Diversity statements: what to avoid and what to include

Diversity statements are increasingly important for faculty, both when teaching online and applying for jobs. Pardis Mahdavi and Scott Brooks outline what to avoid and what to include when drafting a diversity statement


17 Mar 2021
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Advice on what to do and what not to do when writing diversity statements for online courses

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Arizona State University

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Search committees at colleges and universities increasingly require candidates applying for faculty or leadership positions to submit diversity statements. And in the post-Covid online world, where interviews are truncated at best, we are increasingly reliant on applicants’ written materials.

Universities across the US are now considering making diversity statements required for all faculty. Many institutions ask faculty to post diversity statements online for students to read before or during their course to demonstrate the institution’s and the individual’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity. Some universities even offer incentives such as merit raises for those willing to do so.

A well-constructed diversity statement is especially important for online instructors who need to provide a carefully considered response to the additional layer of challenges that many students face when studying remotely.

Here, we lay out some “red flags” to avoid and key frameworks to embed when writing a diversity statement.

What to avoid – red flags

Common mistakes or pitfalls when writing a diversity statement fall into three major categories:

  • Diversity by proxy

  • Personal stories of redemption

  • The exceptionalist argument.

1. Diversity by proxy

Diversity by proxy is when candidates borrow from the success of others, an organisation or programme. Candidates speak specifically about their department’s student demographics or a programme for students of colour that they direct, are part of or appreciate.

Example 1: “_____ (university’s name) is one of the most diverse campuses in the country. We are ____% white, ____% Latin, ____% Asian/Pacific Islander, ____% African American.”

Example 2: Candidates might mention success and claim some responsibility, implicitly or explicitly. “I’m a faculty mentor for the McNair Scholars programme and we have had wonderful, bright students who just need intense mentorship.”

Example 3: The message of “I support success for people of colour” can be followed by surprise and self-congratulation. “We have students who do very well, one or two have even gone on to graduate school at very good schools! One of my students, from Chicago, a first-generation student from a single-parent household, is a first-year PhD student at Berkeley.”

We called this “diversity by proxy” because the candidate’s example relies on numbers that tell us about where they are and not who they are or what they have done. Secondly, they are borrowing identity, status and achievement by linking themselves to the success stories of students of colour or faculty. In this way, they give undue credit to themselves as a saviour.

2. Personal stories of redemption

Candidates write of personal experiences that have occurred outside of the academy and are meant to reflect their appreciation for diversity and inclusion and their dissatisfaction with racism.

Example 1: They may write about an event that solidified their understanding of privilege: “I grew up in a small town where there was only one Indian family and one of the girls from that family became a close friend. And then, in the sixth grade, everything changed. She and I both auditioned for the school play, Annie, and it was clear that another girl got the lead because she was white and looked the part. But my friend was clearly better than everyone else. I felt bad for her but there was nothing I could do. And that is why I really feel so strongly about racism and exclusion and do what I can to help students of colour.”

Example 2: They may also talk about how they work with and learn so much from their colleagues of colour and students of colour. The focus is on their feeling and how they assuage their feelings of social injustice by their engagement, but does this lead to fighting structural issues found in the academy?

The playing field is never level, and so what do they do for those who they do not deem “clearly better”? 

3. The exceptionalist argument

Candidates write that they are in favour of diversity and inclusion but have not been in a position to fight against exclusionary practices.

Example 1: “Diversity is important but I can’t do it because my discipline is based on dead white men.”

Example 2: Or “I believe in diversity, but I have not been in a leadership position where I might make decisions. I would be supportive if there were some people of colour.”

The exceptionalist argument suggests that impact can only be made from certain positions, thereby exonerating most people who do not go against the grain. This obscures the roles that all faculty play in maintaining the status quo and contributing in small and large ways to discriminatory practices and negative outcomes for faculty, staff and students of colour.

Bias can lead to mis-assessing students, even creating unequal learning conditions. A student may be characterised as “low achieving” when they may need greater encouragement or when they come from a high school with fewer resources. In committee work, colleagues may use different adjectives to describe the quality of work of women colleagues and colleagues of colour.  

Are you interested in diversity issues? Check out our EDI channel, which is dedicated to advice and insight about equity, diversity and inclusion from academics around the world

What to include – key frameworks

Some white colleagues ask: “Can white candidates write something that would be acceptable?” This is a valid question. We say: “Of course they can. And some people of colour will write poor statements.” A good statement could come in countless forms. While some may feel that they cannot write from a position of experience, this is absolutely not the case. Their experiences are different.

We identify four elements found in strong diversity statements:

  • Diversity as a strategy

  • Evidence of addressing structural challenges

  • Recognition and underscoring of the invisible labour done by faculty and staff of colour

  • Demonstrated enlightened mentoring. 

1. Diversity as a strategy

Creating a plan, rather than simply doing an action, moves people beyond reacting and shows an understanding of intersectionality and the matrices of oppression.

For online teachers, it is especially important to consider the contours of their students’ lives. The strongest statements are ones where they see that there are interlocking issues – food insecurity is connected to student learning, impression management with professors, matriculation and well-being. For example, an online teaching candidate may have buttressed student support with financial and social support and mentoring and even made changes to policies that excluded certain people or groups based on criteria that are unnecessary. The strongest statements are those where candidates articulate how diversity is used centrally in re-thinking budget, curriculum and access.

2. Evidence of addressing structural challenges

Strong diversity statements include examples of candidates advocating for structural changes. They show that they recognise and make systemic changes to address this. Candidates can write about “white space” and how they have educated others and implemented new practices that go against the status quo. They may have found systemic holes and problems that have disparate effects on women of colour. They may have counteracted systemic and institutionalised practices. For instance, strong candidates mention noticing varying language, such as different adjectives, in the evaluations of faculty, staff and students of colour. 

3. Recognition or underscoring of invisible labour 

Supporting faculty and staff of colour must be multifaceted. It is widely known and acknowledged that faculty of colour have different experiences – they are counted on to take on certain services because they are a person of colour; students of colour look to them more than to white colleagues; and they face student racism. 

4. Demonstrated enlightened mentoring

Mentors who are “woke” to and address structural challenges, who use diversity as a strategy, and who recognise or underscore the invisible labour and challenges of faculty, staff and students of colour will mentor in ways that have longer term impacts and that mitigate exclusion and discriminatory practices.  Mentoring is especially difficult in the online world, but candidates who write about ways they have overcome this demonstrate strong commitments to the work of the framework we call JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion).

The JEDI framework is about more than one or two actions, and goes beyond a checklist. Thus, posting a diversity statement online is, in and of itself, not “enough”. However, this is an important part of systemic change when faculty post diversity statements, and these become an integral part of performance reviews and promotion. We are elevating the importance of JEDI work, and taking a step in the right direction of the structural changes needed for social transformation.

Pardis Mahdavi is dean of social sciences at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and directs the School of Social Transformation, and Scott Brooks is an associate professor with the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, both at Arizona State University.

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