Replacing Ineffective “Diversity” Interview Questions

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Currently, the student affairs profession is knee deep in the hiring season! Graduate students, new professionals, mid-level professionals, and even some senior student affairs officers (SSAOs) are in the process of solidifying new positions. As professionals participate in interviews, they are faced with questions about their management styles, programming skills, soft skills, and maybe even some theory (we all love our theory)! And, depending on your institution (and the extent to which they infuse social justice work into their mission) some will experience questions that focus on the well-known term “diversity.”

At almost every institution, you will find a mission statement and/or guiding principles that encompasses the idea of valuing “diversity” on campus (see an example below).

  • We embrace diversity as an integral part of the educational experience and of the community we create.

However, many campuses still lack very BASIC understandings around social justice and how to be accomplices to marginalized populations. When we look at why this might be happening, a slue of reasons would contribute. In this post, I want to briefly focus on our hiring practice of interviewing candidates with ineffective questions. Then, I want to offer you a list of questions that would better serve your campus when trying to invite professionals with the knowledge and skills needed to address disparities in higher education.

So, let’s name one of the most common and most ineffective questions that MANY institutions use…

Drum role, please…

What does diversity mean to you?

  • Have you been asked this question in the past?
    • If yes, what was your answer? Did this question allow you to exhibit your knowledge about social justice, equity, inclusion, retention strategies to address disparities caused by the opportunity gap, etc…?
  • Do you ask this question to student employees, student leaders, staff, and/or faculty members at your institution during interviews?
    • If yes, what type of answers did you expect from the candidate?
    • If yes, did the answer to this question allow you to determine whether the candidate would be able to meet your expectations for the position?

It is very likely that you have answered and/or asked this question in the past! I, too, have experienced this question from both sides of the table. But, when taking a hard look at this question one would find it to be very ineffective. Below lists a few reasons why this question is inadequate!

  1. “Diversity” is a soft, watered-down term and is used as a crutch to avoid actually addressing topics that make White people uncomfortable. This means that we need to eliminate this term (and question) from our vernacular and invite (and demand) folks to truly exhibit how they utilize a social justice lens in their work.
  2. It allows professionals to avoid being honest about the experience they have working towards social justice. It serves as an escape route for ill-equipped candidates. This means that a professional can provide an answer to the “diversity” question and still not tell the search committee anything about their knowledge on folks who are marginalized and their experiences (which means they may have none).
  3. It exhibits complacency and perpetuates the current oppressive system in higher education. By asking this question, search committees and human resource offices do not require even BASIC knowledge about the experiences of folks who are marginalized in higher education.

The list above is not all inclusive of the many reasons why the question, “What does diversity mean to you” is an ineffective interview question; but, it should include enough reasons to eliminate the question all together from your search process.

Tim Wise, a self-identified anti-racist, challenges higher education to truly walk-the-walk (not just talk-the-talk if you will) by ONLY hiring individuals who actively utilize a social justice lens in their work and by NOT hiring folks who are NOT prepared, equipped, and actively doing this work already. Imagine the campuses we could create if we infused these two expectations into our hiring practice!!! Not only would this practice require graduate programs to adopt a social justice lens in their curriculums (as requirements not opt-ins) but it would also reshape how we address our work as professionals.

So, you may be asking, “What questions should our search committees be asking?” Below is a (short) list of questions that would drastically impact the type of responses you will receive from candidates. They will also better prepare your committees to make informed decisions about the folks you invite to work at your institution. It should be noted, folks in human resources and members of search committees (especially when you first start to use these questions) will have to do the work in understanding why these questions are so impactful. As search committee members, you should (as a group) discuss some of the expectations for each of the answers to these questions. In addition, search committees should look to expand the number of questions they ask about equity and inclusion. At the bottom of this post, you will find a (long) list of questions that I would invite you to download!

Short List:

  • How have you been educated to understand the history of Black and Brown folks in the United States?
  • Why are some folks poor in the United States?
  • Please identify the types of privilege present in your life and their impact on your professional journey thus far?
  • In what ways, do you perpetuate systems of oppression in higher education and what are you actively doing to stop?
  • What is the opportunity gap and how do you hope to address it at this institution?

Long List:

To look at the long list of interview questions, please click below and I will send you the visual directly to your email!

Get all the Questions!

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