FIRE Calls on Virginia Tech to Abandon New Political Litmus Test for Faculty

By on March 25, 2009

Today FIRE has called on Charles W. Steger, President of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), to abandon proposed new guidelines for faculty assessment that would seriously violate faculty members’ academic freedom and their constitutional right to freedom of conscience. The proposal would force faculty members in Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences to adhere to an ideological loyalty oath to an entirely abstract concept — "diversity" — that can represent vastly different things to different people. Faculty are to be evaluated with "special attention" to the candidate’s "involvement in diversity initiatives." This includes "demonstrating accomplishments and significant contributions pertinent to the candidate’s field" in areas such as "Publications," "Courses taught," "Competitive grants," and other areas of professional contribution. Such evaluative criteria unacceptably interfere with faculty members’ moral and intellectual agency. Although expecting candidates to demonstrate this involvement in every area of their work may seem admirable and innocuous, in practice this is indeed an ideological loyalty oath to adhere to Virginia Tech’s current ideological perspectives on bias, race, gender, and culture.

FIRE and the National Association of Scholars (NAS) wrote about this policy last week. Here is the documentation so you can read it all for yourself:

Promotion and Tenure Guidelines

Dossier Guidelines

Diversity Activities Report Guidelines

In FIRE’s letter, we point out that if Virginia Tech truly believes in tolerance (leaving aside issues of academic freedom) it simply cannot require professors to adhere to a political orthodoxy or incorporate it into their courses, no matter how much the university may believe in the tenets of that orthodoxy and wish others to embrace those tenets. Presumably, faculty are employed by Virginia Tech for the purpose of "discovery and dissemination of new knowledge" (quoting Virginia Tech’s "Statement of Mission and Purpose"), not to demonstrate fealty to an abstract and ill-defined participatory ideal. Their prospects for promotion and tenure should be evaluated accordingly.

Our letter reminds Virginia Tech that it is fully bound by the First Amendment as a public university. We also point out that dictating political beliefs by requiring that faculty demonstrate a commitment to "diversity initiatives" opposes the principles and statements of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The AAUP guidelines of 1915 state:

To the degree that professional scholars, in the formation or promulgation of their opinions, are, or by the character of their tenure appear to be, subject to any motive other than their own scientific conscience and a desire for the respect of their fellow-experts, to that degree the university teaching profession is corrupted; its proper influence upon public opinion is diminished and vitiated; and society at large fails to get from its scholars in an unadulterated form the peculiar and necessary service which it is the office of the professional scholar to furnish. (Emphasis added.)

In short, universities must not tell their professors what they must believe, or even what they should believe, lest the whole process of intellectual inquiry and innovation end before it even starts. By requiring candidates for promotion and tenure to demonstrate an active involvement in "diversity initiatives," Virginia Tech impermissibly forces faculty members to confess both by word and by act their faith in the opinion that "diversity" was essential to their teaching and academic life.

Moreover, in its groundbreaking 1940 statement on academic freedom, the AAUP declared: "Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject." A dissenting professor at Virginia Tech is twice the victim of violations of this core AAUP principle. First, the university would dictate what sociological issues they must address in teaching literature or sociology or another area of their expertise. Second, the university itself would force them to introduce controversial matter that may have no relation to the subject so that they have a better shot at tenure or promotion.

We have asked Virginia Tech to pause and think about this, substituting any politicized agenda other than the "diversity" agenda that Virginia Tech currently favors. The policy, in short, requires professors to affirm that their classes incorporate assumptions about bias, race, gender, other group identities, and cultural differences. This is no different from requiring that instructors demonstrate their belief in Americanism, empiricism, biological determinism, or creationism. These may be perfectly valid intellectual viewpoints, but viewpoints may not be imposed at a public institution (and should not be imposed by any institution devoted to academic freedom) by fiat through official requirements. 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.

Finally, we note:

It is a human failing common to us all that we rarely see our own abuses of power, and no one, right, left, or center, is innocent of that failing. Once these abuses are called to consciousness, however, it becomes a moral imperative to restrain ourselves and to grant to others the academic freedom that we would demand for ourselves. The sad days of "loyalty oaths" to political ideologies have already once darkened the academy. Let us not revive them ourselves or tolerate their resurrection by others.

This new policy would be so bad that for comparison, we have to reach back to FIRE’s 2001 case at Bucks County Community College (BCCC), in which BCCC attempted to require applicants for new faculty positions to "provide a brief statement of your commitment to diversity and how this commitment is demonstrated in your work." Under pressure from FIRE, BCCC dropped the requirement. Virginia Tech must follow suit.

Schools: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Cases: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University: “Diversity” Requirement for Faculty Assessment Violates Academic Freedom and Freedom of Conscience