University should not pressure faculty to alter their research

October 14, 2009

Virginia Tech is trying to walk a fine line when it promotes "diversity" as strongly as possible.

Unfortunately, the university often crosses the line when it coerces faculty members to conform to the university’s "diversity" mission.

Last month, my organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, sent the university’s Board of Visitors a 15-page letter with with 13 enclosures demonstrating that the university administration has, over the past few years, persistently increased pressure on faculty members to alter their research, teaching and personal development activities in order to show "diversity accomplishments." FIRE has no position on the university’s diversity agenda, but strongly opposes the coercive means being used to accomplish it.

Tech’s policy statements, tenure and promotion guidelines, and recent public statements show that these efforts go far beyond the Virginia Tech Principles of Community, to which the board and other campus constituencies agreed to aspire in 2005. For instance, an official 2006 memo states states that "the university promotion and tenure dossier calls for a reporting of diversity-related activities" and that each faculty member has the "responsibility" to contribute to the university’s diversity mission. It orders personnel committees and department heads to "give consistent attention to these activities in the evaluation process."

Although requiring candidates to demonstrate "involvement in diversity initiatives" may seem admirable and innocuous, in practice this requirement amounts to an ideological loyalty oath to an abstract concept – "diversity" – that can represent vastly different things to different people. This flexibility might seem to be a virtue until professors realize that they are to be judged on the quality of their commitment to such an abstract concept, and that their peers and the public might discount the quality of their work, knowing that their work may have been distorted by the university’s official agenda.

Moreover, since 2008 the Diversity Committee of the College of Liberal Arts & Human Sciences has invested the term "diversity" with a specific, ideological meaning that binds the academic freedom and conscience of faculty members, "acknowledging and respecting that socially constructed differences based on certain characteristics exist within systems of power that create and sustain inequality, hierarchy, and privilege. (CLAHS) is determined to eliminate these forms of inequality, hierarchy, and privilege in our programs and practices. In this sense, diversity is to be actively advanced …"

As a college within a public university, CLAHS should be a true "marketplace of ideas" that does not demand its members’ loyalty to such specific, politicized pronouncements and commitments. If Tech truly believes in tolerance, freedom of conscience and academic freedom, it must not expect professors to incorporate a political orthodoxy into their courses, research or personal development activities, no matter how much the university may believe in that orthodoxy and wish others to embrace it.

This is not how Dean Sue Ott Rowlands sees it. In April of this year, she sent a memo throughout CLAHS reaffirming the ideological obligations of faculty members:

"The value we place upon equity obliges us to challenge systems of oppression and privilege. … Service is not just a path we choose but a perspective we consciously adopt."

The problem is not specific to CLAHS, however; it is university-wide. In May 2008, Provost Mark McNamee sent an official memo to to all department heads, to Chairs of Departmental Promotion and Tenure Committees, and to Chairs of Collegiate Promotion and Tenure Committees. He wrote:

"… 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."

No faculty member can read this memorandum and believe that "diversity accomplishments" are optional.

The problem has not been resolved in the latest guidelines for faculty members’ promotion and tenure dossiers. The 2009-10 guidelines still require "(d)iversity initiatives or contributions." In addition, on April 30 of this year, President Charles Steger and McNamee sent an open letter to the university community reaffirming that faculty members have an "individual" responsibility to conform their thinking to fit Tech’s ideology and agenda:

"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."

In the landmark case of West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette in 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court made clear the importance of freedom of conscience in our liberal democracy: "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."

Tech seems to believe otherwise. By requiring active involvement in "diversity initiatives," Tech impermissibly forces faculty members to confess both by word and by act their faith in the university’s model and ideals of "diversity." Let Tech aspire to these ideals, but don’t make them mandatory.

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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