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Why Colleges Should Require Faculty Diversity Statements

The University of California, Los Angeles, is right to do so, argues Carmen Mitchell, and other institutions would be smart to follow suit.

November 15, 2018
 
 
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Last spring, the University of California, Los Angeles, announced that it would require applicants for regular rank faculty positions to submit an equity, diversity and inclusion, or EDI, statement along with their applications beginning this academic year. By the 2019-20 year, the statements will have to be included with faculty promotions. According to UCLA, an EDI statement “describes a candidate or faculty member’s past, present and future (planned) contributions to equity, diversity and inclusion.”

Disappointingly, albeit not surprisingly, a number of news-media outlets and individuals have spoken out against such requirements, including a former dean of Harvard Medical School, who recently argued diversity and inclusion statements are “an affront to academic freedom.” Back in September, Heather Mac Donald, criticizing the new requirement, asked readers to consider whether Albert Einstein would have been hired into a faculty position if he had to provide an EDI statement, implying that it may have been a distraction from his work as a scientist. Personally, I find Einstein to be a curious example, given that Einstein was Jewish and a frequent target of anti-Semitism throughout his life. (He left his native Germany the year before Hitler and the Nazi Party took control and subsequently banned Jewish people from teaching at universities.) He was also an outspoken defender of the civil rights movement. So I believe he may have embraced UCLA’s EDI statement requirement. But I digress.

In any case, a more compelling question would be: How many female, black, poor and other Einsteins have we failed to discover because of the academy’s history of exclusion -- and how can we prevent this from continuing to happen going forward?

Representation matters. I am black woman in the third year of my Ph.D. program, and having a network of faculty members who have had experiences like mine (everywhere from within my university to the Twitterverse) has played a crucial role in getting me to this point. Nearly all of the most supportive and helpful faculty members who helped steer me toward a Ph.D. were women (of many races). And it isn’t just me: a large body of research demonstrates that having diverse faculty in different fields leads to more success in getting diverse students to pursue degrees and fields where they’ve been underrepresented, including Ph.D.s, STEM fields and the like.

Mac Donald is right in that the lack of diversity among faculty members in higher education can be largely, although not entirely, attributed to disparities in academic outcomes in K-12 education. Whites and Asians achieve proficiency at much higher rates in areas like math, science and reading compared to their black and Latinx counterparts, and we should continue to work on bridging those disparities as much as possible before students arrive on college campuses.

Yet diversity, inclusion and equity in higher education concern much more than the demographics of faculty members and students -- although bringing greater numbers of diverse people into colleges and universities is in itself an important goal. All constituencies -- faculty members, administrators and students -- must also be made to feel welcome and supported when they arrive. To their credit, higher education institutions have worked to address this through expanding financial aid for students and implementing programs and support systems to help students with various needs.

So why go further and require an EDI statement? Because faculty members also play a role in fostering an inclusive environment through teaching and scholarship. That is true even for our peers in disciplines where the need for an EDI seems less intuitive, like in physical sciences.

Consider an introductory biology course, for example. Often, such courses are structured so that students’ grades are based on a few exams that require memorization of a large volume of content. Such grading schemes heavily privilege upper-middle-class traditional students with copious amounts of support and free time over their working-class and nontraditional peers with jobs and families. Why should people care about this? Health policy and disparity research pretty clearly shows that a diverse medical work force leads to better health outcomes for diverse populations. Thus, since introductory biology is a requirement for anyone wishing to go to medical school, we should be concerned about whether curriculum design excludes certain groups of students.

Speaking of health, I have a more personal example: some years ago when I was an undergraduate student, I took an Introduction to Pan-African Studies class for one of my diversity course requirements. A knuckleheaded 20-year-old, I didn’t expect to learn anything new because hey, I’m black and I know the struggle, right? I did, of course learn a lot, but most significantly, I was introduced to LGBTQ history and study for the first time. That course set me on the path to completing an LGBT health certificate as part of my graduate study and integrating LGBT health disparities in both my research and personal advocacy work. It was not an accident that I was exposed to this curriculum -- it was taught by Kaila Story, who holds the Audre Lorde Chair in Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Louisville.

These are generally not the scenarios that come to mind for many folks outside of higher education (and considering the comments of the Harvard dean, perhaps even within it) when people start speaking about “diversity” and “college” together. But they should be, and they are the kinds of issues more faculty members might be, and should be, prompted to think about if they were required to make EDI statements. As a corollary, most faculty applicants must already submit teaching and research statements with their applications. That doesn’t necessarily make them perfect researchers or -- as college students can attest -- perfect instructors. But it makes a statement about the importance of both.

Will an EDI statement be the end-all fix for diversity concerns in higher education? Nope. Will it ensure perfect cultural competence among all faculty members? Of course not. There is no such thing. But it forces the next generation of faculty members to be thinking about it in terms of their professionalism and ensures that faculty know this is a value statement that higher education institutions take seriously.

Colleges and universities have made a lot of progress in diversifying both their student populations and their administrations and faculties. But they still have a long way to go in making sure they are accessible and welcoming to all. UCLA has taken a bold step forward, and other institutions should take notice.

Bio

Carmen Mitchell is a doctoral student in the Department of Health Management and Systems Sciences at the University of Louisville School of Public Health. Follow her on twitter at @carmenrmitchell.

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