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Commitment to diversity as a job requirement

March 27, 2009

This week in The Chronicle, Robin Wilson has a story on the “diversity” factor in tenure and promotion guidelines at Virginia Tech. According to the guidelines, the promotion and tenure committee “expects all dossiers to demonstrate the candidate’s active involvement in diversity.” The provost at Virginia Tech claims that the guideline does not “require” professors to join diversity activities, but only “encourages” them to do so. The diversity criterion goes back to a few years ago, he adds, when the university wanted to make sure that people who did pursue diversity activities were valued for their efforts.

This is a lesson in the academic version of “mission creep.” What starts out as a benign and unobjectionable approval policy evolves into a demand that everybody do the things that will be approved. For the provost to downplay the actual wording of the guidelines is to overlook both the insecurity of tenure candidates and the obscurity of the tenure review. What else would a junior faculty think when looking at those guidelines but, “Hey, I better get a couple of diversity activities on my CV this year”?

This is why Foundation for Individual Rights has written a protest letter to the president of Virginia Tech calling the criterion a “loyalty oath.” (See the NAS response here.) The letter also quotes statements from the Office of the Provost’s instructions for “Reporting Diversity Accomplishments in the Faculty Activities Report”:

“Participation in diversity awareness workshops on campus or off, attending harassment prevention training from EO Office, participation in CEUT reading group on multicultural/diversity topics, attending diversity-related programs to learn more about groups other than your own (Diversity Summit, identity group celebrations, Campus Climate Checkup, MLK events, special speakers, annual AdvanceVT and Scholarship of Diversity conferences, events hosted by Cranwell Center or Disability Services, special programs in your discipline or association, etc.); participating in an Undoing Racism workshop; learning another language (including American sign language) so that you might speak to current or prospective students, parents, or community members.”

Another statement in the Provost’s report covers “incorporating diversity-related scholarship in courses, readings, programs, service learning activities, and your own research/scholarship.” Such as:

“Revising a course reading list to incorporate concepts, readings, and scholarship on issues of gender, race, and other perspectives relevant to the course material; rethinking or adapting workshops, lectures, or publications to incorporate multicultural or gender perspectives . . . securing research grants or industry funds to support diversity initiatives or research; facilitating a staff training activity on diversity, bias reduction, or celebration of diversity.”

As FIRE rightly notes, such encouragements interfere with a teacher’s “moral and intellectual agency.” One wonders how Virginia Tech faculty have responded to this counsel. The University wants to see these activities in dossiers and on faculty members’ annual reports, which suggests that resources and rewards will follow accordingly. It implies that commitment to diversity may form a serious element of one’s record, reaching the level of teaching and research in the evaluation of professors.

If so, then Virginia Tech needs to produce a new document. Just as we have means of assessing teaching and research (student evaluations, classroom observations, letters by outside referees, peer-reviewed journal publications, etc.), so we need some means of assessing commitment to diversity. If administrators and (some) professors believe that commitment to diversity is a proper criterion, then they should supply some standards for it. We need to differentiate good commitment from bad commitment, influential and effectual commitment from transitory and ineffectual, long-term and short-term, and so on. If you really believe that commitment to diversity counts up there with other factors, then be rigorous and professional about it. In the tenure deliberation, when the service side comes up, someone needs to be able to say, “Now, we have examined the candidate’s diversity record, and here are the strengths and weaknesses, here’s the rating we give.” In other words, we need more than a yes or no. We need a good or bad. Put into the faculty handbook in cold print, “Here is what good diversity commitment is, and here is bad commitment.”

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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