Getting it Wrong: ‘Roanoke Times’ Editorial Mischaracterizes FIRE and Problems with Virginia Tech’s Diversity Requirements

By on May 13, 2009

An editorial in today’s edition of The Roanoke Times attacks FIRE for criticizing Virginia Tech’s proposed hiring guidelines for evaluating candidates for promotion and tenure. The guidelines, now withdrawn, would have required candidates to demonstrate a commitment to an abstract, ideologically loaded concept"diversity"that means many different things to different people. While perhaps well-intentioned, imposing the guidelines would have meant that regardless of their own beliefs, candidates would have had to pledge allegiance to the school’s conception of "diversity," or risk losing their job or promotion. As we’ve explained at length in this space and in our letter to VT, that’s unacceptable for a public university like Virginia Tech, which is both legally and morally bound by the First Amendment’s protection of the right to freedom of conscience.

Nevertheless, among other jabs, The Roanoke Times labels FIRE a "conservative group that oppose[s] campus diversity efforts across the country." Once again, this is just plain wrong, and on two counts. First, FIRE is proudly nonpartisan. We’ve explained this many times here on The Torchmost recently, in response to Professor John L. Jackson, Jr., who offered a similarly mistaken characterization of FIRE in a blog entry for The Chronicle of Higher Education a few weeks ago. (To his credit, Professor Jackson welcomed the dialogue that our response offered, and he has graciously acknowledged his error in a subsequent blog entry.) Second, we do not oppose "diversity efforts" per se. What we oppose is any public university requiring faculty to demonstrate fealty to a particular ideology in order to advance professionally. That’s a violation of the First Amendment, andas we made clear in our letter to VT President Charles Stegerwe’d oppose other kinds of politically loaded requirements, as well:

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.

The Times takes a few other shots at us as well, accusing us of "overreacting" and "undermin[ing] our own credibility." Butas alwaysFIRE’s concerns were well-documented, carefully researched, and evenly presented. As far as our credibility is concerned, we’re happy to let our record speak for itself.

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