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America’s raging culture war has opened yet another front against the ivory tower — this time targeting universities’ diversity statements.
Diversity statements — essays academics often write when applying for university posts or seeking tenure that detail how their teaching and research contributes to diversity — have become increasingly commonplace in higher education, including recently at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Now, a number of mostly Republican-led legal efforts have prohibited the use of diversity statements in states across the country, including Florida, North Carolina, North Dakota, and Texas.
These essays face criticism ranging from the charge that they can serve as a political litmus test to the accusation that they are overly hubristic and a poor tool to actually measure an applicant’s commitment to diversity.
We agree with this latter criticism. Given enough time, an academic can easily craft a well-written essay highlighting their commitment to diversity, even if the sentiment is disingenuous.
Yet diversity in teaching and research are incredibly important. The ability to teach effectively is not merely dependent on a professor’s extensive knowledge and experience; the capacity to interact with and instruct a diverse student body is essential, too. Schools ought to make clear that the ability to teach diverse students is a valued competency for prospective applicants — a signal that will hopefully incentivize the next generation of academics to demonstrate a genuine commitment to diversity as well.
Because faculty approaches to diversity are important, and diversity statements may fail to capture these hires’ true feelings, we propose using interviews to ask academics about how they feel about diversity instead.
In the hot seat, applicants will be hard-pressed to falsely inflate their feelings about diversity, and interviewers can carefully examine academics on how their instruction and research contribute to diversity beyond a pre-written statement. Although applicants should be informed in advance that interviewers will press them on diversity, giving them time to think about their responses, interview answers will be naturally more dynamic than a stale essay emailed to a department.
Banning diversity statements in full, however, is the wrong approach. Diversity statements can provide a useful forum for applicants deeply dedicated to diversity to explain their record and elaborate on how diversity has been a guiding principle in their career. Governments should not remove this opportunity for academics who want to highlight their experience cultivating diversity — an ideal that must remain an enduring commitment of higher education institutions.
For this reason, diversity statements should be an optional component of teaching and research applications. Rather than being wholly banned or required, an optional diversity statement is the right middle path forward, allowing academics passionate about diversity initiatives to showcase their valued experience without forcing others to halfheartedly pay lip service to a cause they have not proactively embraced.
It does not surprise us to hear lawmakers are curtailing how academics can be evaluated on the basis of their commitment to diversity, and we have our own critiques of these statements too. But we must not let politics interfere with academics’ ability to express themselves and their devotion to diversity if they so choose.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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