A Defense of Diversity Statements in Hiring

Recently, Abigail Thompson, a Vice President of the AMS and Professor at UC Davis, wrote a short opinion piece coming out against the use of diversity statements in hiring. As I read her piece, I found myself troubled by some of the assertions and decided to do a bit of research to confirm my suspicions.

Before I dive into the gist of Professor Thompson’s argument, I think it is important to reiterate why diversity matters in mathematics. Here, I risk making Professor Thompson into a strawman; she’s not asserting diversity in mathematics is unwelcome, just that diversity statements should be removed from hiring. But humor me so I can climb on this soapbox.

First, creating a more equitable society and correcting past injustices that have disadvantaged underrepresented minorities is the most obvious reason diversity should matter. Of course, I have heard the rebuttal, “Yes, but why is it a responsibility of mathematicians to facilitate this change in our field?” Well, mathematicians have the power to enact substantial change by incorporating diversity initiatives into hiring, extracurricular programs, and candid reassessments of the academic climate. Sure, mathematicians may not cause systemic change in society at large, but undoubtedly academics have the power to influence climate and advocate for their values at their own universities.

More selfishly, collaborative environments benefit from diversity. A Tufts study on collaboration efforts of mock jurors found that diverse groups “deliberated longer, raised more facts about the case, and conducted broader deliberations” (6). While the Tufts study focused only on racial diversity, it is emblematic of a larger trend in social psychology which has demonstrated positive effects of diversity in a variety of collaborative environments (7). Crucially, mathematics is more collaborative now than it has ever been and, unfortunately, is not much more diverse (5). Through this lens, if we care about the advancement of our field, we should value diversity for its practical use in addition to its moral imperative.

Now, to the substance of Professor Thompson’s argument:

One of Thompson’s major planks is that a diversity statement is “a political test with teeth.” Thompson likens diversity statements to McCarthy-era loyalty oaths (back in the 1950s, the UC system forced faculty to sign pledges that they were loyal to America and not the Communist party, infamously firing those who refused to comply). Gently put, this is an odd comparison. Even if we accept Thompson’s claim that diversity statements are “political,” they hardly seem comparable to McCarthy-era extremism with respect to harm and disruptiveness. People didn’t sign the loyalty oath, likely because it aimed to exclude, isolate, or punish individuals for their political beliefs. A diversity statement’s entire purpose is to include historically excluded, silenced, or isolated minorities and allow them space in the academic community.

Moreover, is assessing whether job candidates treat people as individuals really a political statement as Thompson asserts? A person’s background influences the way they interact with most things–the classroom is no exception. Consider a student who can’t afford school supplies. Likely, that student will encounter challenges many others won’t: working a job outside class, distracting financial concerns, or even how to take notes each day. I’m not arguing that the instructor should give preferential treatment to this student; just that an inclusive instructor should strive to work with each student to help them realize their academic goals, being sensitive to the backgrounds different students bring into the classroom.

Studies also support the notion that individual identity influences performance in the classroom. For instance, two different studies (one conducted in Florida, one in Tennessee) found that having a teacher of the same race contributed positively to academic success (1, 2). Other studies reiterate that representation matters and that even math classrooms aren’t immune from the effect one’s background brings. For instance, a University of Massachusetts Amherst study found that “increasing the visibility of female scientists, engineers and mathematicians […] profoundly benefits [young women’s] self perception in STEM” (8).

While I agree with Thompson that treating people as individuals is an assertion of how society “ought to be organized,” I believe characterizing this sentiment as “political” misconstrues the meaning by associating it with partisan politics.

All of this is to say: it’s not political to treat people as individuals. It’s human and it’s logical.

Then, Professor Thompson criticizes the fact that “the diversity ‘score’ is becoming central in the hiring process.” Thompson’s language implies that other factors like caliber of research take a backseat to diversity which, when looking at the faculty of any R1 University, seems misleading. The New York Times rebutts this point best:

“The ethos [of mathematics] is characterized as meritocracy [and] is often wielded as a seemingly unassailable excuse for screening out promising minority job candidates who lack a name-brand alma mater or an illustrious mentor. Hiring committees that reflect the mostly white and Asian makeup of most math departments say they are compelled to “choose the ‘best’” […] even though there’s no guideline about what ‘best’ is.”

To paraphrase, hiring committees are just like the rest of us: subject to implicit bias. Certainly, the diversity statement plays a crucial role in patching “the leaky pipeline.”

Moreover, the diversity statement also communicates to underrepresented minorities that a math program cares about creating an inclusive research community. The University of Michigan recently conducted a study on academic attrition and found that, for underrepresented minorities, academic climate was a major factor in their decision to leave (4). In other words, stressing a department’s belief in the value of diversity helps positively shape department norms and combat attrition. The same Times article wrote about Edray Goins, a black mathematician who left a “better” position in a hostile academic environment for a department which emphasized inclusivity (3). Fortunately, Professor Goins chose to remain in academia, but his story is the exception, not the rule.

To her credit, Thompson ends by asserting that “mathematics must be open and welcoming to everyone, to those who have traditionally been excluded, and to those holding unpopular viewpoints.” Unfortunately, the substance of her previous argument makes these words feel empty.

If we truly care about increasing diverse representation in mathematics, we should pursue every available avenue. Diversity statements are only one piece of the puzzle, but they are important nonetheless.

1. Long Run Impacts of Same Race Teachers
2. Representation in the classroom: the effect of own race teachers on student achievement
3. For a black mathematician, what it’s like to be the only one
4. Exit Interview Study: Executive Summary, University of Michigan
5. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering
6. Racial diversity improves group decision making in unexpected ways
7. More sources on the value of diversity in performance
8. Female Scientists Act like a Social Vaccine to Protect Young Women’s Interest and Motivation in the Sciences, UMass Amherst Study Shows


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2 Responses to A Defense of Diversity Statements in Hiring

  1. Johan Richter says:

    I am very puzzled by your notion of what is “political”. You seem to be saying something is not political merely because you are so convinced it is right.

    If we compare to the McCarthy era, let us recall that communism was anti-democratic, an economic disaster and that communist countries were a foreign policy threat to the US and its allies. It was also deeply unpopular to the majority of the US population.

    I am pretty sure the proponents of the McCarthy oaths simply saw anti-communism as human and logical, and by your logic there was thus nothing political about these oaths and they should not have been controversial.

    • Ethan Zell says:

      Johan, thanks for your comment. I think you’re right that I could’ve been a bit clearer at that part of the article. I certainly don’t want to come off as endorsing McCarthyism! Perhaps I can write a bit more to clarify my meaning:

      I guess what was frustrating me about Thompson’s take is that calling a test “political” inherently associates it with partisan politics, i.e. Republicans or Democrats. I’m an American and have always been taught that the great diversity of our country is one of its prized strengths. I take issue with the notion that valuing diversity belongs to a political party.

      As it sounds like you know well, the danger in the McCarthy era was using fear indiscriminately to ruin the lives of suspected communists, many of whom were not communists, but just unlucky. As you mention, there were real foreign policy concerns at the time about communist countries; however, the McCarthy era ethos of targeting people recklessly was dangerous and counterproductive to solving those real foreign policy issues. After all, McCarthy himself was censured by the Senate for his actions.

      I guess the upshot is this: loyalty oaths are extremely different in both intention and result from diversity statements, and the comparison doesn’t seem to be a fair one. Where loyalty oaths sought to eradicate people with an ideology from positions of authority, diversity statements seek to include those who have historically been excluded.

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