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The Identity Filter: How Higher Education’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity Practices May be Undermining DEI Objectives and the Future of Higher Education

 “It is difficult to point to a historical instance when judging people on their immutable characteristics resulted in positive outcomes.”

“Like a mutating virus, racism shape-shifts in order to stay alive; when its explicit expression becomes taboo, it hides in coded language.”

–Kathy Waldman

Determined to realize my lifelong professional aspiration of getting a tenure-track job, I probably applied for 150 positions before I finally gave up a few years ago. I can’t remember how many times I advanced to the semi-finalist stage of the process (probably no more than half a dozen), but I do recall the one and only time I was one of three finalists for a sweet job at a small liberal arts college in Idaho. That was about 20 years ago, but I remember the experience vividly, I think, because of the event’s singularity and because of the difficult pleasure of the event itself—that is, interviewing for three straight days and coming so close to getting the job. Had things gone differently, I would likely now be enjoying all the privileges and trappings of being a full, tenured professor and working in the field for which I was trained. As Hemingway once said, pretty to think so.

I know there are no guarantees in life, and that it’s impossible to account for everything that informs the hiring process, but the dearth of success I experienced is a little puzzling given everything I have accomplished since that Idaho interview all those years ago. I’m not going to lie: it’s an unpleasant feeling, and with every year that passed without an invitation to interview, indeed, without the possibility of opportunity to realize my ambitions and improve my life, my disillusionment deepened.

What’s more is that I don’t think my experience is unique. And like others who struggle and fail to better their lives, I’ve asked myself some tough questions over the years. Should I just accept my situation—my ceiling—and give up my search for a better job? Why aren’t I getting interviews? What am I doing wrong? I realize, of course, that there must be thousands of answers to the second question, some of which were within my control, most of which were not. But I don’t think that’s a reason not to ask it, especially since, if answered honestly, it might actually help one appraise what one has to offer as well as understand the forces that ostensibly shape the job market. Why aren’t I getting interviews? It might be wise to first figure out what (or is it who?) one means by “I.”

Up until about 10 years ago, I thought “I” meant the sum of one’s qualifications, which, at the behest of job ads written at the time, I established with a letter of interest, a CV, letters of recommendation, and sometimes a teaching statement. I remember working very hard to make sure these documents accurately portrayed who I was without raising any hackles. In retrospect, that wasn’t hard to do, and the only place I really risked saying something objectionable was with the teaching philosophy, the exploratory nature of which might entice me to reveal more about myself than was prudent.

Otherwise the application process was devoid of landmines (especially compared to today’s standards), and it would have taken real effort on my part to offend the committee. All I had to do was demonstrate my qualifications through these largely unambiguous, relatively apolitical, and non-ideological conventions. The general understanding back in those days, then, was that one’s chances of getting an interview were based on one’s qualifications, which, in contrast to rubrics that are used to today, are fairly easy to identify and assess.

This is not to say that one’s person (or, in the parlance of the moment, one’s identity) wouldn’t become important at some point, but at that early stage of the process all that mattered were one’s professional credentials. The process was relatively straight-forward, more-or-less transparent, explicit, and, perhaps most importantly, I believed it gave me a chance, both in terms of any particular position I may have applied for, as well as positions I may apply for in the future. I probably don’t need to tell this to people who are on the job market, but for those of us who do not succeed in landing a desirable position right out of graduate school, maintaining a healthy belief in the future is crucial.

In fact, I remember times when, after not advancing in a job search, I followed up with the committee chair and asked what I could do to improve my chances of being considered for future positions. Sometimes the chair encouraged me to do more service work, or to publish more widely, or to present at conferences—things that, while involving various levels of difficulty, were still possible. However imperfect, under that paradigm there were clear steps that I could take to grow professionally and thereby improve my chances of getting interviews (and possibly winning a job) the next time around.

That’s what I think “I” used to mean. But in the context of today’s job ads that emphasize diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and treat identity as the basis for one’s candidacy, “I” now refers first and foremost to racial and gender identity, in which case a follow up conversation with the search committee chair probably isn’t going to do much good. For barring the nuclear options of becoming an identity imposter or poser, or of updating the definition of “African” to reflect the evolutionary fact that all races have their origins in Africa, an interview rejection is likely the end of the line for those people who do not represent an acceptable or target identity, which is alarming given the myriad ways people identify.

In addition to rightly stressing the importance of creating a diverse workplace, today’s job ads often signal that commitment by requiring applicants to include a DEI statement, which, in the boilerplate description of one recent job ad, is designed to “support efforts to recruit and retain diverse faculty, students, and staff.” I don’t think anybody working in academia, particularly those of us who work with students in the classroom, would disagree with the idea that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect no matter who they are or how they identify. But I worry that, however well-intentioned, some DEI practices may not lead to the desired result of creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace. On the contrary, they may actually discourage qualified candidates from applying and preemptively weed them out even if they do.

One preliminary data point that may reflect the challenges of competing in today’s DEI saturated job market are the images used by institutions to market their approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion. One such image appears on my university’s Diversity homepage and features nine people, seven of which appear to be of African, Polynesian, and/or Hispanic descent. The remaining two people appear to be white women. Obviously it would be unreasonable to draw any definitive (or unflattering) conclusions about my university’s commitment to diversity on the basis of this image (for what it’s worth, the website College Factual gives the school an 81/100 overall diversity score), just as it would be absurd to expect the image to include the vast number of possible racial, ethnic, gender, and other identity combinations.

But at a university where 70% of the population is white, and 53% of that population is male, it is a little curious that white men are not represented, an omission made even starker by the inclusion of not one, but two white women. Asians, who comprise 6% of the university’s population, are also not represented. This might be surprising were it not for developments in the beleaguered and confusing world of Critical Race Theory, which now considers Asians as “white adjacent,” a moniker that is generally used to refer to a person from a marginalized racial background who receives benefits similar to those identified as white. While there is clearly much that I do not understand about recent DEI trends and terminology, what is not so clear is how the prevailing DEI narrative can, if taken at face value, achieve its goals as long as it remains so limited in scope and conspicuous omissions like this are made.

Job ads that prioritize DEI statements may yield similarly exclusive results insofar as they, too, privilege some forms of diversity to the exclusion of others. I’ve read hundreds of job ads and talked to dozens of people about their own experiences with the job search. And I’ve never met anyone who, upon finding DEI language in a job ad, including requests for a DEI statement, thought that it included white people. One academic I interviewed for this essay (a white senior lecturer with graduate degrees from two, top five programs in the country) told me that any time he comes across a job ad that emphasizes DEI and uses “coded language,” he doesn’t even bother applying. Anyone who extols the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion should, at the very least, consider this alarming.

Abigail Thompson, a professor and chair of the mathematics department at UC Davis, would no doubt agree. Almost a year ago today, and after becoming “increasingly uneasy with the use of DEI statements in faculty hiring,” she wrote an op ed calling out university administrators for implementing what basically amounts to a political, racial, ethnic, gender and, ultimately, ideological litmus test for hiring. “No longer will faculty hiring committees use their own judgment about how best to create a diverse and inclusive environment in their fields,” she writes. “Instead, each candidate’s commitment to diversity will be assigned points. To score well, candidates must subscribe to a particular political ideology, one based on treating people not as unique individuals but as representatives of their gender and ethnic identities.”

A few days after Professor Thompson’s piece appeared in The Wall Street Journal, emeritus professor of Biology Jerry Coyne published a detailed (and deservedly unflattering) analysis of UC Berkeley’s use of diversity statements to eliminate candidates, particularly whites and white males, who in one search “were reduced from about 60% of the candidates to none of the interviewees.” But academics like Coyne and Professor Thompson aren’t the only ones who have taken issue with UC’s hiring practices, which, according to Thompson, “specifically excludes those who believe in a tenet of classical liberalism: that each person should be treated as a unique individual, not as a representative of an identity group.” More recently, after analyzing UC Berkeley’s candidate evaluation techniques, Daniel Ortner, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, concluded that “diversity statements were being used as an ideological screening tool,” whereby 76% (679 out of 893) applicants were “eliminated solely because their diversity statements were deemed inadequate.”

I wonder how many other graduates and job applicants would feel utterly demoralized and hopeless after learning about what’s happening in the UC system and other universities across the country. This should be of great concern to everyone in higher education, but the parties most responsible for weighting the virtues of DEI statements should take special notice. Clearly identity will continue to play an important role in hiring. But can a hiring process that gives precedence to identity above all else ever truly reflect the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion? What if, by requiring DEI statements, universities have gone too far? These are tough questions, but any honest discussion of how best to achieve a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace will make every effort to address them.

Sources.

The University’s New Loyalty Oath – WSJ (Thompson op ed).

Life science jobs at Berkeley give precedence to candidates’ diversity and inclusion statements – Why Evolution Is True (Coyne analysis).

What is UC Davis hiding about its use of diversity statements? | TheHill (Ortner op ed).

Jumper Holt teaches at a large university in North America.

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