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Political Litmus Test for Faculty at Virginia Tech Gets New Lease on Life

Virginia Tech is reinvigorating its crusade to impose an ideological litmus test on professors being assessed for promotion and tenure. The university’s recently updated guidelines for a tenure candidate’s dossier include several previously unwritten provisions highlighting the importance of reporting one’s contributions to “diversity and inclusion” in and out of the classroom in order to get ahead at Virginia Tech. While “diversity” as a concept is open to broad interpretation, in the university setting it has often come to signify a particular set of ideological beliefs and values, often focused on aspects of identity such as race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and disability status. That is certainly the case at Virginia Tech.

Whatever admirable intentions may have motivated administrators, the worry remains that Virginia Tech’s new guidelines will effectively condition tenure on demonstrating fealty to a politically loaded, yet amorphous, concept. This may not seem like a problem when those values are popularly accepted, but the potential for abuse should be obvious. Just substitute the word “diversity” with “patriotism,” and one can recall a time when loyalty oaths as a condition of employment in higher education were the norm.

FIRE and others have sought to bring attention to this issue at Virginia Tech since 2009. Back then, FIRE pointed out the threat to faculty members’ academic freedom and freedom of conscience posed by requiring candidates for tenure to demonstrate diversity activities and accomplishments. Virginia Tech administrators insisted that their policies did not impose requirements, but rather included diversity promotion to suggest one of many institutional values and ways to show service to the university. But now Virginia Tech has revisited its promotion and tenure policy and added a slew of new suggestions specifically on how faculty should demonstrate their commitment to diversity. This is starting to look a whole lot less like a suggestion.

FIRE first became involved in this case in March of 2009, in response to proposed guidelines for faculty assessment under consideration by Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences (CLAHS). The guidelines explicitly required educators to document their participation in diversity initiatives. After receiving letters from FIRE and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) pointing out the coercive aspects of the policy, the school confirmed it would rework the guidelines to the extent that they required professors to produce materials in support of diversity.

As FIRE noted at the time, however, the CLAHS guidelines were just the tip of the iceberg. Later that year, FIRE wrote a 15-page letter to Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors, highlighting a web of policy statements, tenure and promotion guidelines, and public statements by Virginia Tech’s then-president and provost, which together demanded “diversity accomplishments” from faculty and went far beyond promoting one institutional value among many. We expressed concern that faculty were experiencing “growing pressure … to alter their research, teaching, and personal development activities in order to conform to the university’s stated political agenda.” We emphasized, “FIRE does not oppose this agenda but does strongly oppose the coercive means being used to accomplish it.” Virginia Tech dismissed FIRE’s concerns, insisting in a response letter that “diversity is but one aspect of university service” that professors could demonstrate when seeking promotion or tenure.

With the adoption of Virginia Tech’s new 2015–2016 Guidelines for Promotion and Tenure Dossiers, however, that argument is less plausible. As Bart Hinkle recently wrote in an op-ed for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, according to the new guidelines:

Among other things, [tenure] candidates should “include a list of activities that promote or contribute to inclusive teaching, research, outreach, and service”; they should report information about their “contributions to an inclusive campus”; they should write about their “active involvement in diversity and inclusion”; demonstrate that they have pursued “training in inclusive pedagogy”; incorporate “the Principles of Community into course development”; and so on. A spokesman for the university says providing such information is purely voluntary — but who applying for promotion or tenure is likely to see it that way?

Outgoing Virginia Tech provost Mark McNamee responded to Hinkle with his own op-ed in the Times-Dispatch, insisting that contributions to inclusion and diversity are not a litmus test for faculty promotion. Echoing the university spokesman, he insisted that, under the new tenure guidelines, a candidate “‘may’ include examples responsive to the criteria. It says may—not must.” Rather, says McNamee, “We provide opportunities for faculty members to describe contributions across our three mission areas of teaching, research, and service.”

The problem with McNamee’s rebuttal, however, is that the new promotion and tenure guidelines make inclusion and diversity a clearly identified ideological and pedagogical priority throughout all three mission areas. The 2015–2016 guidelines expand the emphasis on diversity accomplishments far beyond their previous role—in older versions of the guidelines—in one mission area, namely, as a means of demonstrating service to the university. (The National Association of Scholars put together this useful chart laying out the changes and additions to the guidelines.) Whereas older guidelines generally limited diversity contributions to the “University Service” section of their dossier, the new guidelines identify diversity and inclusive practices as integral to teaching and research, in addition to service, throughout the dossier.

For example, a candidate “should” demonstrate efforts to improve one’s teaching, “including, but not limited to, pursuing training in inclusive pedagogy and incorporating the Principles of Community [which speak to the school’s diversity priorities, among others] into course development.” As to research, the guidelines remind candidates that, “Increasingly, scholarly and professional associations are acknowledging the need for more diverse perspectives within fields[,]” and then state that the dossier “may” address the candidate’s efforts “that advance the scholarship of diversity within her or his field.” They ask whether a candidate’s grant and research proposals “address[ ] broadening participation or increasing engagement of underrepresented groups within one’s field, or otherwise advance[ ] knowledge about diverse populations, as defined by one’s field.” In addition, candidates should still include other “services that promote diversity and inclusion” as examples of service to the school.

In short, Virginia Tech invites faculty members up for tenure to show how diversity factors into all aspects of their professional lives—in teaching, writing, research, and on-campus as well as extracurricular involvement. Whether or not the word “required” appears anywhere, can it really be doubted that an applicant for tenure will feel pressured to accept the invitation?

As we’ve said many times, the problem here is not “diversity,” it’s coercion. While Virginia Tech encourages faculty to think of diversity broadly in a statement on “Reporting Diversity Related Activities,” the boundaries of the concept are inevitably defined by institutional values and priorities. Indeed, the same statement announces that “issues related to race and gender are often preeminent at Virginia Tech.” At the end of the day, a dossier reviewer will decide what is and is not a positive contribution to diversity and inclusive pedagogy by a tenure candidate. Is a candidate with views unfriendly to affirmative action, for example, going to come out well in that assessment? If we accept that diversity has a value-based meaning to university administrations, it becomes dangerous territory for a public school to require its professors to teach, research, and promote its institutional values in order to achieve job security, whether demanded explicitly or via not-so-subtle suggestions as to what the administration wants to see.

It was not so long ago that public schools tried to compel students to pledge allegiance to the American flag—West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)—or that a public college demanded faculty to certify they were not Communists—Keyishian v. Board of Regents (1967). In both cases the Supreme Court stepped in to protect the First Amendment rights of students and teachers from compelled allegiance to institutionally-promoted values. As Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote for the Barnette court, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

FIRE will be keeping an eye on how Virginia Tech protects the academic freedom and freedom of conscience of its faculty. Though Virginia Tech has publicly insisted that contributions to inclusion and diversity are merely suggested criteria by which to evaluate tenure candidates, the new guidelines leave cause for ample skepticism. To clear any confusion and alleviate concerns, the administration should make a clear, definitive statement that a faculty member’s choice not to further the university’s ideological and value-based priorities will not be held against her or him when seeking promotion or tenure.

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