It was inevitable that when universities began requiring diversity statements for prospective faculty, postdocs, and grad students, sites would pop up telling you how to write a good statement. (Some places will even charge to help you!) This site, from the MIT Communication Lab (click on screenshot below) is fairly extensive, covering not only the format of your 1-2 page statement, but also the content.
Although I was a political activist in college (I’m not going to go through that again), it turns out that there’s no way I could write a statement the way MIT suggests. This means that had this been a critical criterion when I was applying for jobs, I’d be flipping burgers now. Several of my colleagues who have read these requirements have said the same. People would have more burgers, but who would have written a book on speciation?
These DEI statements are often critical. Although the MIT site says this:
A diversity statement alone is unlikely to get you an interview or a job offer, but a well-written diversity statement may enable you to stand out among a large pool of qualified candidates.
. . . in reality, in some places like Berkeley, if your diversity statement isn’t up to muster you have no chance of getting a job, no matter how good your academic qualifications are (see here and here). And since you have to talk about efforts you have made in the past to increase diversity, as well as your philosophy of diversity, you have to start doing social-justice work well before you intend to apply for jobs. Woe to those students who have immersed themselves wholly in quantum mechanics or classical literature out of the love of the field and of knowledge. Without a track record in promoting diversity, as well as a philosophy of diversity, those people are doomed.
I don’t of course object to universities encouraging diversity efforts as a way to “broaden” a candidate, but there are many ways to be broad besides fighting for equity of races and genders. These include doing general outreach to high schools, writing popular books and articles on your field, doing an internship at a newspaper or other organization,, and so on. But those don’t count nearly as much as showing your history of fighting for equity. And is this attempt to turn universities from places of learning into instruments of specific types of social justice that bothers me. As Stanley Fish said (it’s a book title): “Save the world on your own time.”
And, in the end, DEI statements may be illegal. As my colleague Brian Leiter (a law school prof) pointed out, such required statements, if used to cull candidates, may constitute illegal “viewpoint discrimination”. As he notes:
I recommend that those applying for jobs in the University of California system say only this in the diversity statement: “I decline to supply this statement which constitutes illegal viewpoint discrimination in violation of my constitutional rights.” There are already lawyers gearing up to bring legal challenges; I hope they act soon. If you have been rejected from a University of California search, and suspect it was on grounds of insufficient ideological purity about “diversity,” please get in touch with me. I can connect you with one public interest legal organization looking for plaintiffs.
But back to the MIT recommendations from this site:
Here’s the recommended breakdown of how you should divide your diversity activities and knowledge:
This means you have to have studied DEI extensively, and have a good track record of “advancing DEI”. I’m surprised they don’t recommend a reading list.
Here’s what you need to do (all quotes are indented):
Identify your purpose:
A faculty application diversity statement is NOT a document explaining how you as a candidate are diverse. While it is fine to include personal stories if they have informed how you think about diversity, this should not be the main focus of the statement. Rather, a diversity statement is an opportunity to show that you care about the inclusion of many forms of identity in academia and in your field, including but not limited to gender, race/ethnicity, age, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, and ability status.
Note: you have to show how much you care, not about the field itself, but about mentoring and gathering in people diverse not in viewpoint but in disability status, race, gender, age, and so on.
And you better know your onions:
As such, a diversity statement should not focus on your own experience but rather your intentions as a professor. It should demonstrate that you are familiar with the importance of DEI issues, outline your experience working with diverse groups and advancing DEI, and identify ways that you will use your position as a leader in your field to have an impact within your community.
Oy! Where’s the reading list?
Demonstrate knowledge of DEI:
As such, a diversity statement should not focus on your own experience but rather your intentions as a professor. It should demonstrate that you are familiar with the importance of DEI issues, outline your experience working with diverse groups and advancing DEI, and identify ways that you will use your position as a leader in your field to have an impact within your community. . .
Demonstrate experience with DEI:
It is not sufficient to demonstrate knowledge about diversity, equity, and inclusion; your statement should also show experience with them. While this need not be a separate section, your statement should make it clear that you have not only thought about DEI in the abstract but have applied that knowledge and are prepared to continue doing so in the future.
There’s other stuff like “be concrete in your future plans” (you’ll have to do more than say you’ll treat all students with equal effort and respect: that’s a statement that will get your application binned). Rather, you have to be absolutely specific in what you will do to promote equity and inclusivity. This is where MIT is more or less writing the application for you:
Note that specific actions are required; you can’t just say “I’ll treat my students equally, regardless of gender, disability, ethnicity, age, and so on.” You have to go to orientation and recruitment events, and act somewhat as a psychologist to your students. Nor do I don’t understand the difference between having a lab that’s “inclusive of women” and “striving for gender parity,” but that’s how it works, so you’d better be on board.
Now the advice to be specific in what you’ll do is not so bad, it’s just that they’re prescribing what you should say. This—along with the site’s other advice—is the compelled speech (and belief) that Leiter thinks may be illegal. Some day we shall see, but to test the legality of DEI statements you need someone to sue who didn’t get a position (presumably because of a faulty statement). And finding someone with that “standing” may be hard. But come it will, and we shall see.
By the way, you can even see a successful example of a diversity statement published on MIT Communications’ web page, with the useful parts highlighted. It was submitted by an MIT postdoc who got a faculty position at Brown. Here’s part of it with the good bits coded in different colors: Pink indicates the recommended subheadings.