FIRE Attacked on ‘Chronicle of Higher Education’ Blog over Virginia Tech

By April 16, 2009

University of Pennsylvania professor John L. Jackson Jr. has attacked FIRE in a blog entry published on The Chronicle of Higher Education blog, Brainstorm, over FIRE’s successful efforts to keep Virginia Tech from violating its faculty members’ freedom of conscience and academic freedom.

FIRE is used to criticism from all corners of the political arena. Indeed, we view much of this criticism as evidence that we’re doing our job effectively. But Jackson’s attack warrants response because it unfairly distorts our concerns with Virginia Tech’s pressure on faculty candidates for promotion and tenure to demonstrate a commitment to "diversity."

First, Jackson writes that "Conservative organizations such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reject any and all nods to affirmative action or other diversity initiatives within the academy." To be clear: FIRE is not a conservative organization. FIRE is proudly nonpartisan. While it may be convenient for critics like Jackson to dismiss us as a "conservative organization"as another professor did in attacking FIRE in the Chronicle exactly two years ago todaydoing so is dishonest and demonstrably false. As Greg wrote here on The Torch, responding to the same charge two years ago:

Darkly hinting that FIRE is on a rightward drift, or is a crazy right-wing organization, is an old tactic of people who, like [Jon B.] Gould, would like to ignore the hundreds of well-documented incidents of campus repression FIRE has brought to public attention over the years. It’s an argument proffered by people who wish to pretend that there is no real problem on campus and it is not one for which I have a great deal of patience …. FIRE defends the rights of those from all points of the political spectrum …. We are uniquely nonpartisan, a reality that is reflected in our founders, our Board of Directors, our Board of Advisors, and, most of all, our staff. I have never before worked in an office (or even heard of one) where Democrats, Republicans, libertarians, Greens, atheists, Jews (from liberal to orthodox), agnostics, Muslims, and evangelical Christians pull together for a common cause.

Indeed, if Jackson had taken the time to actually check out FIRE’s cases, he would have been forced to acknowledge that our commitment is not to any party or political viewpoint, but to the principled preservation of the individual liberties guaranteed to every citizen by our Constitution. In short, our record speaks for itself.

Next, Jackson’s argument that FIRE would "reject any and all nods to affirmative action or other diversity initiatives" is equally dishonest. We have made clear that Virginia Tech is free to promote, as an institution, its own commitment to "diversity." However, we draw the line at the university placing undue pressure on faculty members to alter their research, teaching, and personal development activities in order to show "diversity accomplishments," or see their jobs and merit raises put at risk. And this risk is indeed real. As Provost Mark G. McNamee wrote in 2008, "Diversity accomplishments are especially important for candidates seeking promotion to full professor." This memo must be rescinded.

Even worse, this semester, Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences was poised to mandate reporting of "diversity" activities in tenure and promotion dossiers. Even Virginia Tech agreed that this requirement went too far: "The fundamental problem was a requirement to produce materials in support of diversity." (Emphasis theirs.)

But apparently Mr. Jackson does not respect faculty rights enough to agree. Instead, he makes wild, false, unsupported claims about things like FIRE’s position on affirmative actionwhen in fact we have never had any position on affirmative action, and have always considered it outside of our mission. He also misrepresents the Virginia Tech spokesman who agreed that diversity requirements are a problem when he claims that "a Virginia Tech spokesperson has been very clear about the fact that a conspicuous commitment to diversity was never a formal requirement for promotion." Does Mr. Jackson not understand that words in boldface and italics are meant to be emphasized?

Another of Mr. Jackson’s claims is equally wild, false, unsupported, and frankly suitable for nothing but rabble-rousing:

[T]he conservative critique is only partially predicated on concerns about "academic freedom" within an institional space they dismiss as a bastion of supposed left-wing radicalism and hysteria. Indeed, the other part of FIRE’s argument seems to pivot on a fear that faculty of color will get an extra thumb on the scale come tenure time simply as a function of the fact that they literally embody diversification and often do a great deal of institutional work in this domain. Maybe FIRE’s hidden concern is that "active involvement in diversity" could serve as another way of justifying tenure to otherwise undeserving minority scholars.

Is Mr. Jackson accusing us of a racist agenda? This is deeply disappointing, wholly unfounded, and, frankly, reckless. By indulging in baseless speculation about what our argument "seems to pivot on" and what our "hidden concerns" might be, Jackson’s critique becomes completely unmoored from reality. He cites no evidence in support of his theories about our alleged "fear" or "hidden concern" because we have no such "hidden concerns" and there is therefore no such evidence.

If Jackson had actually taken the time to read our letters to Virginia Tech, he would find that we identify the problem as giving anyone an "extra thumb on the scale" as an incentive for changing their publications, syllabi, and personal activities to conform to the politicized elements of Virginia Tech’s "diversity" agenda. Jackson would also discover that we make it clear that our concern would apply to any politicized agenda to which a university sought to mandate allegiance, be it patriotism, anti-Communism, spirituality, environmentalism, or something else. As we wrote in our March 25 letter to Virginia Tech President Charles Steger:

Accordingly, FIRE would defend with equal fervor the rights of faculty at Virginia Tech and elsewhere to be protected from prohibitions against involvement in diversity initiatives, or inquisitions into their love of country or celebration of Americanism if, in a change of ideological climate, a public university sought to demand such conformity. Virginia Tech has a right to evaluate a candidate with broad discretion, but its inquisition into "involvement in diversity initiatives," as stated above, imposes one fashionable agenda among many, reflecting an unacceptable orthodoxy that intrudes upon the private thought and conscience of free individuals in a free society. This truly does violate the university’s constitutional obligation of content neutrality, and it truly is a "loyalty oath" inimical to academic and intellectual freedom.

Participating in the university’s legal affirmative action (or other) efforts is one thing, but being pressured to change one’s research and teaching in order to conform to a political agenda is quite another.

Thankfully, many of the comments posted in response to Jackson’s attack understand this key distinction. As one commenter writes:

I firmly disagree, having read FIRE’s press releases on this, that their covert interest is a fear that undeserving minorities will gain tenure if "diversity" becomes common as a requirement for tenure. That’s rather grassy-knoll, as I don’t think there’s any actual evidence to support this …. If you see this requirementthis implied acquiescence to a limited spectrum of political and social sympathies in order to prove one’s worth as a scholaras harmless in a public university like VT, then you have no leg to stand on if, in the future, the University of Nebraska or the University of Mississippi mandates faculty involvement in anti-evolution, pro-life, and anti-homosexuality clubs and activities, and incorporating such perspectives in research and teaching.

That’s exactly right. One cannot credibly argue for mandatory ideological conformity in instances when one agrees with the ideology to be imposed, then fervently denounce such mandatory conformity when one does not. The principled responseand indeed, the only posture in compliance with our Constitution and the ideals enshrined thereinis to denounce all instances of governmental pressure on individuals to conform to a single, "correct" worldview.

I hope that FIRE’s readers will add to the many good comments defending FIRE against this baseless attack.

Schools: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University