Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Statements: Compassion Filter or Ideological Test?
This piece is available in audio format on our podcast, “Heterodox Out Loud: the best of the HxA blog.” Narration begins at 1:35.
“If there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you tell me.” —Winston Zeddemore, Ghostbusters (1984)
The diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statement is nearly standard in tenure-track faculty job applications and even tenure/promotion files. Construed charitably, it’s a trivial hurdle. As one large public institution put it, “Through your own Statements of Contributions to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion you can tell us how your past, present, and future activities have or will contribute to [our] mission of promoting equity and inclusion or have shaped your perspective on this issue.” Understandably, institutions increasingly want more than just an essay on getting along. For instance, some reasonably recommend that applicants discuss their experience mentoring disadvantaged students. Since not everyone can be a prolific mentor before landing a professorship, some writers advise faculty aspirants lacking such experience to discuss systemic aspects of inequality and underrepresentation, or explain how they will work to create inclusive environments.
If such advice leaves one unsure about what to say, consider the response when a mathematics department chair and professional society officer criticized the requirement, fearing it would function as an ideological litmus test: dueling open letters, with hundreds of signatories and some alleging that she “harmed the mathematics community, particularly mathematicians from marginalized backgrounds.” Young academics who lack professional security face obvious incentives to simply provide the answers the committee wants to hear.
Mandating DEI statements will not improve the teaching, research, and mentoring work of universities because of pitfalls inherent to screening people for their opinions. First, hiring processes incentivizing the espousal of “safe” views on controversial social issues encourage educators to uncritically repeat apparent consensus stances on the hardest questions educational institutions face. This is even (especially?) true if social issues are unrelated to one’s field of investigation. In DEI discourse, “equity” refers to the equality of outcomes in society, a subject of long debate in philosophy since Plato discussed the proper education of an elite class. Should we screen physics professors on how they will contribute to that debate?
Second, there is a paucity of evidence that selecting for social views will net more effective and compassionate teachers and mentors. When a student struggles in class because they are also working to provide for their siblings (a common issue), the instructor’s opinions about identity and social structures are less important than a willingness to adjust office hours for the student’s work schedule or offer a second chance after poor performance during a challenging time. Anyone can say that they will work hard to help students; only time will tell if they act as promised. Offering the “right” sentiments in an essay about social issues is of little use.
In fairness to well-meaning colleagues who support the use of DEI statements, likely what most actually want are compassionate teachers and mentors. They hope—and perhaps assume—that professors who see social issues through lenses of systemic inequality and structural barriers will be more compassionate to struggling students. And perhaps there’s a grain of truth to this. Recognizing that many students face challenges beyond the immaturity of youth may make one more inclined to help. However, people of many different ideological stripes can note larger problems and act with compassion.
As a thought experiment, consider the people in your life who agree with your social, political, or religious views. Are they all equally compassionate? Do they all go to similar lengths to help others? Now think of your friends and relatives with different viewpoints. Are they, as a rule, less compassionate or helpful for relatives, friends, neighbors, and co-workers? Anecdotes, to be sure, but consider that research suggests progressives have no edge over conservative religious men in assuming equitable responsibility for housework and childcare. We should give fair consideration to teachers and scholars with varying ideas on societal issues.
Beyond contemporary U.S. examples, history shows that filtering for “correct” social views mostly produces slogan-savvy managers. Czech playwright, activist, and post-Communist president Vaclav Havel, in his parable of the greengrocer, noted the irony of a system that violently suppressed workers’ uprisings while requiring managers to display signs reading “Workers of the World Unite!” Further, when piety is advantageous, the ambitious will be pious. For example, literary scholar Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran describes the transformation of religious student organizations with the rise of the new religious government. Dr. Nafisi saw that in the early days of the revolution, student leaders were passionate and mission-driven. However, once the theocrats had consolidated power, religious organizations attracted career-oriented types with more self-serving motives.
That brings us to a final problem with DEI statements in hiring processes. Selecting for “correct” social views increases incentives to flatter and lie. Most faculty job applicants have spent two or more decades impressing teachers. It should be no surprise if they know what academic interviewers want to hear. (Or at least what the administration says interviewers should want.) Some of the people speaking insincerely will no doubt be passionate teachers and scholars willing to jump through hoops for an opportunity to do good work, but others will be slippery careerists who thrive by flattering. Why give them more chances to leverage their skills?
I am confident that American universities will clear the low hurdle of operating more honestly and humanely than Communists and theocrats. However, the underlying problem is the same: When institutions declare a particular ideology to be central to their work, and require aspiring employees to proclaim agreement, they select for rhetorical compliance rather than whatever decent ideals might motivate such views. To believe that we will somehow do this right when so many other societies failed is to believe that modern Western universities have insights and capabilities that other institutions—including non-Western ones—lack. That conceit sits awkwardly with DEI-motivated desires to decenter Western perspectives.
Ultimately, what people of good will presumably want from DEI statements is assurance that the writers will act with compassion for struggling students and respect for people from different cultures. Let us therefore examine track records, not opinions. Contact references who can speak to how the applicant has worked with students and peers. Look for evidence of effective teaching. These actions matter far more than favored words about systemic inequality, or whatever the shibboleth of the day might be.
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