“Diversity” and “Inclusion” Litmus Tests for Tenure

Ashley Thorne

When a faculty member goes up for promotion and tenure, he prepares to have his whole academic career put under the microscope. That’s appropriate for the prospect of lifetime job security and the commitment that a college or university is being asked to make. 

Though the university is most interested in the candidate’s teaching and scholarship, it is common to inquire into whether he has also proven his devotion to the institution, the community, and the profession in non-academic ways. Has he given his free time to act as an advisor to a student organization? Has he served on a faculty committee or played a leadership role in his department? Has he led any university-sponsored events? Has he provided expert testimony? These extra activities fall under the category commonly called “service” in promotion and tenure dossier guidelines. Examples could also include an art professor advising a museum, a music professor playing in public concerts, or an anthropologist working with a local organization to protect indigenous rights. Colleges generally weigh teaching and research as more important, but “service” can play a significant role.

These are areas that universities should rightly take into consideration when weighing whether to make a person more centrally part of its core faculty. What is outside the realm of relevant criteria, however, are ideological litmus tests, which violate academic freedom and freedom of conscience. “Service” can’t be used to favor Democrats over Republicans (or vice versa); omnivores over vegetarians; pacifists over NRA members; or proponents of a gold standard over stalwarts of the Federal Reserve. The list of possible litmus tests is inexhaustible. But the list of actual litmus tests currently used by universities is pretty short.

There is now one in place at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). The test is for “diversity” and its close companion “inclusion,” both of which take up significant real estate in the university’s newly updated 2015-2016 promotion and tenure dossier guidelines.

“Diversity” is a term with a lot of baggage; it was a concept invented to justify racial preferences in college admissions. Such preferences overcorrected for previous racial discrimination in higher education by providing a different kind of unfair discrimination.

Back in spring 2009 NAS president Peter Wood and I wrote a series of articles about Virginia Tech’s troubling move to make demonstrating “contributions to diversity” a requirement for promotion and tenure. At the time, the Virginia chapter of NAS corresponded with former Virginia Tech president Charles Steger, and our friends at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) also called on the university to change its policy. The Chronicle of Higher Education covered the story, and Virginia Tech's student newspaper, Collegiate Times, published an editorial concluding that "Diversity should be held as important, but ultimately it is an ideology" which should be encouraged but not enforced.

A university spokesman responded by indicating that the policy would be “reworked,” but instead the university doubled down. It introduced a “strategic plan” for diversity in its College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, which Peter and I scrutinized in “Virginia Tech Reasserts ‘Diversity’ Folly” (Part 1 and Part 2).

It later created “InclusiveVT,” an umbrella term for “anything that advances inclusion at Virginia Tech.” The university’s new president Timothy Sands inherited the program from Steger’s “Task Force on Inclusive Excellence.”

“Inclusive” is another loaded term. It sounds like a synonym for “equal opportunity,” but in practice it essentially sets up private clubs. In a 2009 article Peter Wood wrote that while the Western world has over time progressively opened its doors to groups of people who had formerly been excluded from the opportunity for higher education, it has now swung back the other direction in order to include students and faculty members because of their identities, not because of their eagerness to learn and apply themselves. He unpacked the term “inclusive excellence”:

“Inclusive excellence” is based on the idea that different social and cultural groups have their own standards for excellence that cannot be shared or in most cases even translated across group boundaries. The excellence pursued by white Americans is one thing; that pursued by African-Americans another. The excellence pursued by women is one thing; that pursued by men is another. Under the doctrine of “inclusive excellence,” a university makes clear that it recognizes and values the distinctive excellences of each and every campus group. 

Well, not really. In practice it means having separate (and lower) expectations for some groups than others.  A simple translation of “inclusive excellence" is that it is affirmative action for ideas. Ideas that are too weak, too flawed, too unsupported to withstand critical inspection get a sharply discounted admission ticket under the reign of “inclusive excellence.” The doctrine clearly owes something to several decades of post-modernism and various other attempts to diminish respect for reason and rational inquiry. 

Peter went on to write that “inclusive excellence” is really a euphemism for exclusive mediocrity, and that administrators’ use of the phrase was sheer rodomontade to boast about taking a sort of moral high ground.

Virginia Tech’s latest folly in this direction is manifesting itself once again in the promotion and tenure criteria, where there is now even more space devoted to spelling out how faculty members should prove their “diversity contributions” and “inclusive practices.” The 2015-2016 “Guidelines for Promotion and Tenure Dossiers” have seven places where there is more attention given to these ideologies than in the previous version of the document (2013-2014).

Download full 2013-2014 document >

Download full 2015-2016 document >

As a helpful visual, I lay out the changes in the chart below.

Changes to Virginia Tech’s “Guidelines for Promotion and Tenure Dossiers”

2013-2014 Document

2015-2016 Document

Page 2, section I: Executive Summary

Says that candidates should summarize significant contributions, including but not limited to: “Diversity initiatives or contributions (selected, or all if page limit allows)”

Now says that candidates should summarize significant contributions, including but not limited to: “Inclusive practices and diversity initiatives (selected, or all if page limit allows). Candidates should include a list of activities that promote or contribute to inclusive teaching, research, outreach, and service.”

Page 3, section II. C: Statement by the department head. 

NO mention of reporting on diversity or inclusion

Candidates should now report “Information regarding the candidate’s contributions to an inclusive campus and collegial workplace at Virginia Tech.”

Page 6, section III: Candidate's Statement. 

Reads, “The statement also provides candidates an opportunity to address their active involvement in diversity and international activities.”

Now reads, “This statement should provide all reviewers with a clear understanding of the candidate’s research and creative activities; teaching, outreach, and extension achievements; international activities; and active involvement in diversity and inclusion.”

Page 8, section IV. M: Demonstrated efforts to improve one’s teaching effectiveness 

NO mention of reporting on diversity or inclusion

Now reads: “The promotion and tenure dossier should provide the following information
about teaching and advising: […]

Demonstrated efforts to improve one’s teaching effectiveness, including, but not limited to, pursuing training in inclusive pedagogy and incorporating the Principles of Community into course development.”

Page 10, section V. Research and Creative Activities. 

NO mention of reporting on diversity or inclusion.

Now adds this: “Increasingly, scholarly and professional associations are acknowledging the need for more diverse perspectives within fields. The dossier may address the candidate’s involvement with work groups, conferences, special journal editions, or other efforts that advance the scholarship of diversity within her or his field.”

Page 10/11, section V. Research and Creative Activities, C. Sponsored Research and Other Grant Awards

NO mention of reporting on diversity or inclusion.

Now adds this: “Identify whether the proposal addresses broadening participation or increasing engagement of underrepresented groups within one’s field, or otherwise advances knowledge about diverse populations, as defined by one’s field.”

Page 12/13, section VI. International and Professional Service and Additional Outreach and Extension

NO mention of reporting on diversity or inclusion.

Now adds “C. Efforts to diversify the disciplines such as:

1.Disciplinary or interdisciplinary efforts to attract underrepresented students to different majors and graduate programs at Virginia Tech.

2.Participation in campus, local, regional, or national organizational efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in scholarly or professional fields.”

In addition to these seven changes, the document repeats and slightly rewords a section from the previous version of the document, in section VII, “University service”:

Service that promotes diversity and inclusion (e.g., participation in a caucus designed to promote inclusion; participation in gateway and pipeline programs; advising and assisting student ambassador programs).

Broad categories and examples of diversity contributions developed by the Commission on Equal Opportunity and Diversity are available at the following website:

Virginia Tech should not be allowed to condition employment and promotion upon acceptance and active participation in an ideological agenda, especially one that purposefully privileges certain identity groups to the detriment of others.

The university may insist that these are guidelines, not mandates. But the added language on “diversity and inclusion,” in this context with Virginia Tech’s official blessing, sends a clear message to faculty candidates for promotion and tenure: embrace this ideology or be left behind.

Faculty members’ careers should be dependent on their merit as scholars and teachers, not on whether they take part in efforts that are faddish and ultimately unfair.

We at NAS will not let colleges and universities get away with this kind of dishonesty. We call on Virginia Tech to remove this language from its 2015-2016 promotion and tenure dossier guidelines.

Is Virginia Tech alone in having compromised its criteria for promotion and tenure by adding a diversity litmus test? Are such tests even legal? (The 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision allows diversity as a compelling public interest, but only in student admissions. It says nothing about faculty hiring.) We suspect they are fairly widespread, and we invite readers who know of other such cases to let us know. We also invite discussion of whether the “diversity” litmus test is in fact an improper use of the university’s authority to screen faculty members.

Image: Flickr

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