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Do Diversity Statements Help Diversity?

Does requiring diversity statements from university faculty help students?

Key points

  • Requiring diversity statements for faculty applicants is becoming more common.
  • At present, little evidence suggests diversity statements work to promote diversity, student success, or harmony among diverse groups.
  • Diversity statements may mainly serve to promote ideological homogeneity within universities.

A faculty job advertisement at the University of San Diego recently attracted social media attention for requiring applicants to submit a "diversity statement." The advertisement requested the statement address "your values concerning diversity, equity, and inclusion" and "your experience working with minoritized populations."

Finding ways to reduce barriers to underrepresented groups in faculty hiring and make sure students from diverse backgrounds feel respected are worthwhile goals. However, there is disagreement about whether such statements are an innocuous approach toward this worthwhile goal or a cynical political strategy to promote a kind of "woke" academic monoculture.

Disagreements likely come from confusion regarding what we are talking about. Suppose by "diversity" one means people should not be judged by their backgrounds. In that case, all backgrounds have an equal opportunity to be represented, and people are offered respect and value whatever their backgrounds. This seems uncontroversial.

But the concept of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is often undefined (including in these job ads requesting statements), and it is unclear what quantifiable goal diversity statements are meant to achieve (presumably, increased teaching effectiveness) and whether the evidence supports that they achieve those goals.

I searched several academic databases for empirical evidence for the effectiveness of diversity statements on, well, anything. Not much came up, though one article noted that several universities reported more significant proportions of hiring of non-white faculty, though no metrics on student outcomes.

Another article seemed to imply that such statements could be used to circumvent laws against using race or other identities in the hiring process, stating:

By law, faculty candidates cannot be assessed based on their characteristics, but there was a correlation between having a compelling diversity statement and coming from a diverse background.

Some scholars have expressed concerns that "diverse" is effectively code for non-White, non-Asian. There seems to be a tension in the concept of "diverse" between considering it as the odds any two faculty come from different backgrounds — an arguably good thing, particularly if arrived at organically — as opposed to an actual bias against certain groups among progressive academics, a hot issue of national debate.

Suppose the use of such statements doesn't predict student outcomes. In that case, instead, they may be used to foster allegiance to political ideology on the left as a kind of loyalty oath to progressive politics. Numerous studies find a decided leftward skew to the political beliefs of academics. Though diversity is a worthwhile goal, DEI initiatives' framing is generally associated with far-left progressive politics. Words like "minoritized" (rather than a minority) likewise potentially evoke the kind of divisive, oppressive struggle through which the left often now views group relations.

An examination of the rubrics some schools use to evaluate such statements highlights this issue. For instance, at UC Berkeley, expressing a desire to treat everyone the same is a definite no-no. In contrast, faculty are scored highly for "Discusses diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging as core values that every faculty member should actively contribute to" and involvement in professional work directly involving DEI, something far more likely among dedicated progressives than other groups.

Demanding allegiance to the DEI worldview for hiring is a guarantee for creating an academic monoculture. The first example from UC Berkley (i.e., "...values that every faculty member should actively contribute to") is an explicit call to conformity. Nor is evidence provided that higher scores on this rubric are associated with better teaching, including for underrepresented groups.

Defenses of these statements often amount to motte and bailey ("we just want everyone to be respected") or ad hominem ("oh, so you don't like diversity?") These are tactics used by ideologues on both left and right to use innocuous language to shield worldviews that are troubling and problematic. Assuring equal access to education for everyone and respect for everyone despite our differences is worthwhile. Yet, DEI programs are known to backfire often, and given the absence of clear evidence diversity statements are linked to better teaching, I echo the concerns of others that the same may happen here.

For decades, Republican politicians have complained that the academy was an indoctrination mill of leftist ideology. For most of my career, these claims seemed absurd. Increasingly, I worry that universities are evolving into exactly this caricature, and mandatory hiring diversity statements are likely to accelerate this process.