More Colleges Are Adding Diversity to Tenure Standards. But the Debate’s Not Settled.

The California Community Colleges system approved a new policy in May that added diversity, equity, and inclusion criteria to tenure and promotion reviews. Then, a couple of weeks later, the University of Washington’s faculty rejected a proposal to have professors submit a diversity statement as part of the tenure process.

The contrast highlights a fierce debate happening across higher education — and across the political spectrum — over whether professors should have to demonstrate support for their institutions’ diversity goals to move up the academic ladder.

Since the racial-justice protests and national reckoning that began in 2020, more institutions have added diversity criteria, often abbreviated as DEI, to tenure and promotion standards. While diversity statements started to become more common in faculty hiring about five years ago, revisions of tenure policies are a newer phenomenon.

About one-fifth of institutions surveyed this year by the American Association of University Professors had made DEI a factor in tenure and promotion. Among colleges that hadn’t, half of them said they were considering adding DEI in the future.

Requiring faculty members to sign a college’s DEI statement or to craft their own statement are two common ways that department and college leaders measure “competency,” as it’s often called, in those areas. Some colleges either require or recommend that professors provide examples of how their academic work has contributed to DEI efforts on campus.

Supporters of the practice say adding diversity to tenure reviews is common sense, as today’s professors should know how to work with increasingly diverse student bodies and to help their institution make progress on its equity goals. The change also aims to account for the additional service and mentoring, often called invisible labor, that junior scholars of color tend to do.

But some critics — including faculty members, free-speech advocates, and right-wing groups — see DEI criteria for tenure as a blatant political litmus test, in which professors are asked to endorse policies and viewpoints that they disagree with.

Even some professors of color believe the requirements place a disproportionate burden on scholars from underrepresented backgrounds, for whom diversity, equity, and inclusion are already baked into their style of teaching and way of life.

Eddie R. Cole, an associate professor of higher education and history at the University of California at Los Angeles, said disagreements over how to carry out DEI-competency requirements often boil down to tensions between administrators and faculty members with competing interests. UCLA added a DEI requirement to its tenure process in 2019.

The push to add diversity criteria to hiring, tenure, and promotion often comes from deans who came up through the faculty ranks and are now in charge of running a school but don’t have to make individual decisions, Cole said. Professors, meanwhile, are personally navigating the process themselves, or are trying to figure out how to observe the mandates.

“It’s more like, ‘Hey, you don’t have to do this anymore, and you’re making decisions about it, but we have to do this still,’” Cole said.

‘Compelled Speech’?

Those tensions came to a head this year at the University of Washington, whose faculty was considering adding a requirement for faculty members to write a DEI statement to receive tenure or a promotion.

The proposed resolution stated that the change would complement the university’s existing requirement — a DEI statement — for new faculty hires. “It also supports the university’s strategic priorities by allowing for research, teaching, and service that contribute to diversity, equity, and inclusion to become more explicitly considered during promotion and tenure review,” the resolution said.

Victor Balta, a university spokesperson, wrote in a recent email that it was important that “the full range of faculty contributions be considered when evaluating merit, and that includes contributions to diversity, equity, and inclusion. The proposal in the Faculty Senate was about how best to do so.”

Washington’s Faculty Senate voted to support the requirement. When the full faculty weighed in, however, the proposal failed, with 40 percent of participating professors either voting against it or abstaining. The resolution needed a two-thirds supermajority to pass because less than 50 percent of the faculty had voted.

Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences, said the requirement would have amounted to “compelled speech,” violating professors’ academic freedom and the First Amendment.

Mass said the issue was particularly touchy at Washington, given its history of dealing with free-speech issues. In the 1940s, anticommunist sentiment resulted in the dismissal of three professors for admitting past membership in the Communist Party.

Meanwhile, the California Community Colleges’ 116 campuses will now consider diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in employee evaluations and faculty tenure bids. System officials emphasized that the exact policies would vary at the local level, and individual districts and campuses would have 180 days to comply.

In response to public comments submitted to the community-college system, the chancellor’s office described the new policy as a framework that individual community-college districts could negotiate to fit their needs, “rather than prescribe a specific and rigid ideology that must be imparted on students.” When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the California Community Colleges directed The Chronicle to an FAQ page and news release.

The system’s decision drew sharp criticism from groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. The group, known as FIRE, has argued that such requirements for hiring, tenure, or promotion serve as “ideological litmus tests that threaten employment or advancement opportunities for faculty who dissent from prevailing thought on DEI.”

Aaron Terr, a senior program officer for campus rights advocacy with FIRE, said requiring faculty members to accept certain “political or ideological viewpoints for which there is no consensus” violates the First Amendment and infringes on academic freedom.

“FIRE recognizes that universities have a responsibility to prevent discrimination on campus, and they can evaluate faculty members’ effectiveness at teaching a diverse array of students,” Terr said. But that should be a consideration, not a requirement, he said.

Only public colleges are bound by the First Amendment, but in a recent position statement, FIRE also opposed diversity requirements at private institutions, which “generally make commitments to free speech and academic freedom that similarly preclude enforcement of any political, moral, or ideological dogma.” Per the AAUP’s recent survey, 26.4 percent of public colleges and 17.6 percent of private colleges have added DEI criteria to their tenure standards.

An Additional Burden

Meanwhile, some faculty members of color worry that requiring scholars to demonstrate their competency on DEI principles — especially crafting their own DEI statements — disproportionately burdens professors of color, compared with their white counterparts.

Tara Conley, an incoming assistant professor in the School of Media and Journalism at the main campus of Kent State University, in Ohio, made a plea on Twitter in the summer of 2020: “Can y’all also stop requiring Black people to write diversity statements for jobs in higher ed?”

Conley said in an interview that she wrote the tweet after she and other professors of color experienced a “sense of exhaustion” in writing DEI statements.

“Typically, people in higher education, faculty of color, we see less and less of promotion among particularly Black women to full professors, relative to our white counterparts,” she said. “But we’re being asked to do this kind of extra legwork, to kind of prove that we have what it takes to meet the mission of the university.”

When Conley was applying for faculty positions that required a diversity statement, she said she would explain in her statement that she didn’t feel the need to demonstrate her commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and that her identity was already embedded in her academic work, teaching, and research. She did use the statement as an opportunity to showcase more of her contributions.

Brian McGowan, an associate professor of education at American University, a private institution in Washington, D.C., said requiring DEI statements in tenure and promotion cases creates additional work for faculty members. That undercuts the original intent behind diversity statements, which is to recognize the invisible labor that professors in underrepresented groups often perform as part of their jobs.

“I shouldn’t have to create an extra statement to prove that I’m hitting these metrics,” he said. “Who I am as a scholar, who I am as a teacher, who I am in the ways that I choose to serve — it’s interwoven, there’s an interrelated and integrated relationship between these pieces, and I think it’s extra labor to ask faculty to do that.”

While American doesn’t require diversity competency across the board, McGowan said, officials have encouraged all departments to reconsider and assess how they foster diversity, equity, and inclusion in their respective tenure and promotion processes.

Assessing Competency

As institutions debate the role of diversity criteria in tenure and promotion decisions, there’s another key question to consider: With something so subjective as DEI, how can colleges assess faculty members’ competency?

Washington’s proposed policy, for instance, would have allowed individual units to create their own systems for evaluating faculty members’ contributions to DEI, since they can vary by discipline, according to the resolution. It also stated that candidates could describe their DEI contributions in many ways, such as shifting deadlines to accommodate working parents or updating course syllabi to be more diverse.

At Salisbury University, a public college in Maryland, faculty members are working to create a system that assuages the concerns of both professors of color and free-speech advocates.

Jessica Kennett Clark, Salisbury’s assistant provost for faculty success, is the facilitator for a group of professors that has been working since May 2021 on adding diversity, equity, and inclusion to tenure and promotion cases.

The group looked at other research-intensive universities in the United States that have similar DEI-competency requirements for tenure and promotion. In its report, released last September, the group recommended that tenure and promotion committees look for evidence of a candidate’s commitment to DEI in teaching, scholarship, or service.

The report also suggested that officials craft a statement on DEI expectations for tenured faculty members, so that newly hired professors know what they will be required to demonstrate if they become eligible for tenure.

“It’s really important that we are really deeply embedding our values and our commitment to student success, and we can’t do that without equity and inclusive excellence being transparently embedded in our culture,” Clark said.

Though the recommendations have a ways to go before they are finalized, Clark said faculty members are working to create change in order to serve their increasingly diverse student body.

“It’s not meant to punish work that’s not being done,” she said. “It’s to reward the work that is.”

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