MOVING TO FRONT FROM JANUARY 9--SOME USEFUL COMMENTS, ESP. REGARDING PRACTICES AT BERKELEY (see esp. comment #19)
A student applying to PhD programs in philosophy writes:
I'm currently applying to PhD programs, and several of them are in the University of California school system. Many of these schools (Berkeley, UCSD, and UCLA, at least) of these schools either require or strongly recommend submitting a "personal history statement." Unlike the well-known (and relevant) "personal statement," the history statement says,
"Please describe how your personal background and experiences inform your decision to pursue a graduate degree. In this section, you may also include any relevant information on how you have overcome barriers to access higher education, evidence of how you have come to understand the barriers faced by others, evidence of your academic service to advance equitable access to higher education for women, racial minorities, and individuals from other groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education, evidence of your research focusing on underserved populations or related issues of inequality, or evidence of your leadership among such groups."
I don't mind the first part of the question regarding how your personal experiences inform your decision to pursue a graduate degree. I can see its relevance (it speaks to the applicant's motivation and perhaps can be a useful predictor of how likely the applicant will be to finish the degree), and I can even see some students feeling pleased that they can personalize their application a bit more, expressing the unique things they can add to the program.
That said, besides the first sentence, the rest of the things on this personal history statement bother me quite a bit, especially when the essay is *required,* and therefore is likely being used to evaluate an applicant.First, the latter part is completely irrelevant to academic fit of the prospective student, like requiring an applicant to describe their medical history. Second, it seems overtly politicized, displaying a left-leaning preference in the institution. Since academia is *already* taking flak for being a politicized enterprise, this only brings that problem into sharp relief. Third, and most deeply frustrating in my opinion, is that this seems a clear selection mechanism for applicants who belong to a certain moral club -- that of making their dominant moral aims helping underprivileged students -- instead of being a selection mechanism for applicants with a strong moral character (having a strong moral character I could see being relevant, since most academics will draw on public funds for their work).
To elaborate, imagine the student who lost a loved one to cancer and went on to volunteer for hospice, do research in a cancer lab, and raise money in marathons for cancer research. Despite having a clear strong moral character -- this person has undertaken a lot of moral projects and attempted to make the world a better place -- they will have nothing to say in this personal history statement regarding minorities. Even if they do care about underrepresented groups and acknowledge their disadvantage, they may have simply chosen to take on a different set of moral projects.
Since they haven't chosen to pursue the *particular* moral projects that this university wants, even if they recognize the importance of the University's moral aims, they will have nothing to say on the personal history statement. In that sense, since they don't belong to the relevant moral club, they are being selected against.
Not only is it egregious, in my opinion, to evaluate an applicant based on their moral views, but this seems to contradict a general purpose of the liberal desire for diversity in the first place. One reason liberals presumably want diversity is because it allows for a wide-scoped mixture of moral perspectives to be integrated into the community. But this personal history statement, which seems to show the high value that the institution places on diversity, reduces the degree of moral diversity on the campus.
I do find this personal history statement a bit puzzling, though not entirely for my correspondent's reasons. No one, in my view, should take the diversity blather seriously, arising as it did in corporate America for marketing reasons and then entering popular parlance due to an opinion by the late Justice Powell of the U.S. Supreme Court in the late 1970s. Universities engage in social engineering in their admissions policies, not reward of desert; there are plenty of good reasons for wanting to integrate universities and the professions--see, e.g., Elizabeth Anderson's discussion in The Imperative of Integration--that have nothing to do with the alleged value of "diversity." Similarly, universities only take flak for being "politicized" from the politicized right-wing media, not from people who know anything about most of the actual academic disciplines that make up real universities.
The more serious issue to my mind is that it would likely violate the First Amendment for a state university to impose an ideological litmus test on admissions to its programs, and requiring "evidence of...academic service to advance equitable access to higher education for women, racial minorities, and individuals from other groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education [or] evidence of...research focusing on underserved populations or related issues of inequality, or evidence of...leadership among such groups" looks an awful lot like an ideological litmus test.
I'm wondering whether any UC faculty can put this "personal history statement" in context? What is its purpose? When was it introduced and why? What role does it play in admissions, and does that role vary by program? If anyone knows about legal challenges, feel free to post that information too.