematicians who are working to achieve this laudable aim.”

"Reasonable means" to further that goal include encouraging students from all backgrounds to study and work in math, adopting family-friendly policies and supporting junior faculty members at the beginning of their careers, she continues. But mandating diversity statements for job candidates is a “mistake, reminiscent of events of 70 years ago.”

Melissa Lutz Blouin, a spokesperson for Davis, said that at least eight of the 10 University of California campuses, including Davis, require something called a “Statement on Contributions to Diversity” from all applicants for academic positions.

“Diversity, equity and inclusion statements foster productive discussions on how current and prospective faculty can shape and improve the learning and working environment in higher education,” she added.

Thompson was not immediately available to discuss her column Monday, and she said that she hadn’t heard much feedback of any kind thus far. In private comments to Inside Higher Ed, some of her colleagues in math praised her position.

Bruce Gilley, a professor of political science at Portland State University whose course on conservative political thought was denied permanent status last year -- in part because it didn’t meet what he described as the university’s narrow diversity requirement for courses -- said he agreed with Thompson, as well.

Her concerns are those of a “bold and courageous woman daring to call out the political litmus tests of ‘diversity statements’ or ‘diversity achievements’ for what they are: a clear and present danger to academic excellence, social freedom and indeed diversity goals themselves,” Gilley said via email. “The ability of such ludicrous hiring and promotion tools to advance so far in California reflects that state’s academic monoculture and its rapid erosion as a place of scholarly excellence.”

Calling the denial of permanent status to his course a “smoking gun” for the “diversity agenda,” Gilley said what's "most alarming is that faculty for the most part have shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘Well, these are the times we live in. We need to make sure the university is a place where only progressive or radical values are welcomed.’ Anyone concerned with higher education should find such sentiments a call to action.”

Last year, Jeffrey Flier, former dean of Harvard University's medical school, tweeted his opposition to mandatory diversity statements, calling them an "affront to academic freedom" that "diminishes the true value of diversity, equity of inclusion by trivializing it.”

The American Association of University Professors, which spoke out against McCarthyism as a threat to academic freedom, hasn’t taken any position on diversity statements. Its statement on ensuring academic freedom in politically controversial academic decisions does say that all academic personnel decisions, including new appointments and renewals, “should rest on considerations that demonstrably pertain to the effective performance of the academic's professional responsibility.”

The AAUP has weighed in on the question of diversity, generally, in recent admissions-related lawsuits, taking the position that "a diverse student body is essential to the educational objectives of colleges and universities." And so his organization has recognized diversity as connected to education, said Hans-Joerg Tiede, senior program officer and researcher at the AAUP. For that reason, he said, it might not consider Thompson's comparison between diversity statements and political loyalty oaths "entirely apt."

Truth in Advertising?

Not all institutions, of course, require diversity statements. But those that do often promote diversity and inclusion as values, meaning that these statements can be a form of truth in advertising. That is, colleges and universities that ask applicants for diversity statements will probably ask them to work toward diversity and inclusion as employees.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, for instance, mentions connectedness, inclusion and diversity throughout its mission and vision statements. It also requires faculty applicants to submit diversity statements. But Autumn Reed, assistant vice provost for faculty affairs, said, “My stance is that I don’t even like to call them diversity statements. The language we use is statements on commitment to inclusive excellence in higher education.” Such wording moves the discussion away from embodied characteristics of diversity to issues of pedagogical diversity and even diversity of perspective and thought, she added.

Quoting Thompson, Reed said that “political litmus test” is also a particularly “harsh way to put it.” There are simply “certain things that matter to certain institutions,” she said, and UMBC cares about applicants’ ability and desire to contribute to what it calls redefining excellence. Even outside academe, certain institutions have core values, she said. And, perhaps especially in academe, applicants aren’t just applying for a job, they’re applying to be “part of a community,” or even a “lifestyle.”

Beyond applicant statements, UMBC has a faculty committee that consults search committees on inclusive practices. The university also requires diversity hiring plans from search committees that involve thinking about the composition of search committees and members’ roles and responsibilities, job ad wording and active recruitment strategies that broaden and diversify candidate pools across a number of dimensions.

"You can’t argue that you’ve hired the best candidate if you haven’t heard from the best talent out there," Reed said.

Diversity in Math

Some fields are more diverse than others. Math historically isn’t one of them. But some departments and institutions are working to change that. Lafayette College’s math department, for instance, has long worked to promote an inclusive culture based on the understanding that math is a gateway to many other fields in the sciences, technology and engineering.

Chawne Kimber, chair of math at the college, said the department’s open-door policy and generally welcoming environment for students is one of the reasons she wanted to work there at the start of her career. The department has made specific pedagogical strides toward inclusiveness, as well. It has for many years offered a workshop-style calculus course taught in what’s called the Treisman model, developed by Uri Treisman at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1980s.

Lafayette’s class meets five times per week, with lectures three times a week and workshops twice. First-year students who intend to major in math-intensive fields are recruited based on placement tests. Kimber teaches the workshops, which involve collaborative problem solving. But she also talks to students about “how to be organized, how to take notes, what are office hours -- things that they don’t necessarily think about in high school, and maybe they haven’t been in a position to know what college was all about before they got here.”

Kimber’s department just recently started offering another on-ramp to calculus for students who plan to major in less math-intensive STEM fields. It’s based on more remedial and background content than the workshop-style class, but it also uses best practices in active learning and inclusive pedagogies. It, too, includes discussions designed to “open the hidden rule book about college that some first-generation students might not know.”

In general, said Kimber, “We don’t want to be the obstacle to what students want to study. We want to open the gate instead of making them climb over it.”

STEM across Lafayette values inclusion; it’s opening a new Hanson Center for Inclusive STEM Education, for instance. And yes, Lafayette requires diversity statements. The math department is currently looking for a statistician, and its directions for applicants say candidates "should address in their applications how their teaching, scholarship, and/or service will support Lafayette’s commitment to diversity and inclusion as articulated in the college’s diversity statement."

Kimber said that faculty candidates in math and statistics have, in her experience, “mixed ability" to answer such a prompt, if they remember to do so at all. And so the department doesn’t automatically rule out anyone who doesn’t include a statement. If candidates are “otherwise compelling,” Kimber said, “then we'd give them an opportunity to talk about it in a preliminary phone or Skype interview.”

Lafayette’s diversity statement policy took effect, and Kimber said she’s read about 1,000 applications since then. Her insights include some interesting critiques. More affluent institutions tend to train graduate students to write them, raising questions of privilege, for instance. Some statements read as “boilerplate or a checklist of hot terminology,” Kimber also said. And sometimes a lack of statement “can sometimes just be a symptom of the terrible job market for professors in mathematics,” in that applicants are using automated job sites to apply to as many places as possible.

In any case, Kimber said that “all departments weigh this diversity factor differently.” Hers allows “for a variety of venues for a candidate to demonstrate that the are active, aware or educable.”

Anecdotally, she said, some newer colleagues across campus have responded positively to being asked to write such a statement. And most of the math faculty was hired prior to the requirement. Yet in “an unwritten way, we have always carried this value into the search process for new colleagues," Kimber said. "This prompt only helps uncover the intangible signs earlier in the process.”

 

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