On several occasions of my first-round faculty interview, I was asked about the diversity questions, such as:

"How do you work with diverse students?"

"How do you contribute to the university's diversity mission?"

I want to seek some insights into the questions. Which aspects I need to cover to deliver a winning answer?


8 Answers 8


It's not "delivering a winning answer", any more than "delivering a winning answer" would make sense when talking about teaching and/or research and/or mentoring.

That is, the question should be about what you have thought about, or acted upon, to move forward in social issues in the U.S. Yes, in some regards, it is U.S.-centric, though I am sure analogous issues exist everywhere.

In the U.S., the bias against women and non-white ethnicities in STEM (Science, Tech, Engr, Math) fields has existed for decades, and continues to be a problem. Meanwhile, the undergrad student population, and, in happy circumstances, the grad student population, has shifted to be significantly more representative of the actual population of the U.S. This does matter at least for the state universities (even while, ok, the state funding is rapidly declining...)

So, apart from truly being willing to think about and deal with a more diverse student population, at least in math there is interest in knowing what you may have already done to work for this... and, as a milder condition, how open you are to spending some energy on this.

Yes, traditionally, in the U.S. as in many places, such stuff was irrelevant (supposedly). Now, belatedly, and, formally, rather abruptly, "we" are trying to catch up to decent behavior.

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    The discussion about race and gender has been moved to chat. Please note the "controversial post" notice above.
    – cag51
    Jan 29, 2020 at 22:30

If you do not toe the line, you will not be admitted. Understand that the above question is to weed-out individuals who do not lean as those in power lean.

Students and faculty who do not "see" the diversity issue, and understand "their own" biases will be shouted down and closed out.

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    I've created a meta post to discuss how this answer should be handled. Please take comments there.
    – eykanal
    Jan 30, 2020 at 13:50
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    Could you perhaps answer the part that says "Which aspects I need to cover to delivering a winning answer?" Jan 30, 2020 at 19:31
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    @DjClayworth The OP will need to decide what is most comfortable for them. If completely comfortable, I would analyze the specific diversity statement of the given university. e.g. Tailored for each university or group of universities. I would read articles on "How to contribute to diversity..." and regurgitate whatever would be most welcoming by committee members. Not much difference when applying for a job. If the boss likes football and the Jets, find good things to say about football, and, if possible, something good about the Jets.
    – paulj
    Jan 30, 2020 at 19:40
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    @paulj If you write that in the answer (and preferably some more detail), then this actually becomes a useful answer. (Although preferably without the stuff about football) Jan 30, 2020 at 19:53
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    @paulj - yes, please consider editing your answer to provide the additional detail. Answer edits are permanent, while comments are designed to become obsolete and be deleted.
    – cag51
    Jan 31, 2020 at 1:20

On several occasions of my first-round faculty interview, I was asked about the diversity questions, such as:

"How do you work with diverse students?"

"How do you contribute to the university's diversity mission?"

Well, how do you work with diverse students? Do you contribute to the university's diversity mission?

If you can't answer those questions right now, then perhaps the sad answer is that, right now, you're not contributing to a mission the university has decided to care about.

I want to seek some insights into the questions. Which aspects I need to cover to delivering a winning answer?

Like paul garrett says, it's not about about memorizing a "right" or "winning" answer, but about demonstrating that you care about these issues and have been thinking about them.

I don't mean to slam you here. Asking what aspects you need to look at is a good question. I'll try to help.

So, how do you work with diverse students?

Things to think about: what kind diverse students have you come across? Which ones haven't you come across - or haven't noticed? If for example you say "I've never had a trans person in my class", are you sure? Maybe they weren't out. Awareness of diverse students is an aspect here.

Do you have biases? (Be honest with yourself. Ask friends who aren't afraid to tell you things you're not happy to hear.)

What kind of issues do diverse students face in your field? Are there poorly represented groups (like women in STEM fields)? Note that some issues are due to prejudice, but others are more justified/neutral. For example, foreign students can be at a disadvantage because they don't have native mastery of your local language, or have trouble adjusting to the local academic culture. That doesn't mean anyone is evil, but it is an issue to pay attention to.

How could you contribute to the university's diversity mission?

If you've identified issues, then it becomes easier to come up with contributions.

  • You might serve as a role model yourself, if you fit into a traditionally disadvantaged group.
  • You might pay extra attention to (subtle) discrimination in the classroom and deal with it.
  • You may have done research about didactic technique to help foreign students adjust better.

Etcetera. The point is not to have a glib answer, but to actually be working on these issues. That takes a significant amount of work and soul-searching. Discuss with your peers. But also go out there and seek conversational sparring partners in "diverse" groups and ask them about their issues. It can be easy in the ivory tower to not see any problems, you may have to go outside looking for them.


If I were an interviewer, I would ask these questions differently. However, what I would want to hear is something like the following (and hoping you mean it, of course).

That in response to the diversity debate, you have become more conscious of your own biases and in your role as a teacher you try and compensate for them by giving people against whom you have biases based on their background, gender, color of their skin, religion (whatever it is) the benefit of the doubt - being aware that your biases as a teacher will have an impact on the learning and other opportunities of your students.

Also that in compensation for collective biases, you believe non-white-male candidates for positions like teacher-assistant (and everywhere up the chain) should actively be sought out.

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    I agree that this is the answer one is expected to give. But alas, I disagree with it. In my opinion, compensation for collective bias is a short-sighted (solves in the short term, creates other problems in the long term) sub-optimal (good but there are better) solution. What saddens me is that if I honestly expressed my position I would probably not considered for the job, independently of my qualifications.
    – gota
    Jan 29, 2020 at 10:36
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    @gota Well, then the interview question did its job. Diversity is a contentious issue, where different people and departments have fairly fundamentally differing opinions on what the problem is and how to best address it. If the department feels like a compensation-based approach is the way to go, and you strongly disagree with this stance, you may not be the right fit for this department (depending on how strongly they feel about this issue, of course).
    – xLeitix
    Jan 29, 2020 at 12:07
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    The middle paragraph is sound and a good answer to the question. The last sentence is controversial, can be interpreted as discrimination, and is self-defeating if the applicant is a white male. It also does not answer the questions quoted by the OP. I think it is less risky to omit that sentence.
    – wimi
    Jan 29, 2020 at 15:22
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    @xLeitix the thing is, my expressed opinion is clearly not a huge disagreement with the solution proposed, but will come across as hostile to the cause! Therefore it is safer for me to lie than to express my opinion
    – gota
    Jan 29, 2020 at 17:06
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    @xLeitix: sorry, I cannot resist: "... you may not be the right fit for this department". You mean: the department would risk getting too diverse if they hire one who doesn't fit in with their uniform characteristic? Jan 30, 2020 at 17:38

A "winning answer" is much less important than having a proper and effective teaching strategy.

I give the same opportunities to every student, but I don't assume they are all alike or have the same needs. Every student is different and most of them are different from me. I won't assume that they learn just the same way that I learn. I will respect their personal goals.

I work to understand the individual needs of the students and to work to teach every student in front of me. In particular, I will try to tailor my interactions with students to their needs regardless of their current knowledge or their background.

I will treat every student with respect, treating them as individuals.

Note that "diverse students" don't have "special needs". They have the same needs as every other student.


I disagree with aspects of other answers and would like to give an answer for people like myself.

First: I absolutely do think that it is legitimate to ask for the "winning answer" in an interview. That is exactly what an interview is about. It is a competition for a job. It is perfectly reasonable to ask how to win this competition. I will also say that telling a lie in an interview, or misrepresenting your beliefs is not something that I consider a good strategy, even though it may sometimes be a winning answer. That is because you might not like what you have won. You might in fact live in agony, misrepresenting your beliefs for as long as you hold that tainted prize.

Now for the political part. I am a person who dislikes the extreme camps that sadly make the loudest contributions to the political debates about what is labelled as "diversity". Sadly, I am also afraid to speak about this without hiding behind an anonymous account, because quite frankly I find the climate of this debate threatening. From both. sides. I explain all of this because any answer to this question will depend significantly on your personal political opinion, and I feel that mine is a little underrepresented.

Here is what I would say:

Of course I follow the public debate about various topics that fit under the umbrella term "diversity", but I am afraid that I consider it largely unhealthy and already dangerously escalated. I believe the best contribution towards a better future is to exclude myself from this debate and point out that it is heated, emotional, unreasonable, and unproductive. Instead, I will demonstrate tolerance and openness in how I speak, act, and generally present myself. I will not participate in projects when in my opinion, they serve no purpose other than to politicize the issue further or escalate it further. What I will do, however, is to strongly support constructive and productive suggestions to improve life on campus for minorities, other women, white heterosexual men, or really anyone for that matter - as long as it does not impose on others, or limit their ability to live and learn in peace.

Of course you can phrase it differently, but the key point is: I think it is fair to not have an extreme opinion on the matter. I think it is fair to feel threatened by the way this debate is conducted. I think it is fair to just want to live and let live, in peace, and help students learn. Being "on the sidelines" is the only reasonable thing to do in a war where both sides shout very aggressively that they want peace.

This might not be the winning answer. But if it is your opinion as well, then you might want to give it anyway.

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    "This might not be the winning answer." Correct! This would guarantee the OP not getting a job in any reasonable university. It is also not an answer to the OP's question, but rather a chronicle of your own personal beliefs. That isn't what this site is for. Jan 29, 2020 at 22:50
  • @nick012000 - are at this point any other universities? (I agree with "reasonable" lable rejection :)
    – DVK
    Jan 30, 2020 at 4:35
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    Here are concerning things about this answer that have nothing to do with the views represented in it. (1) It starts by framing the question as political and having to do with debates/opinion-changing. In other words it's framed around what you believe rather than what you do, which is what was asked. (2) It portrays someone whose answer is closed; is not open to learning or changing in this area (note many interviewers have never even held a faculty job yet). (3) It similarly risks portraying the problem as easy or implying that there is no problem at all - interviewers obviously disagree.
    – usul
    Jan 30, 2020 at 4:47
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    Choosing to do nothing is a political act in itself as it is equivalent to supporting the status quo.
    – JS Lavertu
    Jan 30, 2020 at 14:52
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    @JSLavertu, OP it is not advocating "do nothing", just working day-to-day on real discrimination issues, not making a fuss about perceived ones.
    – vonbrand
    Jan 30, 2020 at 16:04

Building on Buffy's answer

I won't assume that they learn just the same way that I learn

and ObscureOwl's insight

Awareness of diverse students is an aspect here

I want to attempt to create a framework for a "winning" answer, regardless of your personal experience or the specific policies of the interviewing institution.

Delving into the chat and meta post, it is obvious that questions concerning diversity in higher education are mired in politics. However, I think a thoughtful answer to these questions need not directly mention personal or systematic biases, as others have suggested. In my experience, questions regarding diversity are meant to gauge an interviewee's understanding of how identity affects the ways in which different people process the same information.

That said, here are some terms that are sure to score some points with the interviewer:


Recognize that each student is an amalgamation of identities, and that those identities have different weights that contribute to their understanding of and interaction with the world around them. Moreover, each person's identities interact with one another in a way that produces a unique person with unique pedagogical needs.

Shared Experiences

For a long time, many institutions of higher learning were culturally homogenous, meaning that the teacher and students had a greater overlap of shared experiences, and thus a more uniform understanding of the world. With greater mixing of cultures, the average overlap of common experiences between a teacher and students decreases. A good teacher will be aware of this and think critically about the assumptions of shared knowledge that are incorporated into her or his lecture and course materials.

Equity and Inclusion

There is a perception-behavior link between a feeling of belonging and academic engagement; see Steele and Ambady 2006 (PDF). True equality, either of opportunity or outcome, is difficult to achieve, but a teacher's equitable engagement with all students is the first step in combating impostor syndrome and promoting a sense of belonging.

Is teaching to a diverse group of students as easy as teaching to a group of students that closely share your worldview? No.

Is it worth it to contemplate the needs of students who are substantially different from you? Absolutely.


You are being tested on whether your beliefs align with the status quo. They are looking for answers that reflect the mantra "diversity is strength".

If you believe along these lines just answer truthfully and you will do fine.

If you do not fully believe in your countries flavour of identity politics, you have two options:

  • Answer truthfully: This would be the right choice if you do not like lying, debasing your opinions for others, or believe words have a higher meaning. This will likely result in not getting hired but you get to keep your pride.

  • Answer deceptively: Do some research on the basic talking points and how you would answer such a question. Political correctness is ever changing so for good reference, see the left-leaning replies to your post. You may get hired but you will also have to constantly be aware of what you say in the faculties social circles and may result in more stress compared to finding a job at another facility.

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    If you really don't believe in the institution's mission then being deceptive is not a good long term solution. It is often immediately detectable and will probably become obvious at some point; just before you are fired. Better to bow out.
    – Buffy
    Jan 30, 2020 at 20:48
  • @Buffy, thanks I've edited my answer to reflect not only the choices but the possible outcomes.
    – Taku
    Jan 30, 2020 at 21:03
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    @ Buffy You are presupposing disagreeing with diversity initiatives (the part of the mission that is relevant here) will cause one to commit fireable offenses. You are also presupposing diversity initiatives aren't often enacted largely to signal compliance to a hegemony, akin to a "corporate image". Jan 30, 2020 at 21:57

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