Mandatory ‘Diversity Accomplishments’ at Virginia Tech Violate Faculty Rights; FIRE Details Violations in 15-page Letter to Board of Visitors

By September 16, 2009

FIRE has sent Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors a 15-page letter with 13 enclosures detailing how administrators have begun to demand "diversity accomplishments" from faculty members across the university over the past several years. Professors are expected to alter their own research, teaching, and personal intellectual development in order to prove their loyalty to Virginia Tech’s political agenda. Those who lack the right "diversity accomplishments" will see diminished career prospects, including for tenure and promotion. FIRE is calling on the Virginia Tech’s board to rescind the coercive elements of its diversity agenda.

In FIRE’s September 14, 2009, letter to John R. Lawson, II, Rector of the Virginia Tech (VT) Board of Visitors, FIRE makes clear that it has no position on the university’s diversity agenda. We do, however, strongly oppose the coercive means being used to accomplish it. We also sent copies of the whole file to all VT department chairs and to several elected officials of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

FIRE first became involved in this issue in March, after a faculty member wrote to FIRE about proposed changes to faculty assessment policies in VT’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences (CLAHS). FIRE wrote President Charles Steger and engaged other national higher education organizations, particularly the National Association of Scholars (NAS), to fight the coercive elements of the changes. By mid-April, the proposal was withdrawn pending further review.

Further research by NAS and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni revealed that the proposed CLAHS policies were just the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, we found university-wide policies that demand "diversity accomplishments" of all faculty members seeking tenure or promotion. FIRE’s additional research this summer revealed a constantly increasing set of demands  by Steger and VT’s provost, Mark McNamee, that go far beyond the non-mandatory institutional mission that the Board of Visitors approved in 2005. 

When VT withdrew the CLAHS proposal, VT stated that "The fundamental problem was a requirement to produce materials in support of diversity." (Emphasis in original.) It’s now clear, though, that VT was trying to slip one by FIRE and by the public, as it maintained a similar university-wide requirement. In fact, Steger and McNamee have insisted on keeping the requirement mandatory. In an open letter to the entire VT community on April 30, 2009, they wrote:

We also affirm individual and collective responsibility for helping to eliminate bias and discrimination and for increasing our own understanding of these issues through education, training, and interaction with others.

And on June 3, on a panel to help faculty members understand the university’s demands on professors seeking promotion, McNamee said:

[W]hen we look at the accomplishments of our faculty, particularly at the level of professor, we are looking for faculty members to be making contributions to areas of strategic importance to the university. There is no specific requirement that it has to be in any particular form in a particular area, but when we talk about diversity, international programs, and so on, we’re encouraging and supporting and giving credit to faculty members who are in fact demonstrating real accomplishments in these areas, because at the level of professor, you do have the time and the opportunity to make contributions to university goals, university strategic directions, in addition to your own personal research and service. So all of these things weigh in our evaluation of what constitutes a strong file. [my transcript, 00:10:41]

As we wrote to the Board of Visitors, quite apart from McNamee’s views about the leisure of tenured professors, McNamee appears to be stating that somehow faculty members can distinguish their own "personal research," teaching, and personal development from their mandatory, diversity-related "university" research, teaching, and personal development. This statement further reveals McNamee’s true intention to continue demanding "diversity accomplishments." It also seriously undermines faculty members’ academic freedom and freedom of conscience.

But this is just the most recent item. The real "diversity" requirements are in the official memos and guidelines that FIRE excerpted in our letter. The documents can be found chronologically here and are organized and discussed in FIRE’s letter

As we wrote in our letter, Virginia Tech must not tell its professors what they must believe, or even what they should believe, or the process of honest intellectual inquiry and innovation will end before it even starts. Must instructors at Virginia Tech who do not share the university’s assumptions about bias, race, gender, and culture be made exceptions to the ringing declarations of the meaning and value of true academic freedom expounded by Virginia Tech’s own promises and statements?

Some people believe that it is acceptable for a commitment to diversity to be mandatory. I would ask them to consider Virginia Tech’s requirements by substituting, in their minds, a politicized agenda other than the "diversity" agenda that Virginia Tech currently favors. Virginia Tech’s policy, in short, requires professors to affirm specific assumptions about bias, race, gender, other group identities, and cultural differences. This is no different from requiring that instructors demonstrate their belief in patriotism, empiricism, biological determinism, or creationism. These may all arguably be valid 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. After all, I suspect FIRE would have no need to write a 15-page letter if Virginia Tech had instead forbidden professors from spending time on diversity issues. Public outrage and political pressure would have forced Virginia Tech to change such requirements in no time at all.

America has room for universities that require students and faculty members to agree to support a particular religious or political agenda. However, this power is (for good reason) forbidden to educational institutions run by the government. To its shame, VT seems to have ignored this fact. VT must stop pressuring and requiring faculty members to change their personal and intellectual work to conform to the university’s diversity agenda. We look forward to seeing Virginia Tech’s response.

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