Suitable for framing

March 26, 2009

Last week, NAS wrote about how Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) has made "diversity" service a requirement for faculty promotion and tenure. There, we showed that  

"Diversity" is not a category of academic accomplishment equivalent to high-quality teaching or success in scholarly research and publishing. "Diversity" is an ideology. The term summarizes a set of objectives popular on one part of the political spectrum. Virginia Tech, which is a public university, has no business turning a partisan political credo into a test that must be passed for faculty members to win tenure or to advance in rank.  

The promotion and tenure policy is new, but Virginia Tech has been making breathless announcements about diversity for a long time. Back in 2005 the university had already made commitment to diversity "suitable for framing." Now it simply wants to frame faculty advancement as dependent on "diversity accomplishments."

But not everyone is happy with this. Things have been heating up. 

Yesterday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sent a letter to Virginia Tech president Charles Steger, calling on him to revise these standards to be in accordance "with the First Amendment and common sense."

Tuesday, Virginia Tech’s student newspaper Collegiate Times joined in expressing alarm. The editorial board, concurring with NAS, wrote, "Diversity should be held as important, but ultimately it is an ideology." The editors concluded, "An enforcement of this idea undermines not only the idea of faculty research, but also may lead to another, more disturbing outcome: a façade of interest in diversity while building resentment toward the entire enterprise." We are encouraged to see that the students of Virginia Tech understand that the university has overstepped its role.

Today, Robin Wilson published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education covering the policy. Her piece mentions our objections but is ultimately sympathetic to the university. Wilson interviewed Virginia Tech provost Mark McNamee, who said that the diversity guideline is "merely intended to encourage faculty members to pursue activities related to diversity, not to require it."

One of our readers, John K. Wilson, also initially rejoined that diversity service was not mandatory.  But when he examined the policy more closely, he changed his mind. He noted that the Promotion and Tenure Guidelines state, "The committee expects all dossiers to demonstrate the candidate’s active involvement in diversity." Wilson also uncovered a document we had not seen that throws even starker light on the Provost’s intentions.   The provost’s May 29, 2008 letter called "Guidance from the University Promotion and Tenure Committee elaborates on the idea of "diversity accomplishments" as a requirement:

Diversity accomplishments: Diversity accomplishments are a meaningful part of the faculty review process. Candidates must do a better job of participating in and documenting their involvement in diversity initiatives. Diversity accomplishments are especially important for candidates seeking promotion to full professor. Please use the categories developed by the Commission on Equal Opportunity and diversity to prompt and organize diversity-related contributions. The categories may be found at section VII. C. 1-8 of the promotion and tenure guidelines. They are also available at www.provost.vt.edu/documents/reporting_diversity.php.  Committees are asked to develop working expectations for department members, perhaps sharing good examples, and to review diversity contributions included in the dossier with those expectations in mind.

Thank you John Wilson. We note here that a combination of NAS sleuthing and an independent scholar’s initiative have uncovered an important story that the professional journalists at the Chronicle of Higher Education were unable to find even when they were looking. The "mainstream press" in this case was willing to take the provost’s self-serving account at face value. 

Note to Inside Higher Ed: your competitor stumbled. But stumbling is perhaps better than being fast asleep.

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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