Diversity statements

Well… it’s been a break. I will not try to explain it. This is a personal blog, I do not get paid for it, and I’m free to post as often or as rarely as I wish. I did plan other posts to restart it: one about math, another expanding on a workshop presentation I did a couple of months ago. But, diversity statements. So here we go.

I want to be very clear that I’m not down with the various comparisons that get made on similar occasions, including the McCarthy era, Stalinism, gulags, reeducation camps, cultural revolution, and so on. Institutions have the right to ask job candidates for statements on how they are going to perform various aspects of that job. Take, for instance, teaching statements at universities. If I personally believed that teaching quality should have no relevance to hiring at research universities, and if I said so in my teaching statement, and if that led to the outcome that one might expect, would I be punished for my beliefs? Or would I fail to meet a basic suitability criterion for the job for which I’m applying?

I do not actually believe that teaching quality is irrelevant, but here’s an example where I do disagree with common institutional practices. Every time someone here gets promoted or tenured, they have a “teaching report” prepared for them. That report includes a long and detailed analysis of their teaching evaluation scores, with statistics, comparisons to multiyear departmental averages, and detailed comments on minuscule variations in individual numbers. There is a large body of research showing that teaching evaluation scores are biased and that their correlation with teaching effectiveness is at best questionable. Arguments against their use in tenure and promotion cases have been made and have been successful at some institutions. And yet, we keep writing those reports, often against our better judgement. That’s not ideology. That’s how capitalism works.

At the same time, it is true that diversity initiatives can misfire. They can hurt the same people they are meant to support, and produce effects opposite to those intended. This can happen when those in charge of the initiative have good intentions but do not have the experience, expertise, or authority to carry it out properly. It can happen when the different actors and authorities involved, often different parts of the same institution, are at cross-purposes with each other. It can also happen when, as is common in academia, diversity is sublimated into hierarchy. Too many academics are happy to have a circle of young women gazing at them in adoration and would be delighted to promote more women into that position, but change their tune when the same women become more senior and start competing against them for resources.

And also at the same time, such failures are immediately weaponized by those who think that diversity, equity and exclusion are dirty words, that women should stay in their place and that place is not in tech or academia, that ability is determined by genetics and genetics is determined by skin colour, and so on. And from a different angle, it is very easy to say that diversity actions must always fail as shown by the preponderance of evidence, that academic selection should be based on merit as it has always been, and that any external intervention to promote diversity must end in disaster. This happens in the same departments where external intervention is the only realistic chance of improvement for those marginalized. The preponderance of evidence that merit-based selection does not always work as advertised is rarely taken into account.

My own problem with the ideas of diversity, equity and inclusion is that they do not go far enough. They are missing a fourth component: justice. That would be a very different conversation, one that should include but not be limited to past affirmative action measures for white people as well as the actual historical facts of, say, lynching and witch hunts. I do not think that academia, by and large, is anywhere close to ready for that conversation.

I do not have a simple yes or no answer as to whether diversity statements should be required. I do not believe that being “for” or “against” diversity statements, with no qualifiers, is a useful way to have that discussion. It is completely possible to support diversity initiatives in general principle and also raise objections when such initiatives are not well executed. The specifics will depend on the institution, the people involved, the political and financial landscape in which they operate, and much more. With that said, if you would like to know what I think, here are a few things for your consideration.

Be clear about what you expect. Do you just want a statement about how the candidate is going to implement inclusive practices in their teaching? Or do you want a more general statement on diversity-related activism? If you want activism, and if you actually get an application from a Black Lives Matter march organizer, or from an Indigenous person who got arrested and convicted for protesting pipelines and now has a criminal record, what are you going to do? You should think about that before you put out the call.

Be aware of the balance of power. Do you want a statement on how the candidate has experienced racism, sexism, or other kinds of discrimination? Do you understand that writing up such experiences can be a traumatic process, better suited for therapy than for a job application? Do you believe that you have the right to ask disadvantaged people to bare their bruises for your evaluation? And do you honestly expect that doing so will get them the job? If, say, a Black woman writes up a long list of complaints related to sexism and racism at her previous institutions, this may impress the equity office, but what about the mathematics department? It’s the mathematics department that would have to shortlist her, and it’s very easy for them to not do so, and they really do not think that they have a sexism or racism problem, and they do not feel that someone who complains all the time would be a good fit for their collegial culture.

And what if that candidate did not just nurse their complaints quietly? What if they acted on it? Colin Kaepernick continues to be unemployed. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is in hiding. Actresses get blacklisted. The careers of women in academia who report sexual harassment are often derailed. Meanwhile, the straight white guy who regularly volunteers for diversity leadership positions will have a nice, safe diversity statement. Is that the intended outcome?

Be realistic. I have talked to undergraduate students who had to write diversity statements for their graduate school application. It’s a very awkward conversation to have. They are undergraduates. They have not done much in life. Those students who are more aware of social justice issues are likely those who have experienced them firsthand, so see above, with the added consideration that graduate students are right at the bottom of the academic pecking ladder.

Have you thought about who has the time and resources to volunteer and participate in resume-building activism, and who has to work two part-time jobs after school just to make ends meet? And that those part-time jobs might be at places like fast food chains where you are very much not expected to show leadership? And that organizing diversity initiatives at such outlets can get you fired?

We are not in Lake Wobegon. I did look up the Berkeley diversity rubric. It does indeed give low rating to candidates who describe “only activities that are already the expectation of Berkeley faculty (mentoring, treating all students the same regardless of background, etc).” This is a problem, but it’s not an ideological one. It is the same problem that we always have in academia where all faculty are expected to exceed expectations, everyone has to be above average, and at least 30% of us have to be in the top 1%.

The tradition of exceeding expectations in academia is intimately tied to the traditional reality of professors being men who had wives. Exceeding the expectations for one person is quite possible in those traditional circumstances.

A graduate student recently shared with me her experience of the “thank you for typing” acknowledgments found in the classics of our field. What they tell her very clearly is that many, if not most, of the scholars who produced “the canons” and attained tenure and status in our field did so by profiting from the labor of another person who was devoted full-time to the maintenance of the scholar’s life, career, and family. This raised a question for the aspiring historian: Would she be expected to produce the same quantity and quality of work, but without any of those patriarchal benefits?

And now we are starting to apply the same standards to diversity and equity work. I’m imagining the perfect Berkeley job candidate: a groundbreaking researcher, outstanding teacher, and a public diversity advocate and activist, with a stay-at-home wife (a former Mathematics undergraduate) who types his papers, books his travel, and prepares the materials for his equity and diversity workshops. Is that where we are going?

How about just doing the job that we were hired to do? In diversity and equity in particular, we do not need everyone to try to be a leader. The actual point of diversity and equity is that those traditionally assumed to be leaders in academia need to learn to shut up, let others talk, take the back seat, follow directions, do the work without constantly angling for leadership positions, I do not feel that the Berkeley diversity rubric is supportive of that goal. I feel that it promotes the same kind of power-seeking behaviour that has always been a problem in academia.

Should a major educational institution work to be more inclusive? Absolutely. Should it try to have equity and diversity leaders among its faculty? Of course. It might even try a targeted search or two, seeking specifically candidates who have a good understanding of diversity issues and experience in working on them. But we need to stop pretending that everyone can or should be a leader in everything.

Good intentions are not enough. When I was starting my first postdoc job, the then-chair of the department gave me a pep talk on how I should really pay attention to my teaching because that was going to be very important for my career. A few months later, I was placed in front of my first large calculus class: 210 students, many of whom were repeating that class, which I did not know. I did not know what background I could expect from those students, or how to manage grade disputes, or how to teach large classes, or how to teach in general. It did not go well. Looking back on it, I could have done worse. I could have just explained to my students that calculus was very important, waited a little bit, and then administered the final exam.

Some time between then and the end of my second job, universities started asking for teaching statements. It took longer, though, before they heard what everyone else was saying: that university teachers were never taught how to teach, and that merely asking a person to describe their good intentions was not going to help. Now, many institutions have measures in place: graduate courses on how to teach, teaching workshops for new instructors, and so on. These are often both mandatory and counted as part of the job. They work best when they acknowledge the reality that there are other demands on our time, that while some of us want to be educational leaders, others have different priorities but still want to do the job well enough.

There could well be a use for similar training with respect to diversity and inclusion. Not just the usual 20-minute online courses on how to avoid a sexual harassment lawsuit. Not open-ended discussions on race and gender and ideology and everything else in general, either. Just basic instructions on what is not appropriate to say in the classroom or to your female colleague, how to respond when a student asks for accessibility accommodations, or how to provide such accommodations without expanding your own workload beyond acceptable limits. Or, for that matter, how to organize diversity events, for those so inclined.

Going back to the Berkeley rubrics, I would have a serious problem with a candidate who scores low on knowledge and understanding but very high on the level of diversity-related activity. Even if someone scores high on knowledge, but that knowledge is mostly based on reading and not on life experience, I would still have questions. In mathematics, if you get it wrong, you can just erase the board and start again, In equity, you can do real harm. Instead of addressing racist views, you may end up giving some the opportunity to air such views unchallenged. Instead of making universities more equitable for women, you may confine them to lesser roles or create more male panels to lecture them on their behaviour.

The institution has to step up. A common failing of diversity initiatives is that people from the targeted demographics get hired (or admitted, or invited), then left to their own devices in a less than supportive environment. You want to hire more faculty from underrepresented groups. Great. When was the last time you talked to your current female faculty? To your minoritized faculty? Have you asked them what they think about your diversity plans? That female professor in math or physics or whatever who mostly does not talk to anyone? Are you even aware that she exists? Did you talk to those who left? Do you know why they did, or where they went?

You want your new hires to be active in supporting diversity, equity and inclusion. Are you going to give them the resources to do it? Are you going to give them the authority? Can they say that they speak for the institution when they tell instructors in a training session how not to be sexist? Or must their work come with the disclaimer that the views presented here do not necessarily represent anyone else’s and that the workshop facilitators are just stating their own opinions?

What are you going to do if their department disrespects them? What are you going to do if they become the target of a right-wing hate campaign, as many already did? Are you ready to help them and defend them? Will you have their back? Or will you just tell them to use their own resources and come to work as usual?

I hope this gives you some food for thought.

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