Is This the End for Mandatory D.E.I. Statements?

Is This the End for Mandatory D.E.I. Statements?

For years, conservatives condemned the use of diversity statements by universities, which ask job applicants to detail their commitment to improving opportunities for marginalized and underrepresented groups.

Critics called such statements dogmatic, coercive and, in one lawsuit seeking to end the practice in California, “a modern day loyalty oath” that recalled when professors were required to denounce the Communist Party.

But the use of diversity statements continued to grow, and eventually became a requisite when applying for a teaching job at many of the country’s most selective universities. That seems to be changing.

Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have each recently announced that they will no longer require diversity statements as a part of their hiring process for faculty posts.

The decisions by two of the nation’s leading institutions of higher learning could influence others to follow suit.

“The switch has flipped as of now,” said Jeffrey S. Flier, the former dean of Harvard Medical School. Many professors on hiring committees, he said, may have been reluctant to voice their concerns about mandatory diversity statements before now. “But I think the large, silent majority of faculty who question the implementation of these programs and, in particular, these diversity statements — these people are being heard.”

The University of California system was the first to require diversity statements, starting about a decade ago. To supporters of the requirement, such statements were necessary if colleges wanted to build a welcoming environment for a diverse student population.

Today, some universities use the statements early on in the hiring process, to screen applicants before they are even granted an interview. Others consider the statements later, as applicants reach the final rounds.

When Harvard and M.I.T. asked their faculties about the worthiness of diversity statements, though, they found little support.

Even some of the most ardent proponents of diversity initiatives seem lukewarm, at best, about requiring applicants to submit a statement.

“While it has value, I also believe that value is limited,” said Paulette Granberry Russell, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education.

Ms. Granberry Russell said that while she thinks conservatives have misrepresented diversity statements to indict all diversity programs, she thinks that the way to ensure a diverse applicant pool is to identify candidates from different backgrounds early in the recruiting process.

“I don’t think a diversity statement is a substitute for a search process,” Ms. Granberry Russell added.

At Harvard, there is still room for applicants to write about their commitment to diversity — within a broader framework. Finalists for teaching jobs will be asked to describe their “efforts to strengthen academic communities” and to discuss how they would promote a “learning environment in which students are encouraged to ask questions and share their ideas.”

The Harvard and M.I.T. decisions are occurring amid a broader rethinking of initiatives — commonly called diversity, equity and inclusion programs — that try to make institutions reflect the diversity of the country. More than two dozen states — including Texas, Florida, Arizona and Ohio — have passed laws limiting diversity programs in education. Corporate America, too, has moved to re-examine diversity policies.

Harvard and M.I.T. have faced sustained external pressure on the issue, including from angry donors and alumni. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education and the House committee that oversees education are investigating the universities over claims that they have not done enough to combat antisemitism on their campuses.

Other schools have faced legal action over their required diversity statements. One lawsuit in California is challenging their use in the University of California system on the grounds that it forces job applicants to stake out a particular political position before they can be considered for a job.

“It was pretty much a political litmus test of what you had to say in order to get your foot in the door,” said Joshua P. Thompson, a lawyer for the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is suing the University of California over its diversity statement mandate. “The Constitution prohibits that.”

He said he was hopeful that the Harvard and M.I.T. decisions would lead to a different approach across academia. Mr. Thompson noted the universities’ outsized influence: “Harvard and M.I.T. are two Goliaths in this space. And where they go, many universities will follow.”

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