Opinion: Who values diversity? Look to actions, not statements, for answer

Affirmative action supporters and counterprotesters shout at one another outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday, June 29, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Affirmative action supporters and counterprotesters shout at one another outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday, June 29, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

My former University of Georgia department professed a strong commitment to matters of diversity, equity, inclusion, welcoming and other facets of social justice so dear to many colleges of education. The degree to which these values were actually practiced has always been open to question, given the competitive nature of academia and the ways in which individuals and groups may place their personal goals above their stated ideals. Appearance and reality do not always correspond to one another.

Peter Smagorinsky

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

My former department’s official vision announces a dedication to making the world a more equitable place:

We . . . are a community of scholars, researchers, educators, clinicians, and innovators committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion in all its forms. . . . We strive to interrogate and sustain multiple perspectives in language, literacy, and aligned fields that cultivate inclusive environments. We are committed to promoting the success of faculty, students, and staff of all racial and socioeconomic groups, religious and cultural backgrounds, abilities, gender identities, sexual orientations, and national origins. We believe all people deserve equity in education, and we work diligently to maintain a department where all scholars can thrive, free from discrimination, bigotry, inequity, harassment, or violence of any kind. We support current and future educators who are reflective of, and sensitive to, an increasingly diverse society.

These values, while typical of many vision statements, have served as targets of conservative critics disturbed by the liberal bias of universities. Yet, they are shared by the majority of U.S. citizens for the corporate workforce: 60% in a recent poll. I report. You decide.

But I’m not writing to say who’s right and who’s wrong when it comes to the political ideologies operating on U.S. college and university campuses. My own leaning is toward learning from a broad array of perspectives, which suggests that diversity of thought benefits those who are willing to listen to opposing points of view and seriously engage with them. I’d be interested to hear a reasonable argument that views monoculturalism as a positive ideology to govern the pursuit of knowledge, which is stated in UGA’s motto of its mission “to teach, to serve, and to inquire into the nature of things.”

My interest here is to critique one facet of the diversity movement, the requirement at many universities for prospective faculty members to submit a “diversity statement” to be considered for an appointment. This imperative served as the focus of an article titled “Harvard’s Largest Faculty Division to Stop Requiring Diversity Statements” from faculty job applicants, a move also announced a few weeks earlier by M.I.T.

The New York Times report on the M.I.T. decision relates how “Such statements have become enshrined in faculty hiring at many elite public and private universities, as well as in corporate life. Academics have defended them as necessary in judging whether a faculty member can reach out to an increasingly diverse student body.” Critics are concerned that when ideological conformity is required and must be demonstrated in a personal statement of devotion as a condition of hiring, academic freedom is sacrificed to the dogma of inclusion.

My problems with these diversity statements concern their authenticity and the relation between what people say about themselves and what they do in practice. I’ve known any number of charlatans who profess a deep commitment to social justice while acting in self-serving, duplicitous ways. There’s even a name for such people with its own Wikipedia entry: social justice warrior. They can write the world’s most passionate diversity statements and signal their virtuous affiliation with social justice causes on social media, but behind the scenes, watch out.

What I find downright weird about required diversity statements is that a candidate’s genuine commitment to social justice ought to be evident from the rest of the application, which should speak for itself: the candidate’s publication and presentation topics and perspectives, the sorts of committees a candidate has served on, the kinds of professional service the candidate has provided, the names of courses taught in the past, and other indicators of the sort of stance a faculty is looking for in a hire, including what other people say in their letters of recommendation.

Of course, the candidate can be shoveling a different sort of manure with these listings, and letter writers can support candidates for reasons other than the content of their character. But at least there is concrete evidence that superficially the applicant is aligned with the hiring faculty’s values. You never know, though, until someone is in place and acting when something’s at stake. That’s when you know what type of person you have hired.

There’s another good reason to abandon the practice of requiring diversity statements: Candidates can have them written by a bot. For this essay, I ordered up a diversity statement expressing my deep commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. You can read it here. It has all the sincerity of a blank sheet of paper.

We can surely do better than this. I recommend that university search committees read applications and their contents with care and not rely on personal (or fabricated) statements of dedication to the vision statement of a hiring unit. You can still get fooled — I have on a few occasions — but at least you’re not making the first cut on the basis of what might be a fraud. To inquire into the nature of things requires a lot more work than taking someone’s personal claims to enlightenment at face value.

Peter Smagorinsky is an emeritus professor in the University of Georgia’s College of Education. He is the 2023 recipient of the American Educational Research Association Lifetime Contribution to Cultural-Historical Research Award.