Virginia Tech Follies, Roanoke Edition

Peter Wood

The Roanoke Times (circulation 97,000) has weighed in on the Virginia Tech controversy with an editorial defending the University’s “diversity” policies and condemning NAS and FIRE as “conservative groups” that “overreacted.”  The RT editors promote the idea that when a campus official says the word “diversity,” we should know he is endorsing the stuff that “enriches” the campus, “strengthens the educational mission,” encourages “respect for and appreciation of differences.” 

Efforts to promote “diversity” can go “too far” say the editors, if they stifle free speech or impose quotas. But perish the thought that the Virginia Tech administrators would ever do that. 

The editorial is an almost perfect specimen of contemporary political correctness, which adopts the tone of reasonable moderation to advance a very unreasonable and far from moderate position. A blogger named Jerry Fuhrman catches them out on this. Fuhrman came to our defense (and FIRE’s) by pointing out that the Roanoke Times sets out a sorry caricature of our ideas. Furhman can see, as we trust many people can, that “diversity” these days has several conflicting meanings. It can mean the determination not to let racial barriers stand in the way of anyone’s access to college or a job. NAS supports that kind of diversity. Or it can mean recognition that robust intellectual debate is at the heart of higher education. NAS supports that kind of diversity too. 

Or “diversity” can mean the dogma that some “identity groups,” by virtue of a history of oppression, should have privileged access to college admissions, appointments, and other services. NAS emphatically does not support diversity in that sense. 

Virginia Tech is among a handful of institutions that are intent on adding one more meaning to this overworked word. The VT administrators this spring have launched an idea of “diversity” as a creed that the whole University—students, faculty, staff—must follow. The creed specifies that the pursuit of diversity has to be part of everything, including the evaluation of ideas. This is breathtaking and so absurd that we suspect that many people hearing it can’t believe it means what it sounds like.   It means that Professor X’s idea isn’t to be judged right or wrong until you know Professor X’s skin color, chromosome content, or sexual orientation. It means that Student Y doesn’t get a grade until the faculty member has taken into account Student Y’s identity group.

Will faculty members at Virginia Tech submit to this silliness? Do President Steger and Provost McNamee simply mouth the increasingly radical slogans of the powerful VT “Diversity Committee” and the mysteriously under-qualified but enthusiastically identity-conscious dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Services, Sue Ott Rowlands—or do they really believe what they’ve been saying? Neither answer does them much credit.

It seems to me not very difficult to realize that “diversity” has become a code word—one that attempts to draw people in with the positive resonance of its first two meanings, and then attempts to sneak in the third meaning too, and sometimes the fourth.   The editors at the Roanoke Times, however, don’t seem to have much of that old journalistic investigative curiosity. “Diversity” is just diversity to them, and Virginia Tech should by all means “foster” it. 

I have emailed a letter to the Roanoke Times as follows:

To the Editor,

                Your editorial, “Foster Diversity at Virginia Tech,” misrepresents the National Association of Scholars and our criticism of Tech’s policies. We are not a “conservative group.” NAS is an independent association that seeks to foster intellectual freedom and academic integrity.   Our position on “diversity” is simple. We favor a university that is open to everyone. We fight against speech codes, group favoritism, and ideology masquerading as education. 

                Higher education these days is full of deceptive slogans. When someone says he favors “diversity,” you need to ask what he means. Does he favor treating all people fairly? Or does he mean that some people are more equal than others? We took the time to figure out what the Virginia Tech administration is really doing. You ought to have done the same. 

Peter Wood
National Association of Scholars 

In truth, I suspect that the editors knew exactly what they were doing. We have entered an era of strange pretense, one in which many people have adopted a “let’s pretend” view of reality. Let’s pretend that ideological litmus tests are just occasional instances of someone taking a worthy principle a little “too far.” Let’s pretend that we can suspend intellectual standards as a fast-track way to a more “inclusive” campus and still offer a worthwhile education. Or, on a larger stage, let’s pretend that we can double the number of students earning college degrees by 2020. 

“Just pretend,” or “hope,” or whatever anodyne label we put on it, is a reckless basis for public policy. The citizens of Virginia deserve better from their public universities, if not from their banal newspapers. 

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