Why Hiring in Higher Education Starts with a DEI Statement

By Claudia Neuhauser, Ph.D., Associate Vice President of Research and Technology Transfer, Professor of Mathematics, University of Houston; and Dr. Brian Herman, Professor, Department of Biomedical Engineering and former Vice President for Research, University of Minnesota and University of Texas Health, San Antonio.

In a recent editorial of the NY Times, David Brooks wrote that we live in a world where “[t]he armies of certitude march forth and dominate debate and politics. The rest of us, hampered by ambivalence, hang back. We live in a democracy in which the majority often does not rule.” And while this editorial was about the recent Supreme Court hearing on the Mississippi abortion law, his observation that “we’re now trying to deal with a miserably complex issue in a brutalized political culture. Majorities don’t rule in this country; polarized minorities do,” also applies to the debate about DEI.

The US Constitution and Bill of Rights put in place several fundamental protections that are at odds with the current beliefs and behavior of some of our country’s citizens. Expressly, the US constitution guarantees equality and non-discrimination to all citizens. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 went further and prohibited discrimination based on race, sex, religion, color, or national origin in public places, schools, and employment.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was created in 1965 to enforce Title VII. A year later, EEOC started to require larger companies to report annual employment data, including their employees’ race/ethnicity, sex, and job categories. The EEOC has used the data “proactively […] to spot discrimination before complaints were filed.” Thanks to these and many other efforts, we have made progress on creating a professional workforce that more closely reflects the gender and racial/ethnic composition of the U.S. population.

Progress has been slow, however, as a 2020 report by McKinsey indicates despite evidence provided in that report that more diverse organizations outperform less diverse ones. This report and others (like this article in Forbes) have a consistent message, namely  that lack of diversity inhibits innovation and growth because every individual has the potential to bring new ideas and ways of viewing things to the table and enhance the overall success of an organization. Diversity alone is not sufficient. Without equity and inclusion, opportunities and a sense of belonging may remain elusive. Much work to create this sense of belonging for everyone remains to be done but the means used to create such an environment are often controversial.

Higher education and DEI

Where is higher education in this debate? Campus leaders have spent a significant effort in recent years to improve campus climate and provide a welcoming and inclusive environment for all, particularly at the intersection of race, gender, and class. This is reflected in the 2021 Survey of Colleges and University Chief Academic Officers, where more than half of higher education institutions stated that they adopted new diversity goals for faculty and staff hiring “in response to concerns about longstanding structural racism in the US,” and about two-thirds agreed or strongly agreed that “[h]igher education has tolerated sexual harassment by faculty members for too long.”

Like many other organizations, institutions of higher education are trying to fulfill the intent of the nation’s laws to diversify their workforce and student body but still have a way to go. Recently, Inside Higher Ed reported on Scott Yenor, a professor at Boise State University, who stated at a conference that women have no place in the professional world and should stay at home and have children. The University did not endorse Yenor’s statement but also made it clear that Yenor’s speech is protected by the first amendment. A college educator who makes such misogynistic statements may not be able to create an environment that is conducive to learning. The Idaho State representative Brooke Green is right on with what she told CNN, namely that this attitude toward women “reflect[s] a society that no longer exists.” Nevertheless, Yenor is not alone in his opinion: in 2010, 25% of Americans agreed that “[a] woman’s place is in the home.” This opinion was much more prevalent in society and higher education decades ago but should by now be absent, at least in higher education where the goal is to prepare all students for professional lives.

Recent data also support that higher education still has work to do. While all racial/ethnic groups have made progress in obtaining 4-year degrees or higher, the percentage of White and Asian persons obtaining 4-year degrees or higher is much greater than that of other racial/ethnic groups. Racial/ethnic representation in STEM fields shows the same pattern across all degree types: Black and Hispanic students are relatively underrepresented, and White and Asian students are overrepresented. A PEW Research Center report in 2021 showed that while Hispanic people comprise 17% of the workforce, they make up 8% of STEM workers, and Black people represent 9% of the STEM workforce compared to 11% of all employed adults.

Starting in the early 1980s, more women than men have enrolled in and graduated from 4-year institutions. Today, about 58% of bachelor degrees are awarded to women. This gender imbalance has become an issue of concern since a college degree is correlated with higher lifetime earnings. However, women are still far behind in many of the STEM areas. The PEW Research Center report in 2021 showed that while 58% of bachelor’s degree recipients are women, they are underrepresented in computer science (19%) and engineering (22%), while overrepresented in health-related fields (85%).

The climate for women on campus still needs to improve. The 2018 Sexual Harassment of Women report from the National Academies includes results of a study conducted by Swartout as a consultant for the University of Texas System that shows that a significant percentage of female students experienced sexual harassment. For instance, “about 20 percent of female science students (undergraduate and graduate) experienced sexual harassment from faculty or staff, while more than a quarter of female engineering students and greater than 40 percent of medical students.” The same report also cites data from a study at Penn State that came to similar conclusions.

It’s not just students who are affected. The 2020 report by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) shows that 47% of full-time faculty are women. Still, they are more likely to be in non-tenure-track positions than tenured or tenure-track positions (53.9% vs. 42.5%). That the problem of discrimination is more severe in academia than industry was just revealed by a Nature survey: “Women reported experiencing mistreatment more often than men: 34% to 21%. Workers in academia were twice as likely as those in industry to report such behavior: 30% to 15%.”

The same 2020 AAUP report also shows racial and ethnic composition of faculty still has a long way to go as well before it mirrors the US population as a whole: 32.6% of the US population age 24-64 is an underrepresented minority, whereas only 12.9% of full-time faculty are.

One way higher education is addressing DEI: diversity statements for job candidates

Since faculty play an outsized role in making a campus welcoming to all, many colleges and universities now evaluate job candidates for faculty positions on their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. There is skepticism among academics about whether a commitment can be assessed based on a statement, especially since it is not difficult to find examples of good statements on the Internet. However, since there are numerous opportunities to demonstrate one’s commitment to DEI, it will no longer be sufficient to just write about it. After all, deeds speak louder than words.

There is also some skepticism whether “[d]emanding allegiance to the DEI worldview for hiring is a guarantee for creating an academic monoculture,”  as Christopher Ferguson wrote in his blog. He continues that “[n]or is evidence provided that higher scores on this rubric are associated with better teaching, including for underrepresented groups.” We believe that candidates for faculty positions who demonstrate that they are working on gaining skills to be effective educators in a diverse environment, regardless of their background and experiences, signal that they are willing to engage with diverse audiences and have the desire to self-reflect on their role as an educator. This is what search committees should be looking for in candidates, whether they can speak from their own experience as someone belonging to an underrepresented group or whether they gained experiences working with people from underrepresented groups.

Are diversity statements useful?

There is debate about to what extent the statements should be used in evaluating faculty candidates, and this discussion has made its way into the media. John McWhorter, a faculty member at Columbia University, asked in a recent opinion piece in the NY Times whether faculty candidates should have a demonstrated commitment or experience with building inclusive environments: “Do you believe that a commitment to diversity should be crucial to the evaluation for a physics professorship?” The example in McWorther’s opinion piece comes from San Diego State University (SDSU), a university that requires all faculty hires that they demonstrate a commitment to Building on Inclusive Excellence (BIE).

While history has shown that a commitment to building inclusive environments or even just being a decent human being, is not needed to gain major insights into the workings of the physical world (look, for example, at the physicists Schrödinger, Feynman, or, for a more recent example, Lawrence Krauss), the question academia should be asking today whether it is appropriate to hire faculty who do not have a commitment to building inclusive environments if they are hired to educate a diverse student body.

McWorther’s opinion piece reflects what others in the hard sciences think, namely that the hard sciences are objective and whatever truth is discovered is independent of the investigator. Some take this as implying that a commitment to diversity as a criterion for hiring in the hard sciences is irrelevant. While nobody in their right mind would argue that the gravitational laws depend on who conducts the experiments, what is being studied in the first place, however, depends on who is doing the research, and attitudes of educators affect how they engage students.

The question that McWorther asked, namely whether “you believe that a commitment to diversity should be crucial to the evaluation for a physics professorship,” also implicitly assumes that hiring candidates who demonstrate a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion means lowering the hiring standards and compromising excellence. While there are faculty who believe this, there are (hopefully) many more who genuinely care about diversity and don’t assume that a commitment to diversity and inclusion means compromising research quality.

Another argument against DEI statements is that there are not enough opportunities for junior or early-career scientists to gain experiences that would allow them to demonstrate a commitment to diversity and inclusion. This may have been true decades ago, but no longer. Many universities and professional societies provide workshops or seminars on diversity and inclusion that prepare future faculty for their first faculty position. Many students also actively pursue opportunities to spend time during their educational career volunteering to work with underrepresented students, for instance, working with students in K-12 or supervising undergraduate students in the lab or during summer research experiences. It is therefore entirely reasonable to ask future educators to spend some time during their undergraduate, graduate, or postdoctoral education to attend seminars to learn about different cultures and diverse communities and about pedagogy or actively engage with diverse communities before they start teaching hundreds of students in a large first-year course or supervise students in their labs.

DEI and the workforce

One of the main goals that universities devote themselves to is producing the next generation of the workforce. This need is underscored by a report of The Association of American Colleges and Universities published in April 2021 on “How College Contributes to Workforce Success: Employer Views on What Matters Most.” This report reflects societal changes. Employers under age 40 indicated that they would be “much more likely to consider” college graduates with experiences that emphasize community and diversity. Their three top-rated experiences were “completion of a community-based or service-learning project” (54%), “experience working in community settings with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures” (53%), and “completion of a research project done collaboratively with faculty” (53%). These experiences are far less important to employers age 50 or above. The percentage of employers who indicated that they would be “much more likely to consider” college graduates with these three experiences were 20%, 34%, and 21%, respectively.

DEI statements are one step toward creating an inclusive environment

Colleges and universities are nowadays depicted by some as bastions of intolerance where left-wing students and faculty run rampant. And this is part of the reason that the requirement of diversity statements by faculty candidates made it into the media.

Trying to hire faculty who have experience and a commitment to fostering inclusive environments is not just another manifestation of the liberal mindset of universities. It makes economic sense, and this needs to get across to everyone who objects to anything that smells like Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Cross-cultural communication skills will be essential for our future workforce. We need faculty who can engage a diverse student population, and we need all students to be comfortable with diversity.

For a campus to be welcoming to all, especially to those who have been discriminated against historically, and to treat everyone with respect, faculty must have a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and this commitment must be reflected in their attitudes towards those they educate. As the diversity of high school graduates and the imbalance between men and women entering and graduating from college continue to increase, colleges and universities will need to increase their efforts to make colleges and universities inclusive places so that a student’s identity does not become a barrier to success. It is for this reason that colleges and universities have an obligation to make sure that faculty have a commitment to diversity and inclusion and that this is checked before they are hired. Including diversity statements of faculty candidates in the set of evaluation criteria is one way to achieve this.

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