The diversity statement controversy, II


From AMS Notices, January 2020, online only, p. 1

One of the minor virtues of Goodwillie’s piece, quoted in the previous post, is its clarity regarding the meaning of “diversity” in the institutional setting.  The word appears only twice, neither time with an unambiguously positive valence:

Institutional diversity is all very well, but if the “different” people do not feel truly welcome, and if mismatches between the institution and the worlds that the students are coming from are ignored, then the institution has failed them.

I’d like to think that a job applicant who meditated on Goodwillie’s post would be well-prepared to write a genuinely meaningful diversity statement.  But it would be much more than a “cuddly, feel-good” sort of diversity statement;  it might even be seen as dangerously close to the kind of commitment to social justice that the 1978 Supreme Court ruled out as grounds for affirmative action.

In contrast, no one comes off well in this latest controversy.  I had prepared a point-by-point list of some of the problematic arguments made in each of the texts, starting with Thompson’s essay and continuing through the open letters written for and against, as well as Chad Topaz’s blog post at QSIDE.  But a friend made the following comment upon reading an earlier draft:


My friend is absolutely right.  I enjoy a good quibble as much as anyone, but it’s best to keep it private.  Besides, the most serious of my points was the suggestion that the AMS Notices open its pages to an extended debate on the important topic of … inclusion and exclusion … including but not limited to the role of diversity statements.   It turns out that this debate already began in the January 2020 issue of the Notices, which arrived in my mailbox yesterday.  The for and against letters are included, and a second for letter again, with all the signatures; the total occupies a 21-page pdf file.  It’s therefore likely that more than 1400 people knew, as I did not, that my suggestion was superfluous.  This is a sign that I should perhaps be expressing myself with more humility.

I note, however, that nowhere in the 21 pages of the Notices file does anyone “take[s] the Coates point,” as my friend put it.  Lewis Powell is not identified as the author of the “diversity” opinion, and the Bakke case is only mentioned once, in passing, and in a way that, perhaps inadvertently, confirms “the Coates point.”  Xander Faber’s letter quotes this comment by Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun:

In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.

The context of Blackmun’s comment, however, was his Separate Opinion,  written to clarify his agreement with the minority position in the Bakke case.   This is the position that lost out to the “cuddly, feel-good” diversity that, thanks to Powell and four other Justices, has been the limit of what the law of the land protects since 1978.  To me it is counterintuitive to rely on Powell’s vocabulary to “uphold Blackmun’s words,” as Faber writes, when the continuation of the Blackmun comment — “We cannot – we dare not – let the Equal Protection Clause perpetrate racial supremacy.” — was written as an explicit rebuke to Powell’s reasoning.

Faber’s letter has the merit of appealing to evidence, in the form of “an extensive report” produced by UC Berkeley “that documents the effect of hiring with a diversity focus in mind.”  Here is what that report had to say (on p. 49) about the effectiveness of diversity statements:

Beyond the applicant stage … no clear and consistent patterns in the data emerged that would suggest a positive statistical correlation between this practice and diversity.  We suspect there may be considerable variation in how search committees implemented this practice, and we speculate that these differences may have obscured the potential value of some forms of implementation. In addition, different institutions may use information about candidates’ commitment to diversity in different ways, and when these can be studied separately, some may emerge as considerably more promising than others. Anecdotal evidence from other UC campuses suggests that much may depend on the extent to which strong or weak “diversity statements” are used as potential deciding factors during the search deliberations. On the basis of our data and analyses to date, however, we do not think we can conclude that this is a practice showing clear promise.

This is hardly a ringing endorsement of diversity statements as a way to enhance even diversity of the “cuddly, feel-good” variety,  much less as a means of realizing the more ambitious aims of equity and inclusion to which Faber refers in his letter.  I wonder whether Faber disagrees.

Overall I have to assume that when people in this debate use the word “diversity” they have in mind something like “equity” or even “social justice” — the opposite of the meaning  Powell set out in his 1978 opinion.   Institutions like the Regents of the University of California may be confined to the legal straitjacket that Justice Powell designed for them more than 40 years ago, but there is no reason that a colleague who is genuinely committed to the values of equity or social justice should feel obliged to express their values in Powell’s vocabulary.

P.S.  I’m not sure I agree with Thompson’s judgment that “Requiring candidates to believe that people should be treated differently according to their identity is … a political test,” [my emphasis] but it is certainly political. Assuming that the US approach to identity politics has universal political validity is a symptom of the provincialism — not to say cultural imperialism — that comes too naturally to people who live in this country, wherever their opinions fall on the political spectrum.  It is particularly unwelcome as the default position of the inclusion/exclusion blog with regard to decisions that affect the very international population of candidates for jobs in the United States.  Some of these candidates come from countries where treating people “differently according to their identity” is strictly illegal.  Depending on what is meant by “treat,” this is arguably also the case in the United States — the “equal protection clause” of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is cited 31 times in the Bakke case that is at the origin of all this talk of diversity.   I sincerely regret that Blackmun’s position did not prevail in 1978, but it doesn’t help anyone to pretend that it did.



12 thoughts on “The diversity statement controversy, II

  1. just different

    This is a little disingenuous. Other application documents don’t have any hard data supporting their effectiveness either, and very few of the people objecting to the use of diversity statements are primarily concerned about whether they have a positive effect in increasing the participation of underrepresented groups. Certainly none of the people screaming about Maoism, or ideological testing, or whatever other nonsense have the slightest interest in anything other than preserving the status quo so they don’t have to think about this.

    Opposition to diversity statements is nearly indistinguishable from opposition to any form of affirmative action, which in turn is nearly indistinguishable from total denial that there’s a problem with underrepresentation in the first place and a concomitant obligation to do something about it. To split hairs here trivializes a very significant difference between visions about who gets to do mathematics.


    1. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

      With regard to your first paragraph, I think you misread my post; or else your quarrel is with Xander Faber, or perhaps with UC Berkeley. I found it curious that Faber, whose contribution to the discussion was the only one that cited empirical evidence, chose a study that contradicted his position on the topic under discussion. I couldn’t resist pointing this out, but perhaps I should have: I welcome your contribution but I regret that it focused on a secondary point. I have no idea how the UC Berkeley study was conducted and I am not party to the discussion one way or the other, for the reasons that should be clear to anyone who takes the time to read my first post.

      I’m not sure I follow the logic of your second paragraph. Could you please explain what “nearly indistinguishable” means and how the near indistinctions you mention play out in practice, especially in light of the Bakke decision, which draws a clear and legally binding distinction between “diversity” as defined by Lewis Powell and other motives for affirmative action? And could you please identify yourself while you’re at it? I try to avoid anonymous polemical comments; I have no interest in opening this blog to trolls.


      1. just different

        Unfortunately, the battle lines are pretty clearly drawn between people who believe that the current system of developing mathematicians (and other scientists) is fundamentally fair and people who believe that it is fundamentally not fair in particular ways. The current controversy about diversity statements is a proxy war waged with all the usual formulations: diversity vs merit, sensitivity vs freedom of speech, etc. Without all the baggage, requiring a diversity statement is at worst a time-wasting bureaucratic exercise. On the other hand, it’s also an affirmative sign of where the institutional leadership stands.

        I don’t understand why you are attaching such importance to Powell’s (reactionary) intent in 1978. What matters in 2019 is doing the right thing within the letter of whatever the existing legal framework is. If you belong to the “fundamentally not fair” camp, then you’re stuck with the unfortunate “diversity” formulation, but at least from there the door can be wedged open. This is no different from how opponents of Roe v Wade have successfully eroded access to abortion. Laws and legal interpretations are not set it stone, nor should they be.

        I hope you will understand that I would prefer to consistently identify myself by my WordPress username. Of course the decision about what to allow on your blog is yours.


      2. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

        You are fortunate to see things so clearly. As far as I can see there is a great deal of confusion — otherwise I would not have revived the blog for this topic. I asked two friends why they signed one of the letters; after they took the time to read the letter to which they thought they were responding they realized they didn’t know why.

        It’s no wonder there is such confusion, and so much misrepresentation of motives on all sides, if there is not even agreement on what “diversity” means. I could write much more, but I would be more interested to hear from people who believe the situation is pretty clear.


  2. Xander Faber

    I’m delighted that my letter provided some useful hooks for you to mull over in your own discussion. One correction: the “disagrees, very strongly” quote that you attribute to me actually appears in the letter following mine.


    1. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

      Thank you for pointing this out; the post has been corrected. I have seen the intriguing statistical analysis of the signatories of the three letters, and I am drafting a third comment. But I would very much like to hear from some of the people most directly affected by the diversity statements — namely, the candidates who are required to write them, especially those who are only superficially familiar with the sociology of the United States.


      1. A

        With regard to this: “But I would very much like to hear from some of the people most directly affected by the diversity statements — namely, the candidates who are required to write them..” I can say that when I was in the job market (several years ago), I did not apply for jobs to those American universities that required a diversity statement, since I viewed this as compelled political speech.


      2. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

        Thank you for speaking up. How would you respond to someone who argues that you need to prove that you can teach the different kinds of students you are likely to encounter in an undergraduate class in California or elsewhere in the United States?


      3. A

        I would respond that I would like them to judge my (and other candidates’) suitability to teach these student populations based on my teaching statement and my CV.

        These documents contain a lot of relevant information for the question at hand, including teaching philosophy (which, I note, is ambiguous enough that it would allow someone, should he/she really wishes, to put in at least some subset of the information one might put in a diversity statement), past teaching experience, feedback scores, etc.

        In my case, they would have found from these documents that I have taught in multiple continents and universities, including in California, and they would be able to see my teaching record and my general teaching philosophy. I am happy for them to make a decision on the question at hand based on these.

        I hope it is somewhat clear why I view mandating a teaching statement and CV unproblematic, while mandating a diversity statement problematic. I view a statement demonstrating a commitment to diversity (given what this word means in the American context, and especially in this particular context) inherently political, and therefore being forced to write such a statement as compelled political speech. (I think the original essay by Thompson did a good enough job explaining why it is political).

        P.S. I hope you will pardon my writing this post anonymously. My real signature occurs in two of the AMS Notices letters on this topic, a group letter and an individual letter, but given the somewhat personal nature of the disclosure here, I did not feel comfortable using my real name in this instance.


      4. mathematicswithoutapologies Post author

        It may be that having taught in “multiple continents” is irrelevant to diversity as understood by the University of California. When I was the only US native on the six-person committee organizing a semester program at MSRI, we were all surprised to learn that Africans or South Americans did not qualify as “underrepresented minorities” according to NSF diversity guidelines, unless they also held US citizenship. This and similar experiences with the NSF leave me skeptical of “just different”‘s interpretation of “where the institutional leadership stands.” Of course, the NSF and the University of California may well have different approaches to the question. But — whatever their intentions — no wishful thinking on the part of signatories of any letters can free either the NSF or the University of California from Lewis Powell’s legal restrictions surrounding diversity, which is the only thing “this word means in the American context.”

        But I am sure some of the signatories of the letter protesting Thompson’s essay would be more strongly motivated than I am to respond to A’s comment.


  3. D

    I have pondered the usefulness of asking all *current* academic employees of the UC system, from the top level of leadership down to the previously tenured staff, to write a statement as required under the policy, and then have them assessed blind (so no names) against the rubric. One could also do some analysis using plagiarism tools on the whole cache of documents.
    The criteria/thresholds for the rubric should be set in advance and the consequences held to be uniformly binding (or else uniformly thrown out). Plagiarism leads to failing an item of the rubric.


  4. Pingback: The diversity statement controversy, III | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

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