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  • Omayra Ortega

WHO NEEDS A DIVERSITY STATEMENT ANYWAY?

Repost from MAA MathValues Blog. Jan 13, 2020


The December 2019 Notices contained an op-ed article that you may have heard a thing or two about. In the blog, we read, “[w]hatever our views on communism, most of us today are in agreement that the University of California (UC) loyalty oaths of the 1950s were wrong. Whatever our views on diversity and how it can be achieved, mandatory diversity statements are equally misguided.” I let out a deep, long, slow exhale. Those were some strong words! I was taking a break from grading and found Dr. Thompson’s op-ed. I did not understand how anyone could take issue with a diversity statement, but I wanted to understand this perspective better. There had to be something that I was missing. Aside from adding yet another piece of prose to the application packet, how did requiring a diversity statement differ from requiring a teaching or a research statement? If a department is looking for specific characteristics in a candidate -- such as someone who can teach analysis, collaborate with their research group in Operator Theory, and contribute to their diversity initiatives on campus -- these three documents would be essential to determine if the candidate would be a good fit in their department. In fact the UC Board of Regents state that, “the core mission of the University of California is to serve the interests of the State of California, it must seek to achieve diversity among its student bodies and among its employees.” So requiring a diversity statement makes sense in the case of the UCs. Maybe the offense lay with the rubric the UCs were required to use to evaluate the diversity statements. Rubrics for research and teaching statements don’t exist, so the UC rubric must be the secret ingredient that turns a diversity statement into a loyalty oath.


The University of California’s Rubric to Assess Candidate Contributions to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion was linked in the footnotes of the December op-ed letter. I scoured the document sure that I would find the offensive piece here, but I couldn’t quite understand how this vague document -- asking a candidate to describe their past knowledge about, their track record in, and their future plans for advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion -- could be compared to signing a loyalty oath. I read the op-ed piece carefully to understand the author’s objections to diversity statements. After several close readings, I could only ascertain that the author had an issue with the rubric used for evaluating diversity statements. The UC rubric would give a low score to anyone who did not advance diversity, equity, and inclusion. This rubric serves as a gatekeeper, removing applicants who do not believe in diversity, equity, and inclusion from the hiring pool. However, the Notices op-ed piece implies that these people should still be considered to work in the University of California system. The UC system consists of 9 campuses, 5 which are Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) and the remaining 4 are very close to the 25% Hispanic threshold. Considering the populations being served in the UC system, do we really want employees working there who are not committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion? If it were 17 years earlier and I was just starting to consider pursuing mathematics, this Notices op-ed piece against diversity statements would stop me in my tracks.


Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that the mathematics community has had to contend with an op-ed (Does Diversity Trump Ability?) speaking out against diversity from this author. I would counter with the following question: Does mathematical ability trump the need to provide a safe space for marginalized people? I don’t believe that there is a simple yes or no answer, but I do think that this discussion needs to continue within the mathematics community. If the AMS had not dissolved their Director of Diversity and Education position, they might have been able to have this director write a parallel or rebuttal piece to show a breadth of opinion within the AMS. There have been quite a few reactions to the original December 2019 Notices op-ed piece including a rebuttal letter written by Brian Katz and a rebuttal blog written by Adriana Salerno, which led me to yet another, slightly more incendiary, rebuttal letter by Chad Topaz, to name a few. In a 2018 LA Times op-ed discussing the introduction of diversity statements at UCLA, the question was posed, “[i]f Albert Einstein applied for a professorship at UCLA today, would he be hired?” Not to discount Albert Einstein’s contributions to the civil rights movement, Einstein is a complex figure who lived during a time of heightened racism. Cities were segregated, the Ku Klux Klan ran rampant, and African-Americans fought through humiliating poll taxes and literacy tests, just to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed after Einstein’s death -- do we really want to go back to that time?


Who needs a diversity statement? Any department that believes in diversity and is working to increase or maintain diversity at their institution. As a mathematical community, we need to increase diversity within our ranks to rectify historical injustices and to ensure that our community stays welcoming to all. We need diversity statements, rubrics included, to have a basis for evaluating applications to our departments. It is important to ascertain whether applicants have a common vision with the institution and if applicants even share the same understanding when they define the terms “diversity,” “equity,” and “inclusion.” I encourage everyone who feels a part of the mathematics community (and especially those who feel excluded) to write letters to the editor to prominent news outlets such as the AMS Notices, the MAA Focus, the NAM Newsletter, and other local news outlets. It is through sharing personal stories and opinions that we build community and improve our profession. How many marginalized perspectives are missing from this discussion? We must welcome civil discourse within our community, where we respect each other and focus on the ideas if we are ALL going to progress together.

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