NIH gets into the game of requiring job candidates to show track records of promoting diversity

February 2, 2020 • 10:30 am

At the end of last year, I pointed out that the University of California system was implementing a new procedure for hiring faculty. It involved candidates submitting “diversity statements” that recounted their knowledge about diversity, their past efforts to increase diversity in their institutions, and their plans for promoting diversity if they were hired.

While I favor a form of affirmative action to increase diversity in hiring, I objected to the diversity-statement procedure because it not only demands adherence to a specific ideology (candidates’ diversity statements were scored on a point system, with higher points given to those whose statements matched the philosophy of the evaluators), but also gives the diversity statement priority over all other qualifications: if a candidate’s diversity score didn’t meet or exceed the cutoff threshold of 11 points, the application was discarded without further review.

This procedure is unfair because of its use of an ideological test, because it doesn’t count other “outreach” activities that are valuable but don’t promote diversity (e.g., giving talks to high school children, writing popular articles on science), and because it bars minority candidates who haven’t engaged in diversity-promoting activities before they apply for jobs.

Imagine, for example, an African-American scholar who has spent her time with her nose to the grindstone, accumulating an admirable academic and teaching record without having had the time or the will to promote diversity. As valuable as she would be to a department—and believe me, universities are desperately looking for good minority candidates—she wouldn’t have a chance of being hired under this “threshold” process. (Such scholars exist, for I know of some.) I find this process ludicrous and counterproductive, as I find the use of all mandatory diversity statements.

Now, however, according to this report in Science magazine, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is giving a ton of money to 12 universities for “cluster hires” (groups of people hired at once to beef up programs)—and that hiring process, even if not designed to increase diversity, will require every candidate not just to submit a diversity statement, but to show a “track record” of working to promote diversity. (“Diversity”, as always, means racial and gender diversity, not any kind of intellectual, class, geographic, or economic diversity.)

Click on the screenshot to read the news item:

The article reports that the NIH is appropriating $241 million to create a program called Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST). This will provide roughly $20 million to each of a dozen schools, each aliquot supporting a “cluster hire” of ten new faculty members.  Cluster hires have been used to increase diversity, but also for non-diversity initiatives, like “[accelerating] their capacity to do research in an emerging area, such as computational biology or nanofabrication.”

And the NIH initiative, despite having both diversity goals and “emerging area” goals, is requiring every candidate to prove that they have already promoted diversity. Note that this statement is required because restricting hires to individuals from underrepresented groups is illegal for the NIH. Here’s the crucial statement from the article (my emphasis):

Not all of the 120 new hires would need to belong to groups now underrepresented in academic medicine, which include women, black people, Hispanics, Native Americans, and those with disabilities, says Hannah Valantine, NIH’s chief diversity officer. In fact, she told the Council of Councils at its 24 January meeting, any such restriction would be illegal and also run counter to the program’s goal of attracting world-class talent. But Valantine says every person hired must have a track record of working to change a culture that too often makes scientists from underrepresented groups feel unwelcome on campus and isolated in the laboratory.

This is pretty explicit in imposing a diversity-promoting test on the cluster hires. Every person hired must have a track record. That again leaves out minority candidates who have been doing things other than “changing the culture”. (And it presumes that there is a culture that makes underrepresented scientists feel unwelcome, something for which there is no evidence save anecdotal statements.) Without that record, black or white, male or female, you don’t stand a chance of getting hired under the NIH program. And that in itself is “counter to the program’s goal of attracting world-class talent.”

Fortunately, there are organizations, like that run by Chad Topaz of Williams College, that will, for a donation, help candidates write a diversity statement. All you need is to hand over $100 or more to Topaz’s organization, and they’ll help you look like a great promoter of diversity. (I can only imagine how this works.)

Well, regardless of whether such bigotry exists (this is nearly always the default explanation for underrepresentation of some groups), there’s independent evidence of how valuable minority candidates already are in academia. As the article notes:

New faculty hires don’t come cheap. At Emory, a standard startup package for a new professor in the natural sciences or engineering exceeds $1 million, Freeman says. And Valantine says startup costs for a basic scientist with a wet lab at a medical school could run as high as $3 million. Minority scientists usually command a premium salary because they are in such high demand, Freeman notes. [JAC: Carla Freeman is Emory’s senior associate dean of the faculty.]

Yes, it’s true that minority faculty are in high demand: Chicago is always trying to hire them, but the pool of candidates is small. The failure to land such candidates surely doesn’t reflect bigotry on the part of departments, but, in my view, a paucity of candidates because of poorer educational opportunities available for minorities, including worse schools.

Factors like those make a mockery of the notion of “equal opportunity.” And yes, this lack of opportunity goes way back to bigotry that, in the case of African-Americans, started with slavery. It must be rectified, but one has to diagnose how to fix it—and the fix may not involve assuming that hiring committees are racist or sexist. My own view is that it’s going to require a lot of effort and money to equalize opportunity for all Americans from the outset of their lives, and we all know how hard that is. But it’s something we must do.

As I said, I favor affirmative action in such hires if one wants to increase diversity. But that affirmative action should have nothing to do with “diversity statements” or a track record of changing a culture that may not even exist. You just weight the underrepresented but desired characteristics during the hiring process.

The implicit assumption that bigotry accounts for the whole of minority underrepresentation in academia is probably unjustified. First, as the Science article notes, cluster hiring may be the wrong tool:

The scientific literature on cluster hiring is very thin. Freeman and administrators at a handful of other institutions provide anecdotal evidence of its value in fostering diversity, but there are no rigorous studies of how it compares to other approaches. Steven Brint, a sociologist at the University of California, Riverside, is looking at its impact on interdisciplinary collaborations, the most common goal for institutions that have tried it. And his preliminary findings on research productivity suggest cluster hiring may actually impede efforts to foster diversity.

“Overall, output increases for all researchers,” Blint says. “But the benefits are not evenly distributed. When we analyze the results by race and gender, our results suggest that senior scientists tend to benefit more from such hirings.” Not surprisingly, he adds, those senior scientists tend to be white men.

And this statement in the Science piece implicitly assumes that bias is the cause:

FIRST is the latest in a series of programs NIH has launched since 2014 following a 2011 study that showed black scientists are less likely to receive an NIH award than their white or Asian counterparts. NIH has set itself the goal of eliminating that disparity, and Valantine hopes FIRST will take an important step in that direction by using an unorthodox approach to recruiting academic researchers.

But a study published last year, which was highly anticipated, found—and, I’m sad to say, to some people’s disappointment—that there wasn’t any evidence for either race or gender bias in a detailed study of “mock evaluation” of NIH proposals. (The study isn’t perfect, but if it had shown such bias, nobody would discuss its weaknesses!) And the Science article doesn’t even mention this followup!(Click on screenshot):

But the 2011 study cited above also showed that the funding gap remained after controlling for investigators’ “educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics”. After removing these factors, African-Americans still were 10% less likely to get an NIH award than whites. Does this prove bigotry in the process? Not necessarily, because the study below was also published last year:

It shows that a substantial amount of the NIH award disparity was due not to bigotry, but to choice of topics: black scientists were more prone to apply for funding in fields less likely to receive funding: fields involving “research at the community and population level, as opposed to more fundamental and mechanistic investigations”. It’s thus a fallacy to assume, at the outset, that a disparity in outcomes automatically reflects bigotry rather than other factors like preference.

But regardless of that, for the funding-rate disparity isn’t the main subject of this post, we still need to study racial and sex disparities, and, if they reflect factors that narrow opportunities, we need to fix those things. Since any fixes will take decades, I favor affirmative action in hiring as well as in accepting students. But I adamantly reject the use of mandatory diversity statements as a tool for promoting academic diversity. It’s the wrong fix. And now not only the University of California uses it, but at least ten other universities are poised to join in—at the behest of the federal government, of which the NIH is part.


19 thoughts on “NIH gets into the game of requiring job candidates to show track records of promoting diversity

  1. You’re correct to note the importance of improving early childhood education.

    Unfortunately a lot of efforts to address racial inequality in education and employment function too similarly to trickle-down economics. If we shower those minority individuals already at or near the top of their respective industries with more money and prestige, it’s assumed this will somehow help those at the bottom. Even though it doesn’t.

  2. Not that I am in favor of “diversity statements”, but there is an easy fix for the threshold problem: if you are part of a “marginalized group” you get an automatic 11 points added to your diversity promotion score. You could argue that just being a member of a marginalized group made you work for diversity (or something like that). I have no doubt that the SJWs in academia will come up with a way to work around it. It doesn’t have to make sense.

  3. I suggest that the spread of mandated “Diversity Statements”, and the “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion” newspeak metastasizing throughout the academic world, both emerge from a policy of bien pensant casuistry begun about 40 years ago.

    In the 1978 case of Bakke vs. Univ. of Cal., the Supreme Court rejected the use of racial quotas on behalf of affirmative action—sort of. It ruled that race could be retained as one of multiple factors to be considered in judging applicants for admission. Ever since, universities have been devising ever more convoluted ways to game the Bakke decision—that is, to sneak certain kinds of racial quotas into the admissions process without saying so aloud.

    The regular practice of dishonesty in this way—on behalf of nominally “progressive” goals—has evolved into an administration mindset of dissimulation and Jesuitical trickiness, deployed in admissions and in other areas as well. Examples include Harvard’s contrived “character evaluations” used to decrease the score of academically qualified Asian student applicants; Oberlin’s refusal to concede that its charge of “racism” against a local business—a charge concocted strictly in aid of Maoist rabble-rousing—was bogus after it was proven to be bogus; Portland State’s absurd claim that Professor Peter Boghossian should have treated journal editors as if they were human subjects in an NIH medical study; and, finally, the sneaking of these “Diversity Statements” into every possible credentialing process, which is becoming like the loyalty oaths of the 1950s, or more exactly, an exact counterpart of the “Profession of Faith” required of all candidates for positions in the Roman Catholic Church.

    The requirement for a track record of past efforts to promote Diversity should not escape notice. Beyond the totalitarian character of a Profession of Faith, this requirement favors activism on behalf of the holy faith more than actual membership in an under-represented minority. As such, its implication is the promotion cronyism for Diversicrats. Surprise surprise!

  4. Why don’t they hire only minority candidates until they become equally represented? For example, hire only Latinos and Blacks until you get a faculty with 15% each. Or they only want to exclude people that don’t think like them?

    1. Proposition 209, passed in 1996, banned preferential treatment or discrimination in education, employment or contracting by California public institutions. The UC system has since been trying to create ever more creative methods to route around this law.

      1. And Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act prohibits hiring on the basis of i.a. race or sex. I do not believe there is a diversity and inclusion exception.

  5. “affirmative action should […] just weight the underrepresented but desired characteristics during the hiring process.”

    Isn’t that illegal in the US? (It would be in the UK I think.)

      1. Precisely! As I pointed out in (3) above, many academic offices have been turning hand-springs in pursuit of end-runs of this sort for 40 years.

  6. Academic life is of another sphere for me but in reading this post it has occured that perhaps these universities should go back (as implicity suggested here) to the lower grades and start nurturing disadvantaged students, those who show good promise in math, chemistry, biology or whatever. Show them academic life.
    Build up a base of minority studends no matter where they choose to go.
    If more universities are tending to move in this diversity hiring direction, change course, collectively investing in minority students from pre university and lift the “stock” over time of viable minority applicants for universities to employ as a spinoff.
    So what Im suggesting here is to attack the problem from the other end and grow diversity selection so there is no such thing as a minority higher. There seems to be a lot of money to go around to do this, you just have to wait for a return. Until you don’t.
    Drop the diversity hiring of lecturers, etc while still maintaining a diversity approach. If she is a good candidate and in a minority give it some hiring weight but not at any cost. Would’nt any given student prefer the best no matter what ethnicity they were taught by. That statement actually drives me crazy but it is what i mean. Knowledge is knowledge, not a person.

  7. “…every person hired must have a track record of working to change a culture that too often makes scientists from underrepresented groups feel unwelcome on campus and isolated in the laboratory.”

    Isn’t this discriminatory towards people that find difficult to work in initiatives that aim at changing the culture, due to their being introvert, extremely shy, or socially awkward?

  8. I see something positive here, at least from my perspective. I’m an older man, and I’m getting tired of all this rapidly increasing scientific change that the egg heads are crowing about. Seems like a good way of slowing it down would be to inject some less qualified operators into the project. And they in turn could could help out by posting some questionable publications. I know it’s selfish, but I can’t help thinking that things are looking up for me.

  9. I’m wondering what a “diversity statement” might look like in a grant. I might be wrong, but this recent mailing list post includes sections that suggest to me – by language and formatting – they were written for an NIH proposal:

    I want to emphasize that I have made an effort to put this here without judgement. It seems there are no words that do not lead to trouble with this topic.

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