A diversity step too far

April 19, 2009

Even in the age of Obama, race and other issues related to inclusiveness continue to confound officials at many of the nation’s universities.

Virginia Tech is a prime example, where well-meaning officials made the mistake of appearing to require professors to show an "active involvement in diversity" for promotion and consideration for tenure in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. They should have known better than to step on this third rail in academia.

As a member of a minority group and as a former college teacher, I wish the Virginia Tech folks had used better judgment and avoided yet another needless battle between liberals and conservatives. Because of their ham-fisted action, the university’s president and provost made themselves targets and wasted a lot of valuable time and effort.

Here is what happened: To make the mostly white, relatively conservative campus feel more welcoming to nontraditional students, faculty and staff, officials believed that professors would reach out to more minorities if they believed that evidence of a commitment to diversity would look good in the list of activities that are included in annual reports of their work.

"The university is really committed to improving our overall profile in diversity," provost Mark G. McNamee said. "We want to be supportive and attractive to people from all different groups."

According to the new guideline, professors could show, among other accomplishments, that they participated in or initiated diversity seminars, performed duties related to recruiting racial minorities and female students, mentored traditionally underserved students and incorporated diversity-related topics into their lectures and talks.

The whole thing sounded simple enough at first blush, but it was not. Within days of the guideline’s posting, conservative groups, including the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, FIRE for short, asked the university to remove it from the list of activities. The National Association of Scholars, NAS, also joined the fight. These conservative organizations and others argued that the guideline was written in such a way as to resemble a requirement, which would make it a violation of academic freedom, a "litmus test" for sensitivity.

About the guideline, Peter Wood, head of NAS, wrote: "This is a highly unusual step – one that flouts academic freedom. ‘Diversity’ is not a category of academic accomplishment equivalent to high-quality teaching 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."

But let us be clear. While the NAS accuses Virginia Tech of "political orthodoxy," it is a powerful political group that strongly opposes racial and gender preferences in college admissions and hiring. Its board of trustees includes prominent conservatives such as William Donahue, leader of the conservative Catholic League, and Shelby Steele.

Conservatives argued that the university had been inconsistent in how it wrote the diversity guideline. In some documents, the language resembled a mandate for diversity. In others, the language seemed to state that professors "could" include evidence of commitments to diversity.

The university president wisely listened to the conservatives and asked the provost to "clean up" the guideline, making its intention clear and consistent in all areas.

"We certainly have no interest in stepping outside the mainstream of academic freedom," the provost said. "We want to support faculty efforts in the broad area of diversity, but we would not and do not want to impede anyone’s academic privileges."

This time the conservatives were right. Although diversity is a worthy goal, suggesting that evidence of it is required as one of the activities in professors’ annual report for advancement and tenure is wrong. As a former professor, I would not want to be forced to show evidence that I have encouraged diversity in order to advance in my profession.

Virginia Tech officials should be commended for acknowledging their mistake and making a midcourse correction.

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