Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Diversity statements and academic freedom

Some scholars (?) from Oregon have recently published a manifesto that calls "Diversity statements" that are now required for all newhires in the Oregon State University a violation of academic freedom. Does not it sound curious? Diversity statements violate academic freedom. That's surely something new!

Here's where I read about it:

And here's the full version of the "report" (essentially, a manifesto):

In short, the logic goes as following: Diversity statements invite people to comment on some sensitive topics, such as gender equality, LGBT issues, racial politics, and so on. Presumably, if a person does not share left-wing values, they won't be able to write a "smashing" diversity statement, and thus will be discriminated against. And that would be a violation of academic freedom.

On the surface it sounds kind of logical, but at the same time I feel it is as divorced from reality as it can possibly get. Diversity statements are not supposed to be an expression of one's agenda, neither political nor philosophical. A diversity statement generally serves two rather modest purposes:

1. It allows the candidate to present some of their redeeming features that are traditionally not put on a standard academic CVs, and that are hard to quantify, but that make them a more interesting person. Maybe they had an unusual period in life, a unique experience, some curious background. Anything that makes them less of a cookie-cutter clone of a perfect student. For the hiring committee, these unique experiences are a promise of some flexibility, at intellectual and personal level, and an opportunity for strategic team-building. It's nice to know that as a team we'll be able to better represent the complexity of the world around us; that we are not a set of 12 identical twins that will hate each other within a month! This makes the "Diversity statement" pretty much the only part of the application package where one can spin their personal story, that could otherwise be perceived as a weaknesses, as a strength. For example, you went to grad school really late because you were doing something else for 10 years, and now you have fewer publications behind your belt? Here's your chance to explain that. There are probably other people around that can relate to this story, so it would be helpful to have a prof on the team who knows how this side of life works.

2. Perhaps more importantly, the diversity statement is an opportunity for the candidate to show that they thought about issues of inclusiveness in the classroom, and have at least some ideas, even if rudimentary, about ways in which students may be different; how it can affect their education, and what can be done about it. Nobody is perfect, everything is highly personal, and I am quite convinced that by definition there is no "perfect" diversity statement, but it's an extra opportunity to guess whether the candidate is thinking about these issues at all. Whether they are humble of heart, ready to change if needed, and are driven by kindness. What you don't want is to hire somebody who only believes in tall athletic brunets (or short nerdy blondes, it doesn't matter what profile we are talking about), and is only prepared to work with this type of students. Hiring a person like that would be a huge disservice to the students.

What I am trying to say is that the bar is pretty low. One: be a human. Two: be ready to change, and try to be kind. That's the crux of it; the rest is a commentary.

Moreover, most diversity statements I've seen were written so poorly that writing a passable one should be a really low bar. Gosh, they are usually even worse than teaching statements! And teaching statements are always bad, even in a teaching school; probably because teaching is a trade with little theory, and lots of experience and art aspects to it, which makes it hard to write a meaningful one-pager about these things. But while teaching statements are always pretty bad, diversity statements are even worse. On this background, any thinking human who is not completely evil should be able to do a decent job.

Which brings me to my last point. Actually, as I think of it now, it should not be too hard to write a good diversity statement even if you are covered with tattoos of red stripy star-covered elephants and yellow hissing snakes from toes to shoulders. Because ultimately this whole concern about right thinkers not being represented in academia is a concern about diversity!! (They don't use the word diversity in the "report", as I guess it would have been too ironic, but that's what they actually seem to mean when they say "academic freedom"). A person who can relate to conservative students, and who can describe that kindly and thoughtfully, would be a great asset on any team. They just need to stay practical and write about teaching and work, and not about their treasured philosophy. (Because if they work in political science or gender studies, they can write about it in their research statement, and if they don't - it's irrelevant, exactly for academic freedom reasons). Just think about inclusive classroom, and how you'd make sure that you make your students succeed even if they are tall nerdy red-heads or whatever. Concentrate on topics of outreach, transcending political boundaries, and building a welcoming, constructive atmosphere. And it will be fine.

tldr: It's a non-issue and straw-man argument; diversity statements are useful, easy to write, and don't violate academic freedom.


  1. I suggest you may want to read this paper: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/01/05/workplace-diversity-policies-dont-help-women-minorities-and-make-white-men-feel-threatened
    It's really short, but can give a good examples of what non-minority people may feel about diversity efforts, as they are currently employed.
    If this is not sufficiently academic, then here's a paper from a peer-reviewed journal: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103115300068

    Bottom line, I can definitely agree that such "diversity" programs, as _they_are_implemented_now_, definitely make some people feel that their academic freedoms (and not just academic) are sort of... under pressure.


  2. That's all interesting, and a fair point. Some comments though:

    1) Just requiring a "diversity statement" won't solve anything obviously, yet I'm sure some places just require it, and stop at that. Moreover, hiring preferentially based on diversity statements doesn't solve the problem either, for deeper reasons, and there's some good literature about it. Diversity statements give candidates an opportunity to show that they are prepared, or disclose some often overlooked experiences, but on its own it's just a tool. What you do with this tool, as an institution, is an entirely different story.

    2) I am sure the necessity of writing an extra statement makes applicants more nervous, not less, pretty much regardless of their background. The goal of these statements is not to make people feel good though; the goal is to get extra information to make the world a better place, in the long-term. It's not about feelings, unfortunately, even though feelings are important.

    Job searches are never transparent, because statements or not, there's this totally unquantifiable question of "fit". I don't think it is fair to pretend that an extra statements makes the process any less transparent for the candidates. It is completely opaque to begin with, unfortunately. And I'm not sure there's an easy way around it...

    3) For white men specifically, pretty much everything makes us feel under pressure. When I was a postdoc I was living in a state of perpetual nervous breakdown, so pretty much anything made me more nervous (I'm not sure there was Anything At All that used to make me less nervous back then). So I'm not arguing this point at all, yet the root cause of this "feeling threatened" is again quite different. It's the horrible state of the job market, political instability, funding insecurity, career vulnerability, etc. We humans are good in rationalizing our failures and coming up with explanations for our fears. Again, I wish I could do something about it, but it's rather unlikely to be fixed.

    I can only restate my previous opinion: diversity statements come in various forms and shapes, and I've seen some excellent ones that had nothing to do with the "minority status" of the applicant. It's not about that, in the vast majority of cases.

  3. Yep. I agree. Job interviews are natural disasters, and often they have very little common with the type of work we are expected to do. Not just in academia.
    But, still, I'd suggest people who require these types of statements would think of their policies twice. It's a double-edged sword.
    It's resembles me a quantum system - when you observe it, you change a state of the system. And now system starts affecting you, as an observer.
    You say, " I wish I [as a little guy] could do something about it". Apparently, a few people felt similarly, and they did nothing. Literally nothing - they didn't go and vote in the recent election. And, voilas - we've got some surprising results.