Keeping on with the theme of DEI statements and alleged compelled ideological orthodoxy, one common argument against the use of DEI statements in academia is that they functionally compel agreement with a particular ideological orthodoxy. Even when the questions are formally open-ended (as they almost always are), it is alleged that the expected answer simply must accede to the prevailing left orthodoxy on DEI matters or it will be rejected out of hand. The job applicant who believes in colorblindness will not be able to write an (honest) DEI statement that will be acceptable to the hiring committee.
Having now served on an appointments committee (and having recently been an academic job candidate), I don't think this is true. I've now read a lot of DEI statements saying a lot of different things, and there are many ways to write a good DEI statement. And I actually do think it is entirely possible to write a "colorblind" DEI statement that would at least be considered acceptable by the average appointments committee. This matters because, if I'm right, it falsifies a key objection against having DEI statements -- that they in practice either require acceptance of a single ideological framework, or at least rejection of certain commonly-held and politically reasonable ideological frameworks.
To begin, though, we need to zero in on exactly what the complaint here is. In my experience, many of those who complain about DEI statements compelling allegiance to a particular orthodoxy actually are complaining about being asked to think about DEI at all.* Their problem isn't actually that they're allegedly being forced to accede to or reject a particular approach to DEI. It's that they have to have an approach -- they need to have considered the various challenges a university might have in fostering an environment that is equitable and inclusive to a diverse student body, and to have some thoughts on how to address those challenges.
For my part, when I read a DEI statement, I'm not looking for particular endorsement of a specific political view. What I want to see is simply that the candidate has thought critically and careful about DEI problems and has some ideas of how address or remediate them. If you haven't ever done that -- if you've never considered in any serious way questions like "how can I create an inclusive environment in my classroom for students of diverse backgrounds and perspectives" -- well, yes, I think that's a strike against you in the same way it'd be a strike if you've never considered in any serious way "how can I maximize my students' learning potential" or "how can I ensure my scholarship is responsive to potential objections." Asking candidates to think about challenges that are present in academic spaces is not a party foul.
A good DEI answer isn't about regurgitating a particular ideology. It's about demonstrating that one has thought about how to handle DEI problems and issues in some amount of specificity, and that specificity can take many forms. The "ideology", if one has it, needs to be tied into resolution of a problem -- "I've seen X problem, which I try to ameliorate by Y practice." This is why one often sees DEI guidelines that give low marks to statements like "I treat everyone the same". It's not because that's Wrongthink. It's because it's not responsive to the question. If someone asks me "how do you ensure student success in your classroom", answering "I treat everyone the same" ... isn't an answer. It doesn't tell me anything. It's not ideologically impermissible, it's just a normal incomplete answer. At the very least, it needs to be filled out -- I should identify a problem area where some students are struggling to succeed, and then I can specifically explain how my practice of "treating everyone the same" helps resolve or ameliorate that problem. Of course, it's possible that in some circumstances "treating everyone the same" won't be an effective way of resolving certain classroom problems, in which case the answer probably isn't a very good one. But again, the candidate there is being penalized not for "ideology" but because they aren't capable of translating an ideological commitment into a workable practice.
The same is true of DEI questions. If your view is that DEI problems are best resolved via "colorblind" practices like "treating people as individuals", that's fine -- so long as you can actually tie it specific problems related to diversity, equity, and inclusion in a meaningful fashion. Again, if you can't do that -- because one hasn't actually thought about how your abstract ideological commitments translate into resolving actual problems for actual students -- yeah, you're going to get dinged, but it will be entirely deserved. Abstract commitment to an ideology -- any ideology -- isn't good enough.
But I'm inclined to think that one can construct a "colorblind" DEI statement -- it just has to demonstrate that the candidate has actually thought about how "colorblind" practices can resolve certain identifiable problems related to diversity, equity, and inclusion in academic spaces.
Consider the following as the skeleton of a "colorblind" DEI statement. Obviously this would have to be expanded and elaborated on and personalized. But I think something of this form would not be instinctively rejected by the average appointments committee:
Central to my philosophy of teaching is meeting students where they are. Academic life can be deeply depersonalizing, particularly for students who are often still figuring out who they are and how to get where they want to go in life. And programs like affirmative action, which primarily concentrate on admitting underrepresented minorities onto campus, do not do much to ensure that such students are supported and positioned to thrive once they matriculate. It does little good to expend so much effort to create a "diverse" community and then not support students in their diversity once they arrive on campus. Consequently, I make it point to get to know all of my students as individuals -- for example, at the start of each semester I require all students to write a short introductory essay simply telling me who they are, and require students to attend at least one mandatory office hours session per semester -- so I'm best positioned to help them along the path they've chosen for themselves.
On receiving these essays, and in innumerable office hour conversations, many of my students have reported that they often feel siloed or pigeon-holed into particular career trajectories -- for example, female students who tell me it is just assumed that they'll want to go into family law rather than corporate law, or Black students for whom it is taken for granted they won't want to become prosecutors -- and find that resources and support are lacking if it turns out they don't want to go down the expected road. Often the persons who promote these presuppositions are acting with good intentions, but nonetheless that sort of formulaic treatment frustrates students who deviate from popular assumptions of what someone "like them" will or should do with their lives -- a cost that often falls especially hard on minority and underrepresented students who may be particularly prone to being stereotyped in this fashion. Students of all backgrounds benefit when they know that all the paths and choices of academic life are available to them, and that they will be supported and mentored no matter which avenue they choose to take. Ultimately, my job as a professor is not turn my students into the person I expect them to be, but to help them become the person they want to be. To that end, there is no substitute for learning about every student as a full person, to support the entire student body in the full range of its diversity.
I'm not saying this is the perfect DEI statement (nor, for the record, is it the one I wrote when I was a candidate or necessarily reflective of my own views about DEI). And again, this would need to be fleshed out and personalized considerably. One can argue about its approach or its underlying presuppositions, and that's all fine. But I do think that, as a bare bones model, this is not the sort of statement that would be rejected out of hand -- even though its core framework is something like "treat students as individuals". The statement tacitly calls out forms of DEI "support" that rely on racial or gender essentialism, and even takes a little shot at affirmative action programs, all while promoting individualized treatment of each student. And yet, to me at least it seems like a DEI framework that would be basically acceptable to most hiring committees, and to that extent it falsifies the popular but I think fanciful notion that refusing to kowtow to left-wing orthodoxy equates to an auto-reject.
Why does a statement like this work, notwithstanding its "colorblind" approach? For me, at least, it works because it advocates for individualized treatment in response to specific and identifiable DEI problems faced by certain students. It doesn't promote "individualized treatment" as some sort of abstract moral principle and leave it there; nor is it some polemical rant against "DEI orthodoxy". It takes seriously certain pitfalls and inequities that might exist in educational spaces, and then offers a set of practices which are designed to be responsive to and redressive of those problems. The applicant is demonstrating that they're paying attention to certain burdens and problems that exist in academic spaces -- burdens that fall perhaps especially heavily on minority groups -- and they are taking affirmative steps at trying to ameliorate them. Given that, it's not going to be disqualifying that the approach chosen is one that is aligned with a "colorblind", "treat everyone as individuals" vision of the world.
Again, the main barrier to writing a statement like this isn't ideological dissension. The main barrier is that one has to actually be paying attention to potential DEI problems and barriers (such as, here, the students who feel especially pigeon-holed into and out of specific career paths on basis of identity) and have thought about how one can redress it. Again, many anti-DEI objectors seem angry about even having to do this much -- they think they're wronged if they're even expected to consider things like "female and minority students are at heightened risk of stereotyping", even if the payoff is "and that's why it's important to treat all students as individuals rather than essentialize on the basis of racial or gender identity". So yes, if the only thought you've had about DEI is "I shouldn't have to think about DEI", one won't produce this sort of essay.
But again, there is no reason why hiring committees cannot look askance at that sort of apathy, which fundamentally isn't about "ideological" dissension but rather a basic incuriosity regarding an important facet of the job. As I've written before, it cannot be the case that it is "conceptually inappropriate for a hiring committee to value a prospective applicant's ability to teach, mentor, and support students of diverse backgrounds." Of course we can think it's important that incoming faculty have demonstrated ability to handle DEI problems, just as we can think it's important that incoming faculty have demonstrated ability to teach effectively. It's possible to seriously approach on-the-ground DEI matters from a variety of political or ideological perspectives, but screening out people who are just indifferent to the issue is not the same thing as imposing a rigid ideological litmus test.
* Some others have nearly the opposite complaint, which is that they want to go on a thirteen page rant about how DEI is the devil's bureaucracy but that's somehow unacceptable. Which, yes, rants like that tend to go over poorly -- but I will say they go over equally poorly regardless of politics: a dozen pages on the need for a proletariat revolution because only under Communism will students truly be free will also generally be met with scorn. And glibness aside, the reason this doesn't work is typically because such statements, in raging on about all the things one hates, typically offers little in the way of practical proposals of what one can do for the students one does have under currently existing conditions of the world. Again, what we want to see is some attentiveness to extant problems and some practical steps you've taken to ameliorate them. So even you think affirmative action is the new Jim Crow, shrieking about that for 15,000 words doesn't tell me anything about what you do to help about and nurture the students who are in your classroom (and strongly suggests that your policy towards them is to abandon them to fail, which understandably is not really an acceptable response).