Victory for Freedom of Conscience at Grand Valley State University: Music Department Axes Political Litmus Test

By July 28, 2009

Grand Valley State University (GVSU) has promised to remove "demonstrated commitment to the principles of diversity" from the stated job requirements for prospective faculty seeking appointment to GVSU’s Department of Music. The department will restate its requirements in terms of relevant experience, not vaguely worded personal commitments regarding a controversial political issue. The change, which came after FIRE asked GVSU to restore freedom of conscience on its campus, is a fresh reminder to public universities that they cannot require prospective faculty to demonstrate personal commitment to "the principles of diversity," any more than they can require a commitment to "patriotism," "objectivism," or "communalism."

On April 17, 2009, GVSU posted a job listing for a Visiting Assistant Professor of Music (Flute), a position primarily involving "the teaching and mentoring of university level flute students [and] performance with various faculty ensembles." The listing required that candidates show "a demonstrated commitment to the principles of diversity with the skills necessary to effectively develop and lead in a cultural climate that recognizes, respects and celebrates diiferences [sic]." While public universities like GVSU may impose objective requirements regarding skills and experience, requiring a "demonstrated commitment" to "the principles of diversity" imposes ideological requirements in violation of individuals’ freedom of conscience.

FIRE wrote to GVSU President Thomas J. Haas on June 18, noting that the department had been imposing such requirements for yearsincluding job listings for instructors in a piano and trombone who had committed themselves to "the principles of diversity." FIRE’s letter stated that "GVSU, as a public university, simply cannot require professors to adhere to a political orthodoxy, no matter how much the college may believe in the tenets of that orthodoxy and wish others to embrace those tenets." FIRE also informed Haas of similar cases this year at Virginia Tech and North Shore Community College (NSCC).

This latest downfall of a political litmus test is particularly reminiscent of this year’s case at NSCC, which required an "appreciation of multiculturalism" of prospective faculty. NSCC removed the language after FIRE reminded it of its constitutional obligations. While Virginia Tech has softened its ideological requirements somewhat, its campus-wide policy is to evaluate faculty partly on their "diversity accomplishments"not just in their personal development activities, which is problematic enough, but also in their own research and courses, encroaching on their academic freedom.                                                                                      

GVSU responded to FIRE on July 9. University Counsel Thomas A. Butcher argued that the department’s requirements were "bona fide occupational qualifications of education, training and experience that are relevant to the faculty position," but he acknowledged that prospective applicants might "misread" the diversity requirement as unlawfully restricting their views. Accordingly, Butcher promised that GVSU would restate the requirements in terms of relevant experience.

GVSU’s policy change is a win for everyone, allowing GVSU to retain whatever lawful employment qualifications it desires, and leaving prospective music teachers free to hold whatever beliefs they want. FIRE commends GVSU for revoking the music department’s demand that candidates have ideological commitments.

Schools: Grand Valley State University