Diversity statements: the good, the bad and the ugly

Diversity statements can be created with good intentions but still manage to perpetuate inequality. Henrika McCoy and Madeline Lee detail what to look out for and suggested action


University of Illinois Chicago,California State University San Marcos
9 May 2022
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Diversity statements in higher education can embed inequality more deeply

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Two types of academic diversity statements are popular. The first is submitted in a prospective faculty member’s application to indicate how they view, and contribute to, equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). The second comes when a current faculty member is seeking promotion and tenure (P&T). Both types include the good, the bad and the ugly. We focus here on P&T diversity statements and on racial identity because the bad and the ugly can stagnate faculty of colour and derail promotion, and in the US, most of this work is focused on race as an initial step.

The good: crediting contributions 

Requiring diversity statements is likely an effort by universities to address racism and faculty demands. The EDI work that faculty of colour engage in is often unseen, ignored or taken for granted, and diversity statements can demonstrate how they consistently, and independently, advance institutional EDI efforts.

For many, sharing their work in this area – and getting credit for it – is long overdue, and their statements could reveal the additional tasks they assume. They often provide support and mentoring to students of colour who seek them out because they have a shared reality. They serve on committees because of their EDI expertise (personal and professional). They present about EDI because of their expertise. It is the reality of their lived experiences, and willingness to share them, that is essential for making EDI a reality.

The bad: paved with good intentions 

The intent might be to credit important EDI work; however, requiring diversity statements might significantly devalue the work of faculty of colour long engaged in EDI work. Their work might become quantified and compared with white colleagues being considered extraordinary or novel for engaging in EDI work. The work done by faculty of colour risks being viewed as if the number of people engaged or hours spent were counted or, if viewed at a surface level, without capturing the emotional labour or its true cost.

Faculty of colour might choose not to discuss the costs incurred, fearing that a personal revelation could negatively impact them professionally. They might also simply not want to relive a disempowering, harmful, traumatising, frustrating or disappointing experience.

The ugly: unfair advantage 

Diversity statements might even enable white faculty to have their EDI efforts seen as greater or more worthy because they tried something new. Enabling and making space for them elevates their “new adventure” above the relentless discomfort experienced by faculty of colour. If societal pressures wane, and the focus on EDI lessens, the impetus for diversity statements might become obsolete. Regardless of society’s new direction, faculty of colour’s emotional labour will continue, and EDI tasks could once again be ignored and dismissed.

The reality check 

Whether diversity statements are good, bad or ugly is unclear. What is clear? The fact is that there is no easy solution. The problem is complex and requires a complex solution, one not limited to diversity statements. If used in isolation, they will fail. Universities must consider the context of diversity statements and see them as one small part of addressing a fundamental flaw in a constantly changing landscape.

Reflection and action 

Universities must not reduce EDI contributions to a checklist or merely quantify activities. Universities must not reward or incentivise participation in an approved activity for those not truly invested in EDI and ignore those who show meaningful commitment.

Efforts must be made to understand and acknowledge the hidden emotional labour that faculty of colour expend. Their lived experiences allow them to provide support, guidance and information that cannot be replicated by their white colleagues. EDI work is hard, and sometimes faculty of colour might say “no” when asked. Their experiences will be exhilarating, rewarding, frustrating, angering, exhausting and overwhelming – and some or none of those feelings will be captured in a required diversity statement.

Universities must ask themselves whether the diversity statement is simply a self-reporting tool that rewards white faculty who are new to, or do not truly care about, EDI work – or an opportunity to engage in minor tasks and earn kudos. What happens to faculty of colour who have been and will continue to toil to make EDI a reality?

The weekly hours spent by a white faculty member volunteering with at-risk youth should not be equated to the one hour a faculty member of colour listened to a student of colour recount their classroom experience of having to deal with an instructor who doubted their qualifications or casually assumed they were from a poor, gang-infested neighbourhood. The listening faculty member of colour might have had to relive their own experience in a faculty meeting the prior week when colleagues made similar assumptions about them.

Ultimately, all EDI efforts are not created equal. Thus, do not overlook faculty of colour’s long-standing contributions because they appear less onerous or because they aren’t defined as “work”. Diversity statement requirements should be dynamic, adjusting as society changes. Without oversight and responsiveness to change, they could backfire rather than help. Seek expertise from faculty of colour and use their recommendations rather than seek white experts who have “studied the issue” or self-identify as “experts”. Diversity statements come in response to systematic, long-standing and embedded institutional problems. Finding the most appropriate action will likely require more knowledge and resources than can be found at your university.

Finally, be patient and demanding. The issues diversity statements are designed to address will not be solved quickly and will result in multiple attempts and failures. However, efforts must be consistent, constant and of the highest priority for genuine change to happen.

Henrika McCoy is the interim associate dean for academic affairs and student services and an associate professor of social work at the Jane Addams College of Social Work, University of Illinois Chicago.

Madeline Lee is an associate professor in the department of social work at California State University San Marcos.

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