The diversity statements secular colleges increasingly require of faculty candidates have many similarities to the faith statements long required by religious institutions, Justin P. McBrayer writes.
In 2008, I was in graduate school and applying for tenure-track jobs in philosophy across the country. My applications fell into two piles: those that required faith statements and those that didn’t. Many religious colleges required applicants to either write their own faith statement or sign on to a standardized one. This bothered me.
It’s not that I didn’t have faith commitments. I did. But as a philosopher, I wasn’t ready to sign just anything. I craved the careful distinctions, nuance and subtlety that faith statements often papered over. As a result, I had to pore over the standardized statements to ensure that I could sign in good conscience or construct my own that hewed closely to my intellectual, moral and religious commitments. Secular institutions were so much easier.
Contrary to what you might think, many secular institutions now require faith statements, too. They go by the name diversity statements, but they function in the same ways as faith statements at religious institutions.
Many faculty positions now require diversity statements as part of an application packet. The standard justification for this is that doing so will improve the success of diverse student bodies and enhance diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives on campus. Job ads have a short shelf life online, but here are a few examples.
New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering requires that all faculty applicants include “a statement of your experience with or knowledge of inclusion, diversity, equity, and belonging efforts and your plans for incorporating them into your teaching, research, mentoring, and service.”
California State University, Sacramento, requires applicants for a history job to submit a statement showing, among other things, how the candidate would “advance the History Department’s goal of promoting an anti-racist and anti-oppressive campus to recruit, retain, and mentor students.”
For another history job, Northern Arizona University requires a diversity statement “that highlights an understanding of the role of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice in a university setting. Please include examples from past experiences and reference plans to advance diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in your teaching, research, and service.”
Hofstra University in New York welcomes applications for an assistant professor of sociology as long as that person can demonstrate her commitment to critical criminology, restorative justice and racial equity in the criminal justice system and show how her teaching, research and service would contribute to a culturally diverse and inclusive environment.
Note just how demanding these standards are. Applicants are supposed to know the differences among inclusion, equity, diversity and belonging. They need experience with each. They should have a track record and/or plans to incorporate each of them into teaching, mentoring, service and research. Successful applicants will be committed to a goal of building an antioppressive recruitment strategy. Northern Arizona even wants a plan for advancing justice in teaching.
These examples are not an aberration. Last fall the American Enterprise Institute released a report on the prevalence of DEI statements in university hiring. AEI found that 68 percent of job ads in the fall of 2020 mentioned diversity, and 19 percent required a separate diversity statement. That number requiring diversity statements is even higher for elite schools and tenure-track jobs. Certain fields are more likely to require diversity statements than others, with political science being the most likely among fields included in the survey.
And these numbers are already two years old. Given the political climate, it’s likely that the proportion of positions requiring diversity work is even higher (Appalachian State University in North Carolina, for example, is building a summer working group on soliciting and evaluating DEI statements). Diversity statements are the new norm.
Diversity statements function like faith statements. Even though they are nominally about different topics, they work in similar ways and have structurally similar effects.
First, both faith and diversity statements effectively screen out potential candidates at the application stage. When I was on the job market, I often applied to a different pool of colleges than fellow grad students studying the same areas. Non-Christians need not apply. Requiring a faith statement was an effective way of ensuring that religious people (or those willing to pretend) were overrepresented in the candidate pool relative to the general Ph.D. population. In other words, faith statements screen applicants.
Diversity statements do the same thing. I’ve heard from several colleagues on the job market this year who have declined to apply to certain jobs with stringent diversity statement requirements. People who are less certain about sociological issues surrounding demographic diversity or those holding nonstandard (read: nonliberal) views about diversity are discouraged from applying. Suppose you were a physicist: if you can’t say how you would incorporate diversity and inclusion in your research on nuclear fusion, you’d better not apply. And if the statement isn’t really supposed to be about your research but about how you would teach or hire people for your research, then the request is misplaced.
Further, at the screening stage, the already-narrowed applicant pool can be winnowed further on the basis of diversity contributions (or rhetoric) before academic credentials are even considered. Some colleges grade diversity statements with a rubric and assign applicants a diversity score as part of the first round of cuts. For example, stating your commitment to treat all students the same will earn you the lowest possible score on advancing DEI at the University of California, Berkeley.
And let’s face it: statements asking applicants to describe their experiences with diversity invite applicants to identify themselves by race, ethnicity, gender, etc., thereby priming search committee members by flagging features that are supposed to be irrelevant in a job search. The net result is that people who really believe (or are willing to say) certain things about diversity are overrepresented in the interview pool relative to the general job-seeking population.
Second, both faith and diversity statements require people to assent to claims above their epistemic pay grade. Various faith statements I’ve perused online, for example, require that applicants be willing to affirm that God exists as three persons, that the Bible in its original language was inerrant, that Mary had a virgin birth and that Hell is a literal place of eternal suffering. I submit to you that most job candidates in music and chemistry are unable to marshal very good arguments or evidence for these views (even applicants in philosophy and theology would struggle).
Diversity statements put applicants in a similar position by requiring all sorts of claims that are difficult to verify. Pop quiz: What’s the difference between race and ethnicity? Most of you reading this article won’t know. How many faculty members in accounting are able to clearly parse the differences among inclusion, equity, diversity and belonging (especially given the ongoing semantic narrowing of each)? Social scientists are in the best position to understand the role that things like racism and sexism play in society at large, and even they disagree. Should we expect applicants in sports medicine to understand them? In short, diversity statements too often require people to make claims that they neither understand nor have evidence for.
Let me be clear: it’s not that many applicants don’t believe all the things they say about diversity, society and justice. Rather, it’s that they won’t know them. Instead, most scholars hold their diversity-related beliefs as a matter of faith rather than evidence. In that way, they are no different from the applicants writing religious faith statements for other schools.
You might think that job applicants aren’t really expected to know very much about diversity but rather just to signal that they care about it. That brings up a third similarity between faith statements and diversity statements: both are signals of tribal loyalties. Humans naturally divide the social world into in-groups and out-groups, and we need reliable ways to tell who’s who. We do so by signaling to those around us and picking up on the signals of others. When a candidate says he doesn’t support the minimum wage, that reliably signals to the political left that he’s not one of them. When a group of politicians supports using force to inspect voting machines, that’s a reliable signal of their political allegiances. Signals that are less likely to be picked up by the other side are called dog whistles.
Even if it had no effect on the applicant pool, a faith statement is a clear signal about where an institution’s loyalties lie. Many religious schools have adopted faith statements and lifestyle statements to pacify religiously fundamental trustees and donors or to signal potential applicants. The expectation of a diversity statement sends a similar signal of loyalty to administrators, fellow institutions and donors, and submitting a statement that passionately extols progressive ideals on DEI reliably signals an applicant’s loyalties.
And much like a dog whistle, the signal goes deeper than the content made explicit in the statements. It’s eminently plausible that faith statements correlate with all sorts of social and political allegiances; diversity statements do the same. It’s not like one’s views about diversity, equity and inclusion are somehow isolated from the remainder of one’s worldview. How you write about diversity will be a reliable indicator about how you think and teach and vote on a wide range of other issues.
Fourth, both faith and diversity statements close questions. An open question is one that has not yet been answered. It is evidentially unsettled. A closed question is one that has been answered and set aside. No more inquiry is welcome on that front.
When a religious institution requires applicants to agree in advance that the world was created in six literal days, it is effectively closing the question on the origin of the cosmos. Anyone willing to challenge that dogma need not apply. Once again, diversity statements do the same thing. If the history department is only willing to hire applicants committed to building an antiracist recruitment pipeline, that closes the question on whether antiracist structures do more harm than good. If applicants are required to submit statements detailing how their service will dismantle structural racism in the university, that closes the question on whether structural racism is really the root cause of our lack of racial diversity.
In sum, both faith and diversity statements artificially limit an applicant pool, ask for commitments that go beyond our evidence, signal our tribal loyalties and close questions. Realizing that they are on a par should give us pause. Religious colleges are private institutions that are typically up front about their religious orientations. In that context, a faith statement makes sense. But requiring a functionally similar statement at a public institution is a bad idea.
Even setting aside questions of whether it’s legal to require diversity statements at public schools (arguably not) and whether doing so helps students (there’s no evidence that it does), doing so likely contributes to the further intellectual polarization of the academy. Faculty are already overwhelmingly progressive, and given our propensity to evaluate politically charged issues in light of our own biases, it’s plausible that requiring job applicants to provide diversity statements further increases the probability that applicants espousing progressive views about the nature of and solutions to diversity-related problems are hired over politically moderate or conservative competitors. That’s something that should worry anyone interested in building communities that are trustworthy, intellectually diverse and vibrant.
Justin P. McBrayer is a professor of philosophy at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., and a writing fellow at Heterodox Academy. He works in epistemology and ethics, and his most recent book is Beyond Fake News (Routledge).
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