Virginia Tech, Round 2: Staging Diversity

April 27, 2009

Just weeks after the president of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) ordered the provost to cancel a controversial policy, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences is maneuvering to reinstate it.   The discarded policy made tenure and promotion contingent on a faculty member’s demonstrated loyalty to a "diversity" dogma.  The new policy appears set to do much the same thing-but to hide this intent behind a wall of academic jargon.

Avowing that, "our commitment to equity and inclusive excellence has never been stronger," Dean Sue Ott Rowlands, says the College’s "soon-to-be-unveiled strategic plan" will carry the principles of diversity forward.  The plan enunciates an obligation "to challenge systems of oppression and privilege." 

What will happen to faculty members whose only experience of "systems of oppression and privilege" is having their public university force them to kowtow to a radical left political screed?  And what will happen to faculty members who actively question concepts that Dean Rowland invokes?  "Inclusive excellence," for example, is the doctrine that members of different social groups should be judged by different standards.  It denies the legitimacy of applying the same rules to everyone.   In practical terms it translates into something like, "Standards be damned."  Since it is the administrators who get to decide who belongs to what group and what might be entailed in that group’s supposed vision of success, "inclusive excellence" pretty much means, "We promote the people we like on whatever ad hoc basis we like."

Dean Rowlands doesn’t say so, but we can imagine that if this policy goes through, the Virginia Tech faculty of the future won’t include very many skeptics.  Faculty members unwilling to agree to the "different strokes for different folks" approach to grading will face dim prospects.   And Virginia Tech students won’t be spared the trouble of having to think about conflicting ideas and social ideals.  The faculty will be guaranteed to say the same things-over and over. 

This stultifying semi-official view at Virginia Tech of what higher education is and what it should be did not bubble up from the University faculty.   It is a creation of activist administrators such as Dean Rowlands, and their higher-up enablers. 

In March, NAS obtained a copy of a proposal circulated by Virginia Tech’s provost that would have required candidates for tenure and promotion to "demonstrate" their "involvement in diversity initiatives."  We broke the story on March 17, in Free to Agree, arguing that this proposed policy was a highly inappropriate infringement on the intellectual and academic freedom of faculty members.   The policy plainly required faculty members to profess a commitment to a political dogma favored by University administrators, regardless of the faculty members’ own views.  Moreover, the new policy explicitly demanded that faculty members incorporate their "commitment" to diversity in virtually every aspect of their professional lives:  course syllabi, classroom practice, research, publication, continuing education, committee work, involvement with student activities, and more.

Uneasiness over the Virginia Tech policy spread quickly.  A week after our original article, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sent a letter to Virginia Tech’s president, Dr. Charles W. Steger, pointing out the egregious violation of academic freedom in the policy.  FIRE focused on the matter with its customary and very effective intensity.  Adam Kissel,  Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, posted a particularly powerful editorial, asking what might happen if the provost had launched a "patriotism" initiative in exactly the same form as the diversity initiative. 

The Virginia Tech student newspaper editorialized against the policy.  Bloggers took the matter up.  The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on the story-giving Provost Mark McNamee generous space to tell his side.  We reported on these developments on March 29, in Suitable for Framing.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) also took up the matter, addressing itself to the head of Virginia Tech’s board, John R. Larson II.    At first, Larson "promised that the board would review all the policies and examine the First Amendment and academic freedom issues they raise."   But after ACTA made Larson’s statements public, he backtracked.  ACTA’s president, Anne Neal then made her original notes of her conversation with Lawson public in Setting the Record Straight

The Virginia Association of Scholars also wrote to President Steger, and NAS published a three-part series by Tom Wood, "Virginia Tech, Academic Freedom, and Employment Law."    

On April 14, President Steger had had enough and informed Provost McNamee that the policy, as drafted, would not go into effect.  In the words of Virginia Tech’s associate vice president for University Relations, the provost then "asked the college to rework its proposed guidelines.  The fundamental problem was a requirement to produce materials in support of diversity."

Climbing Down While Staying Put

What did President Steger’s decision mean?  Was he acting out of embarrassment when the head of the board was shown to have a faulty memory?  Was the growing chorus of criticism a distraction?  I’ve heard from faculty members at Virginia Tech who intensely dislike the policy but think that Steger is doing the best he can in an awkward situation.

Be that as it may, the language with which Virginia Tech backed off its policy hinted at the next step.  President Steger appeared to see nothing wrong in conflating academic accomplishment and success in teaching with "demonstration" of loyalty to an illiberal ideology.  He was only concerned that the language of the policy might be misconstrued as making the loyalty oath and follow-on acts of fealty a "requirement" for promotion and tenure.  Misconstrued?  Not likely.  Anyone who takes the trouble to read through the documentary record can see plainly that promotion of the diversity doctrine was indeed a requirement, and fully intended as such.

In drafting the documents and promoting the policy, the Virginia Tech administrations were open about their intentions.  Thinking the policy would sail ahead without opposition, they took no steps to hide their conviction that every faculty member seeking a career at the University would have to adopt this position and support it enthusiastically-on pain of losing his or her  academic appointment or opportunities for promotion.

President Steger’s decision, conveyed through a PR flack, seemed to say, ‘Oops!  We were too candid.  We need to find a way to advance this policy without making its coercive aspect and its disregard for academic freedom so easy to pin down.’  The usual way to do this is to declare a policy "voluntary" for a vulnerable population who know full well that they will face steep costs if they defy it.  Is that what Virginia Tech now intends?

The latest development is a letter from the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, Sue Ott Rowlands, to the faculty of the College.  Here it is in its entirety:

Dear CLAHS Colleagues,

In the media recently, some have mischaracterized our college’s commitment to diversity as a rigid requirement for promotion and tenure. That has never been our intention and we will make sure that our P&T document makes that clear. At the same time, please know that our commitment to equity and inclusive excellence has never been stronger. One of our greatest strengths is in our commitment to embrace cultural differences, varied talents, and multiple ways of thinking and being. I particularly resonate with one of the paragraphs from the "core values" section of our soon-to-be-unveiled strategic plan. Here it is: "In the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences we strive to promote an environment in which learning, discovery, and engagement are created and sustained by a diverse body of students, faculty, and staff. The value we place upon equity obliges us to challenge systems of oppression and privilege…(Moreover) in CLAHS, service is not just a path we choose but a perspective we consciously adopt – one that enables us to discover and critique ourselves, our world, and others. We all have within us the ability to create a college that is welcoming and affirming of difference — a place where we all can survive and thrive. Thanks for your efforts toward this end.

Sincerely,
Sue

Sue Ott Rowlands
Dean

"A place where we all can survive and thrive."  That takes some gall.  Dean Rowlands now says it was "never our intention" to make "our college’s commitment to diversity as a rigid requirement for promotion and tenure."   Let’s look at that.  The pronoun "our" makes the commitment to the ideology the collective will of the College.   The College’s "Diversity Committee" indeed approved a punishingly radical definition of diversity in January and February 2008:

We, the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences Diversity Committee, use the term "diversity" to mean 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 College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences 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 because it fosters excellence in learning, discovery, and engagement.

* These characteristics include, but are not limited to ability, age, body size and condition, class, color, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, geographical and cultural background, health status, national origin, political affiliation, race, religion, sexual orientation, and veteran status.

Are we to suppose that the faculty of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences collectively upholds this view, with its declared purpose of eliminating all "socially constructed differences" that "create and sustain inequality?"  If so, we should have seen a mass resignation by this point, since by far the most salient socially constructed difference conducive to inequality on a university campus is the difference between faculty members and students-which is easily de-constructed by the faculty members resigning their positions. 

The Diversity Committee wasn’t intent on  eliminating inequality based on social differences.  It was intent on imposing a socially constructed inequality of its own-one between faculty members who uphold a fashionable identity-politics critique of the United States, and those who demur from that critique.  At bottom, the diversity definition, like the diversity policy as a whole, is a grab for political power by a particular faction.

And that’s why that collective pronoun testifies to something nasty.  It speaks of the dean’s will to power and her disdain for those who hold differing views.

Too much emphasis on one word?  Let’s try another.  Den Rowlands rejects the idea that her policy made "diversity as a rigid requirement for promotion and tenure."    This is artful.  The policy was no more "rigid" than an octopus.  It was, as many of the critics said, vague, pliable, capable of meaning whatever an administrator wanted it to mean at the moment.  It wasn’t a rigid requirement for promotion and tenure but a pervasive requirement.

The richness of this letter is that in the midst of declaring her determination to drive from the University anyone who disagrees with her caricature of America as a place dominated by "systems of oppression and privilege" that must be challenged, and anyone who does not embrace her view of double, triple, and quadruple standards based on race, gender, class, and miscellaneous identity group, Dean Rowlands finds time to imagine how "inclusive" the University will be.

So who is Sue Ott Rowlands?  How does she happen to stand in a position of such authority at a major public university? 

Dean Rowland’s curriculum vitae is posted online, so we need not go far for the answer.  The vita leaves off in 2005, before she landed as dean at Virginia Tech, in July 2007.  But the gap doesn’t much interrupt the story.  Rowlands is an actor and director, whose "faculty" positions over much of her career consisted of appointment to professional training positions connected to theatres.  She received a B.S. in education in 1975 from Oklahoma Christian College, and an MFA in acting and directing in 1979 from the University of Oklahoma.   As of 2005, she was working on a "Ph.D. in Higher Education" from the University of Toledo that she began the year before.

Her gossamer academic credentials, however, have not hindered her academic advancement.  She was an assistant professor at the Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University from 1979 to 1984; then after numerous "faculty" positions in professional training programs, she vaulted to the position of associate professor and chair of the acting/directing program at Ohio State, 1997-2002-though she seems to have spent much of that time as a visiting faculty member away from Ohio in New Zealand and Hungary.  The she vaulted again to the status of full professor and chair of theatre and film at the University of Toledo, and became interim dean there in 2005. 

Her record in the theatre world will have to speak for itself.  She may be very talented on stage, as a director, and as a teacher of theatrical craft.   But Virginia Tech’s selection of her to be dean of a college of liberal arts and human sciences is, on its face, bizarre.  She is someone who has apparently never studied the liberal arts or the human sciences; never written a work of scholarship-well, hold that.  Her 2005 c.v. does list "Scholarly Research:  Publications."  It consists of one item: 

"Resource Review: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: How to Prevent, Investigate, and Resolve Problems in Your Organization." Journal of Parks and

Recreation Administration II.2 (1993), 82-83.

And perhaps by now she has finished that Ph.D. in education.   Her two pages on sexual harassment in the Journal of Parks and Recreation Administration, however, were enough to move her to associate professor, department chair, full professor, interim dean, and her current position.

It isn’t an especially good idea to build an argument on someone’s resume. People are often larger, more complex, and fundamentally better than they appear on paper.  In this case, I have to assume that Rowlands’ talents in the arts and sciences administration go a long way towards making up for her deficiencies as a scholar.  But still,  the gap between what her experience and her current responsibility is wider than Chesapeake Bay.  It does, however, seem to explain some of her hostility toward academic standards and her readiness to embrace "inclusive excellence."  Without an ambitiously broad definition of scholarly achievement, Dean Rowlands would be an untenable spot.  She presumes herself qualified for a job for which she has scant preparation. 

Is it too much of a reach to suggest that her fondness for substituting ideological conformity for actual scholarly excellence has something to with her desultory education and a career that is only tangentially about scholarship? 

It is not clear to me how central a role Dean Rowlands is playing in the debacle unfolding at Virginia Tech.   She comes into the picture now because of her authorship of this extraordinarily ideological memo, but also because some Virginia Tech faculty members have advised me that this whole borborygmus has more to do with her than with President Steger or Provost McNamee. 

What’s Next?

The story of Virginia Tech’s attempt to impose on its faculty a requirement that they demonstrate their commitment to "diversity" in order to win tenure or promotion is likely to get more complicated.  One layer of complication is intentional deception on the part of the Virginia Tech administration.  That’s already started with the false claim that the policy was never a "requirement."  It was, and if Dean Rowlands has her way, will still be.  Only it will now wear a wig and a false moustache.  Stagecraft turns out to be good for something after all.

Another layer of complication is the attempt to obfuscate.  These verbal ploys must be intended to divert those who have a will to be diverted.  We already saw this too, when the reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Robin Wilson, professed to be unable to find any language in the original policy that could be taken as unambiguously making the requirement a requirement.   Further steps toward making the requirement required without using the word "requirement" lie ahead, and will appeal to credulous reporters eager to see no coercion. 

Finally, my own view is that those of us who look on this policy as coercive (covertly or otherwise); as infringing freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, and academic freedom; and as advancing an ideology that profoundly damages higher education-those of us who are skeptics about Virginia Tech’s brave new world-will need to shift tactics.  Appealing to principle is apparently not enough.  The head of the board of trustees "forgets" his stated commitments.  The president of the University hides behind a public relations spokesman.  The provost retails transparent falsehoods.  What are they afraid of?   Apparently something more ominous that NAS, FIRE, and ACTA.  So let’s give them and their colleagues something more substantial to fear: a public spotlight on their unwillingness to uphold academic standards. If they want to pander to ideological interest groups and in the process corrupt their University, they can perform that act in full public view. 

nd let’s find out what perversion of hiring standards put the theatrical Ms. Rowlands in the deanship. 

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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