Readers Respond Forum

Now in its second iteration, the "Readers Respond Forum" allows readers and authors to engage in constructive dialogue and exchange of ideas about the articles published in AAALGrads. In this issue, Ahmad Alharthi provides a follow-up response to Ashley Moore's Spring 2021 article "Are Diversity Statements Nonperformative? A Critical Discussion," which was itself a response Alharthi's Professional Development Corner, "How to Write a Diversity Statement," published in Fall 2020.

Below you will find Alharthi's reply to Moore's response. The original piece and Moore's response can be found here.

 

 

 

Are There Any Benefits to Diversity Statements?

By Ahmad A. Alharthi, University of Washington

 

I have read with interest and pleasure the response by Ashley Moore—published in the AAALGrads Spring 2021 issue—to my guide on how to write a diversity statement, which had been published in the Fall 2020 issue. I would like to thank Moore for his engagement with my piece, and the editors for giving me the opportunity to comment on Moore’s response. Moore raises valid and serious concerns about the genre in question, which I think are worth keeping in mind when discussing the topic of diversity.

 

Let me point out, first and foremost, that efforts related to equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) are nothing new, especially in the context of the United States. Through Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, discriminatory practices became prohibited in the workplace. Over the following decades, this legislation was amended and expanded several times, and diversity became an important workplace value that is located at the intersection of good ethics and legal mandates. In their blog, de Anca and Aragón (2018) explain that companies have started to develop diversity initiatives since the 1980s. Part of that effort is what Carnes et al. (2019) describe as “institutional” or “organizational” diversity statements, which refer to the messages written by employers (both in academia and beyond) to convey their commitment to EDI work. As Moore notes, soliciting individual diversity statements from prospective applicants to academia is a relatively recent phenomenon. However, this step is merely an extension of the effort to promote EDI work on the part of employers. Sylvester et al. (2019) see it as a step in the right direction because it allows institutions to “evaluate what they say are core values in hiring processes” (p. 154).

 

Both the notion of diversity and the diversity statement requirement have been critiqued on several fronts. Regarding diversity, Mac Donald (2018a) offers a conservative take, which questions its very value in education, while Michaels (2006) offers a more leftist analysis, arguing that issues of class and economy are more urgent than diversity and, therefore, should take primary focus. In a similar manner, diversity statements have received criticism from a wide spectrum of political affiliations. For example, Mac Donald (2018b) wrote an article where she challenges their usefulness. Likewise, Jeffrey Flier, former Dean of Harvard Medical School, tweeted that diversity statements represent “an affront to academic freedom” (Flier, 2018), despite following up with a clarification that he “fully supports” diversity itself (Flaherty, 2018a). Indeed, Diamond (2018) cites two diversity advisors who have their own qualms against diversity statements, expressing concerns similar to those of Moore’s.

I happen to share some of those concerns. In fact, I find it hard to disagree with any of the points made by Moore. So, instead of trying to refute his list of potential “pitfalls” (Carnes et al., 2019), I would like to highlight some of the potential benefits for diversity statements. By doing so, I hope to provide the reader with a clearer picture of some of the pros and cons of diversity statements, leaving it up to the reader to make up their mind as to whether or not (and to what extent) the statement in question can be an effective tool for the purpose of faculty hiring.

 

Diversity statements can promote a culture of egalitarianism and advance the social justice agenda

In their analysis of diversity statements written over the past few years, Sylvester et al. (2019) identify seven elements that applicants used to demonstrate their commitment to EDI work. Three elements speak to the ideological nature of EDI: 1) valuing and understanding EDI, 2) personal background and experiences, and 3) skill building and personal growth. The other four elements speak to the materiality of EDI: 4) teaching, 5) mentorship, 6) research/scholarship, and 7) engagement/service. A balance between the two themes (ideological and material) represents what De Costa et al. (2021) describe as “centering” EDI in one’s work. But even limiting oneself to the first theme in the diversity statement—in case of the absence of the second theme—can serve as a contract or a “pledge” (Diamond, 2018) that applicants understand what EDI work entails and that they appreciate its importance. Further, the diversity statement requirement shows that both employers and employees are on the same page regarding EDI work and that both parties take that work seriously.

 

Diversity statements can validate “invisible labor” and help distribute EDI-related efforts

Until recently, EDI work has not factored into professional development in a serious way, which made this kind of work “hard, thankless, and largely invisible” (Matthew, 2016, p. 14). The diversity statement required at initial hiring offers us the chance to fix this situation, highlight the importance of EDI work, and give due credit to those involved in it. It is worth noting that the University of California, a pioneering institution in validating EDI work, now rewards contributions related to EDI even for “merit increases and promotion determinations” (“Equity, Diversity and Inclusion,” 2019, p. 5). Related to “invisible labor” is the issue of “cultural taxation” (Padilla, 1994), where faculty of color are tasked with EDI work (e.g., serving on diversity committees on campus) merely because they are faculty of color (see Hall, 2016). Requiring diversity statements from all applicants regardless of their background can send the message that EDI work is the responsibility of all faculty members, not just certain members of certain groups (Sylvester et al., 2019).

 

Diversity statements can and should be linked to the idea of excellence in academic work

Besides the social justice angle, the work of diversity should also be viewed through the lens of excellence. The history of composition studies, which is one of the “supporting disciplines” to applied linguistics (Grabe, 2010, p. 36), teaches us that over the past century, every time there was a new student enrollment pattern, new instructional methods were developed in order to deal with that reality. In other words, new pedagogical needs prompt educators to be more innovative with their instructional approaches. The same point can be made about the notion of “public scholarship,” which refers to “diverse modes of creating and circulating knowledge for and with publics and communities” (as cited in “What is Public Scholarship?”, 2021). According to Flaherty (2018b), public scholarship was used by prospective applicants in their diversity statements to demonstrate their commitment to diversity work. From developing pedagogies that address different learning styles to seeking creative ways to expand the outreach of one’s research, diversity contributions are “intellectual work” (Sylvester et al., 2019, p. 154), just as much as diversity statements are “critical scholarly documents that will foster productive conversations about the faculty’s role in shaping and improving higher education” (Canning & Reddick, 2019).

Diversity statements can serve as a useful reflective exercise

The opportunity to write about one’s commitment to diversity should be viewed positively. In their blog, de Anca and Aragón (2018) remark that “diversity is a journey [which] requires careful navigation.” One way to navigate this journey is through the very act of writing, which would enable one to examine the various ways they know, view, understand and think of EDI work. Therefore, I find Moore’s suggestion—that one should write two versions of the diversity statement—to be extremely intriguing and effective. One version (i.e., the trial version) can serve as a brainstorming exercise about what could have been done in the past or what could be done in the future; the other version (i.e., the real version) is the statement documenting actual deeds and actions. In the short run, the trial version contributes to one’s understanding about diversity. In the long run, it inspires a stronger commitment to EDI work, which will eventually become part of the real version of the statement. The lack of a perfect record demonstrating EDI work should not deter us from trying to write a diversity statement, because—as pointed out by Mitchell (2018)—we readily engage in the process of writing statements for both teaching and research, even though we are far from being perfect at either domain.

 

Conclusion

I hope that my list of positives does not turn us away from Moore’s list, nor that it underplays that there are real potential problems to diversity statements. In their article about organizational diversity statements, Carnes et al. (2019) engage in an insightful discussion about some potential pitfalls of that genre, suggesting ways to turn those pitfalls into potential promises. Similarly, I think we should continuously scrutinize the requirement of individual diversity statements in order to make it more beneficial (or at least less harmful) to all parties involved. The list offered by Moore provides us with that opportunity and allows us to think of ways to turn “bureaucratized diversity” (Ferguson, 2017) into “meaningful diversity” (Matthew, 2016, p. 9). That is the trick, in my opinion.

 

Finally, at a time when “cancel culture” is unfortunately prevailing and the diversity of opinion is not as welcomed as it once was, I would be remiss not to touch on this aspect of diversity here. In the blog I cited earlier, de Anca and Aragón (2018) note that diversity is a complex concept which encompasses at least three layers. These include: 1) demographic diversity, or the type of diversity that is tied to “identities of origin” (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender); 2) experiential diversity, or the type of diversity that is tied to “identities of growth” (e.g., affinities, hobbies, skills); and 3) cognitive diversity, or the type of diversity that is tied to “identities of aspiration” (e.g., worldviews, political beliefs, moral compass). What the authors call “demographic diversity” (or what I refer to in my original piece as the “big eight”) is only one component of diversity. But that component has no chance of surviving without the other two supporting it. It is, in large part, through points of critique, which are part of the cognitive diversity, that we are able to stay humble and reflect on the extent of the soundness of our ways of doing things. Without diversity of thought, the type of diversity that we are trying to fight for and defend would be seriously at risk.

References

  • Alharthi, A. A. (2020). How to write a diversity statement. AAALGrads, 5(1).

  • Canning, C. M. & Reddick, R. J. (2019, January 11). In defense of diversity statements. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved September 9, 2021,

  • Carnes, M., Fine, E., & Sheridan, J. (2019). Promises and pitfalls of diversity statements: Proceed with caution. Acad Med, 94(1), 20-24.

  • de Anca, C. & Aragón, S. (2018, May 24). The 3 types of diversity that shape our identities. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved September 4, 2021

  • De Costa, P. I., Green-Eneix, C., & Li, W. (2021). Embracing diversity, inclusion, equity and access in EMI-TNHE: Towards a social justice-centered reframing of English language teaching. RELC Journal, 1-9.

  • Diamond, M. (2018, October 23). Pledging allegiance to diversity, and to the tenure for which it stands. RealClearInvestigations. Retrieved September 1, 2021

  • “Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Statement FAQs,” (2019, September 5). Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, UCLA. Retrieved September 1, 2021

  • Ferguson, R. (2017). We demand: The university and student protests. University of California Press.

  • Flaherty, C. (2018a, November 12). Making a Statement on Diversity Statements. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved September 7, 2021

  • Flaherty, C. (2018b, November 19). Breaking down diversity statements. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved September 7, 2021

  • Flier, J. [@jflier]. (2018, November 10). As a dean of a major academic institution, I could not have said this. But I will now [Tweet]. Twitter https://twitter.com/jflier/status/1061400170515054593

  • Grabe, W. (2010). Applied linguistics: A twenty-first-century discipline. In Kaplan, R. B. (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Applied Linguistics (pp. 34-44). Oxford University Press.

  • Hall, K. F. (2016). Appendix C: Making labor invisible. In Matthew, P. A. (Ed.), Written/unwritten: Diversity and the hidden truths of tenure (pp. 277-279). The University of North Carolina Press.

  • Mac Donald, H. (2018a). The diversity delusion: How race and gender pandering corrupt the university and undermine our culture. St. Martin’s Press.

  • Mac Donald, H. (2018b, September 2). UCLA’s infatuation with diversity is a costly diversion from its true mission. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved September 1, 2021

  • Matthew, P. A. (2016). Written/unwritten: The gap between theory and practice. In Matthew, P. A. (Ed.), Written/unwritten: Diversity and the hidden truths of tenure (pp. 1-25). The University of North Carolina Press.

  • Michaels, W. B. (2006). The trouble with diversity: How we learned to love identity and ignore inequality. Metropolitan Books.

  • Mitchell, C. (2018, November 15). Why colleges should require faculty diversity statements. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved September 9, 2021

  • Moore, A. R. (2021). Are diversity statements nonperformative? A critical discussion. AAALGrads, 5(2).

  • Padilla, A. M. (1994). Ethnic minority scholars, research, and mentoring: Current and future issues. Educational Researcher, 23(4), 24–27.

  • Sylvester, C.-Y., Sánchez-Parkinson, L., Yettaw, M., & Chavous, T. (2019). The promise of diversity statements: Insights and a framework developed from faculty applications. Currents, 1(1), 151-170.

  • “What is Public Scholarship?” (2021). Carleton. Retrieved September 20, 2021

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Ahmad A. Alharthi is a doctoral candidate in English Language and Rhetoric at the University of Washington, Seattle. His research interests include critical applied linguistics, composition studies (with a focus on second language writing), and the implications of the global spread of English.