The Foundation for Individual Rights has announced that the University of Minnesota, in response to a letter from FIRE, promised that "[n]o University policy or practice ever will mandate any particular beliefs, or screen out people with 'wrong beliefs' from the University." The FIRE letter was prompted by a proposal for the university's school of education, to be voted on in January, that would require all ed students to study “white privilege, hegemonic masculinity, heteronormativity, and internalized oppression.” NAS wrote about it here. FIRE is cautiously optimistic about the university's response. While warning that "The next version of the college's plans must reflect this promise," it has declared a victory for freedom of conscience. The letter from General Counsel Mark B. Rotenberg, however, gives cause for continuing concern. Rotenberg asserts that the university holds the right, under academic freedom, to "engage in creative thinking, dialogue, and advocacy with respect to a broad range of ideas for improving P-12 education." He added, "Academic freedom means little if our teaching faculty is inhibited from discussing and proposing curriculum innovations simply because others find them 'illiberal' or 'unjust.'" Rotenberg is right to praise the exchange of different and competing viewpoints. But U Minnesota needs to be more thoughtful about its proposals. Even illiberal brainstorming can take root when it results in public documents ready for approval. Take Virginia Tech, for example. Its College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences recently came out with a "Strategic Diversity Plan" that aimed to put in systems for logrolling; provide incentives (some monetary) for faculty and staff to take part in diversity activities and for departments to make faculty hires; implement College-wide diversity course requirements; and enact racial preferences in spite of a Virginia Tech ban on affirmative action. It is not clear what bureaucratic hurtles remain for the Diversity Plan's approval or when it is likely to be granted (although the general CLAHS Strategic Plan has already endorsed the Diversity Plan), but it is clear that such a plan, if approved, will leave Virginia Tech's intellectual integrity in ruins. So no, proposing illiberal or unjust "curriculum innovations" is not as benign as Rotenberg would like it to sound. But for now, we join with FIRE in encouragement over the University of Minnesota's promises not to mandate particular points of view.
- December 23, 2009