The DEI Question in Administrative Job Interviews

By Kim Brettschneider and Dallas A. Grundy

Candidates interviewing for administrative positions this year at colleges and universities will almost certainly be asked some version of the “DEI question”: What accomplishments have you achieved to advance your values of diversity, equity, and inclusion? 

That is challenging to answer, regardless of your title, race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or disability. How do you even begin to discuss such an important, complicated, and timely subject within the awkward and artificial context of a job interview — especially when it’s further complicated by being conducted virtually?

Answering in a meaningful way is not a matter of mastering the most up-to-date lingo or checking the right boxes. In 2021, institutions are looking for candidates who have clearly defined DEI values and who are living up to them in real and significant ways. 

Truth is, there is no cheat sheet for the DEI question. But there are clear steps you can take to make sure that your answer is authentic, compelling, and fully captures the impact of the work you’ve already done on this front and what you plan to do if hired for this new role. Having observed hundreds of job interviews — one of us as an executive-search consultant and the other as a senior vice president at a large university — we have found that three relatively simple steps can help you prepare your own personal “best” response to this vital question.

We summarize the three steps below and welcome readers to access the full article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Step No. 1: Write out your personalized definition of DEI.

You can’t speak compellingly about an abstraction; you need to pin down what diversity, equity, and inclusion mean to you and why they matter. At the places you’ve worked and at the campus where you’re interviewing, think critically about the specific contexts and the most pressing issues related to DEI. Reflect on how your own life experience has shaped and influenced your understanding of the importance of DEI.

As groundwork, write out a personal “diversity statement” outlining the values you hold and why.

Step No. 2: Be specific.

When considering how best to present your record in an interview setting, it’s helpful to think backward from the end goal. Remember: Your ultimate DEI leadership responsibility is to create an environment where diverse talent can thrive and go on to improve the institution at large. What actions have you taken as a leader to help make that goal a reality?

Too often, candidates cite their hiring statistics as the ultimate example of their commitment to DEI. But while recruiting and retaining a diverse labor pool is an important step to realizing DEI goals, it’s not enough in and of itself. Dig deeper. Are you encouraging colleagues, external partners, and students of all backgrounds to embrace DEI and invite productive disagreement? Are you lifting up the voices of underrepresented and marginalized groups on campus and asking others to embrace inevitably uncomfortable conversations? Are you disrupting entrenched systems of inequality or merely papering over them?

Step No. 3: Clearly map out an authentic theory of change.

The last thing the academic world needs is another empty administrative statement. In 2021, it’s more likely than not that your institution has already released some kind of mission statement related to DEI work — but that doesn’t mean it’s making a difference. In fact, the Harvard Kennedy School has an entire program, the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project, dedicated to studying the efficacy of diversity initiatives.

As a candidate, you can stand out from the crowd by coming to your interview prepared with a well-reasoned, detailed, and convincing theory of change  — essentially an analysis of the DEI changes you reasonably expected to see as a result of a given strategy (or strategies), and why. A big reason why many DEI programs fail is because they didn’t clearly articulate a theory of change. Ideally, the theory you articulate as a candidate will serve as a connection between your DEI values and your DEI leadership practice. If your values are what you believe and your practice is what you are doing, your theory of change is why you are doing it.

Many leaders value diversity, equity, and inclusion but are too intimidated to engage deeply with it. They fear making a misstep. But the DEI question requires humility, honesty, and bravery. Brave leaders model how to take responsibility for failures and disclose their own shortcomings. In your interview, it’s more than OK to both delineate specific methods to achieve DEI progress and cite your mistakes along the way. You might inspire others to look inward.

How you answer this question has the potential to do much more than just help or hurt your interview. By thinking critically about, and engaging earnestly with, the DEI question, you are helping advance an important conversation that may create better, healthier institutions for everyone.

Kim Brettschneider (she/her) is a senior associate at the executive-search firm WittKieffer. Previously she was executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund-California.

Dallas A. Grundy (he/him) is the senior vice president and chief financial officer at the University of Akron, with previous appointments at the University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers University.