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What's Diversity Got To Do With It?

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) has become a trigger topic for many of the United States population. And, suddenly, many people fear the word 'diversity.' Diversity, as we know it in academia, is the latest area to be pulled into the escalating culture wars in the United States, with Republican politicians in legislatures in multiple states proposing laws that would outlaw 'diversity efforts' at public Universities. Four states have passed and implemented these laws in the past several months. Several others are finalizing these laws (click here for an anti-DEI law tracker from the Chronicle of Higher Education).

Since the diversity statement may be one of the 'newer' job application documents, having only been asked for in the last 10 years in most states, it is now essential faculty candidates and search committees understand the minefield they may be walking into regarding DEI when either applying for or conducting a search. Currently, in North Dakota, Texas, North Carolina, and Florida, public Universities have been given explicit direction that requiring diversity statements in hiring decisions is against the law. To date, six additional states have passed or are seriously considering laws that will ban the use of diversity statements in faculty hiring.

These laws are all quite wide-ranging and seek to curtail many DEI efforts public Universities have implemented. Since the primary focus of the Academic Balance newsletter is to help academics survive and thrive in academia, I want to focus on one aspect of the anti-DEI efforts: banning diversity statements in hiring and interviewing.

Having sat on hundreds of search committees over the years, an individual's race or gender has never been a topic of discussion. The focus and questions were about their qualifications as a potential faculty member. Every academic I've met, from the most cranky and argumentative curmudgeon to the gentlest of souls, has been for equal opportunity for education and position.

The question remains: why and why now?

Some reasons for banning diversity statements are that they are considered a form of a 'modern-day loyalty oath' and a political ideology test, meaning a candidate will not be hired if they don't have the 'correct' view of diversity. This is the cornerstone of a lawsuit one aspiring Psychology Assistant Professor has filed against the University of California-Santa Cruz, and a sentiment echoed around the country by primarily Republican politicians.

In addition to prohibiting requesting diversity statements from candidates, it is also unlawful for the Search Committee to ask questions regarding diversity efforts, beliefs, or philosophies during an interview. Further, Search Committees cannot ask the candidate to address these topics in other application documents, such as the Teaching Philosophy statement.All in all, where prohibited, unless it is a direct duty of the position, Search Committees have to stay away from DEI inquiries.

Where does that leave a faculty candidate?

Most job applicants apply for multiple positions in multiple states. Now more than ever, job applicants must custom-make their job cover letter and other documents to be appropriate for their job application and the state where the university is located.

This hit home for me recently as I worked with a job candidate's application documents for a position in one of the four anti-DEI states. Unaware of the new state laws, the candidate had put DEI references in their Cover Letter, highlighted their DEI work in their CV, and put DEI phraseology in their Teaching Philosophy. All of the statements and additions were appropriate for the position they were applying for. Still, they did not know that these phrases were now trigger words in the state they were applying in. After adjusting the documents to make them 'state-appropriate,' the candidate applied without issue. Thus, job candidates need to be aware of the state laws that govern faculty searches, particularly regarding DEI.

Academia does, at times, enter an era where politicians in the statehouse want to control how academics do their jobs and what they can say. Regardless of one's views on whether these actions by politicians are morally right or wrong, both Search Committees and job applicants must now be aware of the ramifications of these state laws and how to deal with mandates passed down from the state house so that academics can survive and thrive in academia.

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