Victory for Freedom of Conscience at Virginia Tech: New ‘Diversity’ Requirements for Tenure and Promotion No Longer Under Consideration, But Problematic Policies Remain

By on April 14, 2009

Today’s press release announces what the Virginia Tech faculty appear not even to know, yet: the proposed new guidelines for faculty assessment in Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, which would have mandated reporting of "diversity" activities in violation of academic freedom and freedom of conscience, are no longer under consideration. FIRE had called on President Charles W. Steger to rescind the proposed guidelines after a tenure-track faculty member came to us for help.

This is an important first step towards preserving faculty rights, but much more needs to be done. Over the past three years, Virginia Tech’s provost, Mark McNamee, has increasingly demanded ideological conformity in the form of "diversity accomplishments" from the school’s faculty. Last year, in a memo to all department heads and promotion and tenure committees, he insisted that candidates for promotion or tenure "do a better job of participating in and documenting their involvement in diversity initiatives," noting that such participation is "especially important for candidates seeking promotion to full professor."

In March, Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences (CLAHS) concluded voting on new rules for faculty merit raises, promotion, and tenure that would have required faculty to demonstrate fealty to a highly politicized definition of diversity in their research, teaching, and personal enrichment activities. The results of the vote were never made public. In an e-mail today, however, Steger wrote that this proposal is "no longer under consideration." A Virginia Tech spokesman confirmed that "the provost has asked the college to rework its proposed guidelines. The fundamental problem was a requirement to produce materials in support of diversity."

CLAHS defines "diversity" as "the desirability and value of many kinds of individual differences while at the same time acknowledging and respecting that socially constructed differences based on certain characteristics exist within systems of power that create and sustain inequality, hierarchy, and privilege." The list of "diverse" characteristics ranges from race and gender to "body size and condition." Accordingly, CLAHS has pledged "to eliminate these forms of inequality, hierarchy, and privilege in our programs and practices."

Even without that definition, and even prior to the proposed changes, however, Virginia Tech was telling faculty members across the university that they had to conform to the university’s political agenda or else put at risk their promotion, tenure, and merit raises. FIRE will pursue this issue until no faculty member is pressured to adhere to the university’s political orthodoxy.

FIRE first got involved in the case when a tenure-track faculty member, fearing retribution if he or she spoke out, sent us a copy of the proposed guidelines. We forwarded a copy to the National Association of Scholars (NAS), which did significant research and then broke the story. Since then, NAS has done extensive additional reporting on the case in the form of a three-part series on "Virginia Tech, Academic Freedom, and Employment Law." We have learned that the problem at Virginia Tech is university-wide.

For our part, FIRE wrote Steger on March 25 about the ideological litmus test in CLAHS’s promotion and tenure reviews and demanded that the school’s policies be revised to accord with faculty members’ First Amendment right to freedom of conscience. After the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) wrote the school’s entire Board of Visitors, including FIRE’s letter and requesting a full review, the Board’s Rector, John R. Lawson, II, notified ACTA on April 1 that the Board would fully review Virginia Tech’s diversity and tenure policies university-wide. Although Virginia Tech later denied that such a review would occur, ACTA published an account of the conversation that shows Lawson’s intent to review these policies.

As FIRE sees it, whether the review of existing policies is performed by the Visitors or by the President, it must be completed promptly. As Greg noted in the press release:

Imagine telling faculty members that "patriotic accomplishments" or "spiritual accomplishments" were especially important for faculty members to demonstrate in order to be considered for career advancement. The proponents of Virginia Tech’s "diversity" policy likely would quickly understand the essentiality of academic freedom if the university attempted to impose different ideological requirements. Mandatory points of view in higher education short-circuit the scholarly process by ordaining dogmatic ‘correct’ answers to the deepest questions of nature, society, and existence. FIRE hopes that institutions will start to understand that required ideologies stifle and corrode the open-ended search for truth and are utterly at odds with the freedom of conscience that the First Amendment steadfastly protects.

Contact President Steger to let him know what you think at 540-231-6231 or president@vt.edu.

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