What is a diversity statement?

Tabbye Chavous: A diversity statement outlines one’s demonstrated, sustained commitments to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals within academia and beyond. Generally, these statements should articulate the way a candidate understands DEI and show the candidate’s DEI skills and competencies.

This can include thoughtful and innovative teaching and mentoring approaches that create rich and inclusive learning environments, scholarly expertise around DEI issues, and/or sustained engagement and leadership efforts in academic and community settings.

Such skills and competencies increase institutions’ capacities for enhancing access, retention, and success of all students, including those from underrepresented and marginalized populations in higher education. It also enriches the quality and impacts of the scholarship produced.

Why are more universities asking for diversity statements?

TC: As the student population in higher education has become more diverse, many institutions are coming to understand the need for faculty who are both committed and prepared to provide intellectually and culturally rich learning contexts for all students. Requesting diversity statements in the hiring process is an effort to identify faculty that have expertise, knowledge, and interest in meeting the educational needs of a diverse student body.

In addition, it is critical for the scholarship produced in higher education to come from scholars representing diverse backgrounds and perspectives, especially as research has shown the benefits in terms of creativity and innovation outcomes.

Critics argue that diversity statements are a violation of academic freedom, that they favor candidates who are more liberal-minded and/or applicants of color. What are your thoughts on that?

TC: Such criticisms are often based on faulty assumptions, such as the assumption that diversity statements are intended to be ideological or political statements. In fact, they can help illuminate skills and competencies that support institutional capacity, some of which we would not know about otherwise. These statements actually allow potential faculty members to describe how their efforts can support multiple viewpoints.

Another faulty assumption is that DEI is incompatible with a scientific research approach. In fact, we find that many scholars who include DEI in their work take extra care to ground their work in scholarly literature or systematic evaluation of best practices in teaching and mentoring. When DEI work is done well, it reflects analysis and rigor.

Moreover, asking faculty candidates to articulate how diversity, equity, and inclusion factors into their teaching, scholarship, and service is truth in advertising. If we want to affirm that diversity, equity, and inclusion underpins our institutional educational mission, we ought to give faculty candidates the opportunity to demonstrate it and receive credit for their efforts. Importantly, our research shows that faculty applicants across academic disciplines were able to describe in extremely varied ways how their teaching, scholarship, mentoring, and service efforts can contribute to creating a campus environment that reflects the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education.

In your research, you found that diversity statements were more impactful when the instructions were more explicit. How will this impact the higher education landscape and how candidates apply for faculty positions?

TC: Currently, faculty job postings don’t provide standard guidance when it comes to diversity statements. They range from no guidance to explicit requirements about what diversity statements must show.

Our research affirms the importance of providing clear guidance on what institutions expect from diversity statements in order to avoid confusion about the statements’ purposes and goals. This confusion is likely to cause applicants to submit statements that lack the useful information institutions are looking for.

How do you write an effective diversity statement?

TC: Candidates could discuss their commitments to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in their teaching, research,  scholarship, mentoring, or service and engagement in their fields or local communities. The strongest diversity statements describe specific efforts instead of beliefs.

There is no right way to write a diversity statement, other than to be authentic and to represent how candidates approach their own work. Many aspects of faculty life—scholarship, teaching, and/or service/engagement—provide opportunities to support a diverse, equitable, and inclusive campus environment. Further, higher education should be about goals such as enhancing understanding, building bridges, supporting student learning and success, and trying to find answers to society's questions, which are inextricably tied to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Every faculty member’s work connects to at least one of these goals.

Based on your findings, is there a correlation between applicants who clearly understand and value DEI, and whether they were hired or not?

TC: We didn’t take up that specific question in our current research but think it is a critical and complex one. Faculty hiring decisions involve holistic review of multiple criteria areas related to scholarship, teaching, and service, so it would be unlikely that one factor alone would determine the hiring decision.

That said, applicants’ DEI commitments should be one criterion because DEI is central to higher education’s mission. In our center’s work with various academic institutions and departments, we see indicators that DEI-demonstrated commitments (not just values) are playing a bigger part in the way departments evaluate applicants. And we think this will happen even more as more academic departments understand the value of asking about DEI in the faculty hiring process and develop more effective practices to assess them. Academic units at U-M and other institutions appear to support this notion.

How does this impact students and/or employers recruiting students?

TC: Articulating one’s DEI commitments—through diversity statements or other components of a job application—can be useful for both students and employers recruiting students. Diversity statements are analogous to teaching statements: They provide a space for candidates to talk about their philosophies and experiences as they relate to advancing the education mission of their institutions. They also provide a platform for students to think about how they can contribute to making their new campus or organization more equitable and inclusive.

The rise of diversity statements also increases institutions’ responsibility to provide opportunities for learning and growth in these areas. Finally, for institutions seeking to hire faculty or staff, using diversity statements can afford an opportunity to identify applicants who have skills and experience needed to effectively meet the needs of a diverse campus or organizational community that are more diverse now than ever before.


Images by Becky Sehenuk Waite