Make a Real Statement about Diversity in Tenure-Track Faculty Job Ads

Many institutions are ramping up for the spring cycle of faculty hiring. It’s a time of excitement and overwhelm for everyone on all sides of the hiring equation.

In a context in which a single tenure-track job ad can harvest 400 or more applicant packages, institutions are asking for greater volume in application materials as a way to thin out the number of applicants earlier in the process. Beyond the cover letter, CV and list of references, candidates may be required to submit actual reference letters, a statement of teaching philosophy, one or more sample syllabuses, one to three writing samples and a diversity statement of some type.

It’s a lot. It’s a lot to write. It’s a lot to read. It’s a lot to rank. This raises an important question: what is the true value of each piece of these application packets to anyone? Candidates certainly ask themselves that.

The diversity statement is a part of the application a lot of job seekers do not get any mentorship around. It can be hard to understand what it is any institution is looking for here in the absence of specific instructions. Many institutions add no guidance for what they prefer this statement to contain. Here is a pseudonymous example from the fall hiring season in my academic discipline (anthropology):

“Each applicant is required to submit the following: (1) a cover letter detailing the applicant’s qualifications; (2) current CV; (3) teaching philosophy statement; (4) diversity statement; and (5) names and contact information for three references.”

To the extent anyone can make interpretations based off this information, a couple interpretations suggest themselves: (1) the cover letter is the most important part because should come first and should tell hiring committees the most salient details addressing the specifics of the position requirements, and (2) the teaching and diversity statements are two different items, with the latter following the former. This suggests that “teaching” and “diversity” are imagined as two separate domains. Perhaps they can overlap each other, but the general impression is that the “diversity statement” will contain discussion of how one’s approach to some generalized phenomenon labeled as “diversity” will emerge over the course of employment.

Depending on your perspective, job candidates are either really good or really bad at reading into a job ad, looking for any sign of fit. When the diversity statement requirement is not paired with guidance, it can decrease the number of people who can read themselves into a position. As well, when the other items on the list are also given a certain perfunctory treatment, the perceived value of the diversity statement requirement itself decreases. In context, this can look like a box-checking exercise and nothing more.

Here is an example of a different institution’s job ad that takes a different approach, from the same hiring cycle:

“Applicants must submit a letter of application describing their research interests and qualifications, CV, statement of teaching philosophy, a summary of teaching evaluations, a diversity statement (describe how you incorporate diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging into your teaching and research practices, and how you would contribute to the development of a diverse and inclusive community at this institution), and the names and contact information for three professional references.”

This list of requirements provides context that diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) work constitutes institutional service, in addition to helping fulfill the requirements of the teaching and research components of a faculty position. The word “development” here might stand out, as well, as an indicator that DEIB work is either relatively new or is taking a new approach. To some job candidates this may read as an honest declaration that there is work to be done rather than expressing that DEIB work is well-entrenched and successful. Transparency around where an institution is standing in its DEIB journey is paramount. Truth can attract, even when it is ugly.

Here’s why. 

Applicants ask: if structural inequities are just that—structural—why should individual candidates be expected to change those structures?  

They also may wonder whether actually trying to make any of the efforts they are asked to describe will have negative impacts on their careers. After all, a lot of the advice new tenure-track hires receive will focus on being a “good colleague” (read: generally not ruffling any feathers until they get tenure). One of the concerns that candidates can have, rightly, is that to commit to DEIB as a faculty member will indeed ruffle feathers. That goes double for actually being the “diverse” faculty member. This is true even though in reality being a good colleague should entail pushing an institution to be its best, most humane self.

This leads us back to a question underlying the beginning of this piece. What is the purpose of a diversity statement? Is it to cull the number of applicants, and on what grounds? How do hiring committees recognize a diversity statement that is full of promise, actionable ideas and genuine commitment? Put another way: to what degree can a candidate expect that your institution will act on the possibilities they describe to you? What role should the diversity statement play in a conversation about the truth and what to do about it?

This is an important question, because if these are not just box-checking statements, these statements should be evaluated with the same seriousness as the cover letter and references. 

Here is some further advice about how to use these statements to their full effect.

  1. Interweave other DEIB-related priorities and statements into position ads. Ask candidates to familiarize themselves with institutional strategic plans and narrowly focused plans related to DEIB themes and goals that already exist. Set the expectation that there is a responsibility to participate in setting institutional priorities if called upon, and that position and rank do not affect whether one will take a turn in truth-telling conversations. Institutional priorities can also provide justification for hiring in ways that explicitly support achieving your strategic goals (you can read more about that in our strategic planning research report).
  2. Take inventory of your existing job ads. Which fields and ranks list some kind of DEIB work as part of the position? If you advertise assistant professor positions that require DEIB work in some fields but not others, why? Do your more senior job ads have the same DEIB requirements across fields? The number of roles at your institution that could credibly not require support of institutional DEIB goals is vanishingly small, if it exists at all.
  3. Analyze how you pitch your institution as a good place to work. Because academia often imagines itself as more like a religious or guild vocation than a “job” the presumption has been that people more willingly suffer to keep and maintain a position. As well, the promotion process requires evaluation of the fruits of one’s efforts by students and other scholars, and the evaluation may be influenced by the identities of the parties on both sides of the equation. How do you show that all people have the opportunity to flourish as the people they are? It’s not enough to merely offer a position. People who used to dream about academic jobs are realizing in ever-greater numbers that there are lots of other options out there. How will you prove, honestly, that your institution is a good fit for candidates?
  4. Write—and rewrite—your own diversity statement to appear in job ads. This gives candidates something concrete to respond to and provides more information about whether there exist shared definitions and perspectives. Being as clear as you can about how you imagine the value of DEIB as a work responsibility allows candidates to assess whether their application is worth submitting.

Here is an example that appeared recently for a position that will draw applicants with an ethnic studies background:

“We especially invite applications from candidates who prioritize diversification of their discipline through their teaching, research and background, and who can guide students toward more socially conscious education and career planning. We also welcome applications from groups that are historically underrepresented in academia and/or who have experience working with diverse populations.”

In this statement, DEIB work is given importance as a part of supporting the college experience and career planning. This can also be an opportunity to highlight willingness to hire people who come from backgrounds that are not typically steeped in the so-called academic “hidden curriculum,” as in this example: 

“We welcome applications from candidates who have professional backgrounds that are not traditionally academic.”

A statement like this speaks to candidates who may be first-generation college graduates themselves or who have professional experience in other realms that may translate well to a position. Finally, these statements can read as welcoming to candidates who are not freshly out of their Ph.D. programs or candidates who had to step away from academia because of caretaking or other responsibilities.

Prognosticating about specifics can be a dangerous business but considering the effects of trends into the future can be a useful exercise. As talented professionals leave all ranks of higher education in what seem like ever-increasing numbers we should all be concerned. Here again structural problems in academia influence what any one person can do. But an observant person can’t help but to worry about how much damage is being done to a sector that contains such noble potential.

Given that the desire to take on a monastic dedication to quiet institutional service seems to hold less appeal these days, institutions of higher education need to work harder to prove their relevance to job candidates. You must also reclaim relevancy to the people who are still with you.

Relevance lies in the details—details like the content of your job ads. Don’t make the mistake of relying on applicants, especially early-career applicants, to lend relevancy to you through their diversity statements. Candidate-focused relevance emerges through job ads that are coherent with institutional priorities and actions. Show candidates that their statements are part of a truthful institutional conversation by framing that requirement properly. In return, the diversity statements hiring committees receive in response will likely be statements they will find useful and which will help you know you are making hires which are likely to be successful, good colleagues. We sure do love to talk about coherence around here, so we are always delighted to have conversations about how to align your messaging and behaviors when you talk to your prospective and current workforce.

On another note, we are looking forward to kicking off research with chief diversity officers and others who have formal institutional DEIB responsibilities as part of their portfolios. We’ve been so moved and motivated by our clients in this regard, as we have seen the authentic efforts so many of you are undertaking to claim your abilities to fulfill the noble promise of higher education. Our strategic planning research showed us that the will is there, and we want to hear more about the daily details of putting aspiration into action. We can’t wait to hear more about what’s been on your minds, what’s challenged you and what you’d love to see happen if only you could just… Keep an eye out for invitations to share perspectives from your one place in the higher education universe.

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Aimee Hosemann

Aimee is the Director of Qualitative Research at RHB.