New paper explores diversity statements in faculty hiring

Tuesday, December 4, 2018 - 8:51pm

A new study on the use of diversity statements in hiring at the University of Michigan was recently conducted at the University’s National Center for Institutional Diversity. The study served to analyze the effects of new and evolving practices in faculty hiring in higher education.

Diversity statements are written pieces of an application in which the applicant explains the ways their background, experience, scholarship, mentoring and other previous work can contribute to campus efforts to promote diversity, equity and inclusion. The statements are requested from candidates for some faculty positions at the University and increasingly at institutions of higher education across the country.

Prof. Tabbye Chavous, director of NCID, co-authored the paper. Chavous said the purpose of the study was to gain a more thorough understanding of how candidates and faculty used the diversity statements and how higher education institutions use them to evaluate candidates. The authors were able to find better ways to elicit thorough statements from candidates, which Chavous said would make the practice more effective.

“We think that this is a really promising practice and tool,” Chavous said. “One part of our University DEI initiative is enhancing diversity, equity and inclusion in our campus environment and part of that is through the faculty that we hire. So having tools that allow us to both understand and assess the different types of work and contributions that faculty have made allows us to be more thoughtful and purposeful about selecting faculty who contribute to our academic mission and who contribute to an inclusive and equitable environment.”

The diversity statements are not a required part of hiring through the entire University, but several colleges within the University have recently begun using them, including the Ford School of Public Policy, which mandated in May that the statements be used in all future hiring. Paula Lantz, the school’s associate dean for academic affairs, said the diversity statements simply serve as additional information for consideration in the hiring process — information that is especially important given the subject matter taught in the Public Policy School.

“Issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion are really central to everything that we do here,” Lantz said. “There are not very many issues in public policy that don’t grapple with issues related to social inequality, to political difference, to how policies affect different groups of people across society. So when we are looking to expand our faculty, we really do want people who we think can contribute to how we teach in 2018 and going forward and also how we engage in research and policy.”

Lantz said the practice of using the diversity statements will enrich the student experience by bringing in a more capable and holistically valuable faculty.

“Students gain from a process in which we are making sure that when we bring new faculty into the school, they’re going to really be contributing to all parts of our mission,” Lantz said. “Our entire community benefits when we bring in new faculty who we are sure are going to be contributing to all of the work that we want our community to be contributing to the world.”

Music, Theatre & Dance junior Saawan Tiwari echoed this sentiment, saying faculty with more diversity of experience offer students more ways of thinking that can aid them in a wide range of disciplines.

“Having more diversity on staff and diversity in teaching obviously helps because it’s being told something differently,” Tiwari said. “The more staff you have teaching in different ways, the more that the student can figure out what staff they like, figure out why that is and then figure out how to apply how that staff is teaching them things to other courses.”

Chavous noted there has been criticism of the practice of using diversity statements among the higher education academic community. Some educators have said the statements amount to required professions of political beliefs, which would have ambiguous implications for the academic freedom of the applicants.

However, Chavous said this is a misperception and added it is necessary for institutions to be specific about the purpose of the statements — they are intended to be used to gather information about candidates’ skills and strengths, not their political beliefs. 

One of Chavous’s general findings from the study was that diversity statements tended to be more useful when the instructions were more explicit. She emphasized there are numerous ways for faculty candidates to consider diversity in their work and contribute to the University environment. 

“We have to be thoughtful about the way that we ask for the information,” Chavous said. “Thoughtful and inclusive about the ways that we consider different ways of expressing diversity commitments — through scholarship, through teaching, through mentoring, through service.”

Chavous also said some academic units that request diversity statements have reported they are yielding more diverse applicant pools. Chavous believes this is happening because the practice of using the statements signals these institutions value diversity, which may attract more diverse applicants.

Chavous is now sharing the findings from the study at national conferences and using them to improve the practices of universities across the country. She believes the practice will directly affect the education students receive at the University and elsewhere.

Overall, Chavous expressed optimism about the tangible effects that the practice will have in the future.

“We think this is a start,” Chavous said. “But we really think this is a promising start of a practice and a set of practices that will have a high impact for our campus.”