‘Political pressure.’ Missouri students, faculty question removal of diversity statements

·6 min read
File/The Kansas City Star

Yasmeen Hanon said the University of Missouri System hasn’t provided a good reason for its decision last week to get rid of diversity statements in its hiring process.

If it was because of Missouri Republican lawmakers, Hanon, a sophomore political science and environmental studies major at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said the decision was unwarranted.

And, she said, it will ultimately hurt minority faculty and students.

“It sends a message that even though they may be following the legal requirements of not discriminating, they also are somewhat overlooking the challenges that come with applying to a job that has a predominantly white percentage of people employed,” she said.

Some students and faculty members at the University of Missouri’s campuses in Columbia and Kansas City have quietly bemoaned the decision to scrap diversity statements. They fear it was a preemptive attempt to appease Republican lawmakers and question whether it may hurt efforts to hire and retain minority employees.

University of Missouri System President and MU Chancellor Mun Choi made the announcement in an email to a select number of campus leaders on the Friday before students and staff left for spring break. The announcement came as Republican lawmakers consider legislation that would ban public colleges from asking job candidates questions about diversity and race.

Missouri lawmakers have made no indication that they plan to drop the legislation after the university’s policy change.

The Missouri Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee on Tuesday considered separate legislation that would ban all diversity, equity and inclusion materials from colleges and health care providers.

Doctors and medical students criticized the legislation, saying it would jeopardize the accreditation of medical schools and hurt training on how to serve minority communities.

“If these concepts are removed from our core curriculum, it would stifle our school’s ability to train culturally competent physicians,” Jay Devineni, a student at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, told lawmakers.

Conservatives in red states across the country have targeted diversity statements, commonly referred to as DEI. The statements are typically used when hiring to address a commitment to diverse and inclusive working environments.

“I’m disappointed to see the University of Missouri System quickly cave to a few extremists legislators,” state Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, a Kansas City Democrat, told The Star.

Nurrenbern said that banning diversity statements sends a message that certain perspectives are not welcome and “dissuades America’s brightest academic minds from coming to Missouri.”

While leaders at the university’s Columbia campus have made efforts to add more diverse faculty members, progress has been slow. As of 2022, Black employees make up just 3.7% of the university’s ranked professional faculty compared to 67.5% white.

Pamela Bruzina, an MU professor and chair of the MU Faculty Council’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity Committee, said in an email to The Star that attracting diverse faculty has been a top priority for the committee.

Because the use of diversity statements was not standardized prior to the change, it’s unclear what impact they had on hiring, she said. However, it’s possible that some applicants may view the new policy as a negative reflection of Mizzou’s commitment to DEI work, she said.

“I have heard anecdotally of one potential candidate who decided not to apply for a faculty job here because of the change,” the email said. “We will have to wait and see how the new policy impacts the diversity of our faculty hires.”

Bruzina said she was not speaking on behalf of the committee.

Chris Conner, an assistant teaching professor of sociology at MU, told The Star that the use of diversity statements in hiring is a complex issue “that has both good and bad.” He said he’s always tried to make space for minority students and those who often are marginalized.

“It remains to be seen how this will be interpreted,” he said. “For me what’s important is once folks get here how do we treat them?”

In scrapping the diversity statements, Choi announced standardized language that university leaders can send to candidates instead. The new carefully-worded “values commitment” is three sentences long and, Choi said, was intended to provide clear guidance for applicants.

State Rep. Doug Richey, an Excelsior Springs Republican who filed one of the bills that would ban diversity statements, said in an interview with The Star that he was pleased with the university system’s decision.

“I’ve found that the presidents of our state universities have been quick to recognize the problem that these statements are creating not only in Missouri, but nationwide,” he said. “I’ve appreciated their response.”

Richey has frequently painted diversity statements as politically motivated, comparing them to forcing job candidates to subscribe to liberal “loyalty oaths.” Choi, in his email to faculty, used the same phrase, saying the new policy was intended to address concerns the university was requiring oaths or “litmus tests.”

The announcement from Choi directly cited “media reports that question” the university’s use of diversity statements. The university president appeared to be referencing a post titled “Mizzou Imposes DEI Litmus Test” from the right-wing blog Minding the Campus.

Bruzina, the committee chair, told The Star that while the new “values commitment” emphasizes the importance of a diverse faculty, the university also needs to be committed to inclusion, equity and belonging.

“What is not explicitly outlined in the values statement, but is essential to maximizing the benefits of diversity in our faculty, staff and students, are the other values that bring us together as one community where each member feels seen, valued, respected and appreciated and is provided what they need to succeed,” she said.

Devineni, the medical school student, told The Star he felt the new policy was an attempt to preemptively address diversity statements before lawmakers pass legislation banning DEI.

“You could make an argument that the UM system is doing its due diligence by trying to clarify that these are not loyalty oaths,” he said. “I do find it a little bit eyebrow raising in the sense that I don’t like it when political pressure affects the way that our university and the UM system operates.”

Faculty members, for the most part, have been relatively silent on the policy change. The quiet faculty response regarding the policy change comes less than a year after a faculty survey on the university’s Columbia campus showed that many view Choi as a leader who runs the campus through intimidation and bullying.

However, some faculty have acknowledged that scrapping diversity statements is a stark pivot from previous practices. It was common, although not uniform, for departments to ask for a diversity statement on applications.

For example, a job posting for an MU visiting assistant professor of sociology requires applicants to submit a DEI statement “addressing contributions to diversity and inclusivity through teaching and service.”

Graham McCaulley, chair of the MU Faculty Council, acknowledged this departure in an email sent Friday to council members that was obtained by The Star.

“This is a fairly significant shift and many have weighed in on this,” the email said. “While some of us may be able to point to philosophical, ethical, or practical (e.g., federal grant requirements, national trends in curricula or accreditation) reasons to have not made the change, this is where we’re at.”