Virginia Tech Follies, Synergy Edition

Peter Wood

Virginia Tech has replied!

Well, sort of. 

The Virginia Association of Scholars (VAS), our state affiliate, wrote twice to the president of Virginia Tech, Charles Steger, concerning that university’s muscular approach towards “diversity.” Essentially President Steger declared in a letter to the whole VT community (April 30) that nothing would stand in the way of his University’s attempts to impose ideological uniformity in the name of “diversity.” On May 5, the Virginia Association of Scholars asked him to reconsider.  It seemed like a long shot.

It was. 

President Steger did not reply with his own pen, but delegated the task to his “vice president for equity and inclusion,” Kevin G. McDonald.    The vice president, addressing the head of VAS, wrote:

On behalf of President Charles W. Steger, I offer the following response to your May 5, 2009 letter:

Virginia Tech believes that our excellence as an institution is tied to our ability to help all students develop the intellectual, social, emotional, cultural, and civic capacities needed to lead in the 21st century. This is not just an institutional imperative, but a global one as well. Organizations all over the world recognize the importance that the creative energy and insight of diverse perspectives has [sic] on the growth and synergy of their respective organizations. As a world class institution, Virginia Tech sees diversity and inclusion as a part of excellence not apart from it, and believes that it is our responsibility to value diversity in all aspects of institutional functioning. We are committed to that aim and will not waiver [sic] from it.

Yours truly,

Kevin G. McDonald

Vice President for Equity and Inclusion

cc: Charles Steger

    Larry Hincker

    Kim O'Rourke

 By now, I suspect a lot of NAS readers are pretty tired of hearing about Virginia Tech’s determination to elevate “diversity” into its highest academic and intellectual principle.  If it chooses to non-renew faculty members because they are insufficiently enthusiastic about diversity, who cares? If it uses obscurantist terms like “inclusive excellence” to hide its decisions to replace ordinary academic standards with favoritism based on race, gender, and whatever, who cares about that either? 

The Virginia Tech faculty as a whole appears to have little concern, and so far there has been no great outcry from Virginia taxpayers. I suspect President Steger is confident that he can ride this out and get his way. And I suspect he is right. Virginia Tech wasn’t exactly the most ambitious institution of higher learning in the Commonwealth, and if it is determined to sink a little lower, no one is going to stop it. 

Granting all this, I’m inclined to keep up the criticism. It serves two good purposes.  First, it is a way of illuminating the broader phenomenon of the politicization of public universities. Many of them across the country play a double game of embracing radical ideologies on campus but portraying themselves to parents, taxpayers, and legislators as middle-of-the-road, commonsense stewards of the public trust.  The Virginia Tech case originally surfaced at the end of March as an instance in which a radical faction on campus overplayed its hand. A memo and a bunch of supporting documents that were never meant to be seen by the public revealed that the University intended to force faculty members to adopt a favored political position on pain of losing their jobs if they resisted.

IIt was an unsupportable position, and President Steger ostensibly and publicly backed away from it. As soon as the dust settled, however, he was back with reassurances to the diversity radicals that he was fully committed to their agenda. Only this time he took the precaution of using all the weasel words and rhetorical camouflage in which such commitments are usually phrased. 

We called him on it, and that led to the second good purpose that may come from this controversy: we are making it a little more difficult for college presidents to get away with this sort of mendacity.

In that spirit, we have a few comments on vice president MacDonald’s terse reply to the VAS.   First, President Steger’s delegation of the task of replying seems unusual in the circumstances. The VAS raised a question about the basic mission of the University. One would think that would rise to the level of a university president answering in his own name. Who speaks for Virginia Tech on the core mission of the University? Apparently not the president. The vice president for equity and inclusion steps up. 

VP McDonald's message, short as it is, introduces three new elements to Virginia Tech’s explanation of why it has elevated the promotion of “diversity” to be the University’s central task. They are:

1. Whole Person Pedagogy. The university is not about educating students (or shaping their character) but developing "the intellectual, social, emotional, cultural, and civic capacities needed to lead in the 21st century." That shifts the emphasis toward the therapeutic, transformative, and politically engaging side of things. The people who advocate this stuff call it "whole person pedagogy" and urge that the faculty be seen as only one small component of the endeavor to "change" students. 

2. 21st Century Skills. McDonald’s use of the phrase "needed to lead in the 21st century" links the folks at Virginia Tech to a movement that has emerged in the last few years—a movement that aims to replace substantive educational content with human relations skills. What does it take to "lead in the 21st century?" If you press the people who use this cliché, they typically have no clue as to what they mean. It just sounds good to them. Some, however, will make the case that the 21st century requires "critical thinking," as through the 20th century didn't. The phrase "21st century skills" is now in wide circulation, promoted most conspicuously by the Massachusetts-based Partnership for 21st Century Skills. It has also been taken up by public school teachers unions as a battering ram against the regime of standardized testing promoted by No Child Left Behind. "21st century skills" invokes a penumbra of soft human relations attitudes and skills such as “social networking,” the pursuit of which is meant to displace all that dreary concentration of acquiring knowledge, reading a lot, and developing disciplined intellectual habits. The Common Core, Inc. has posted several useful pieces on this, including this critique by Diane Ravitch. NAS has also written our own critique

3. Globalization.   Globalization, of course, is real and can be defined in some rigorous ways. Connecting it to "diversity," however, is not one of those ways. McDonald is pitching a familiar diversity trope that "the creative energy and insight of diverse perspective" spurs "growth and synergy." This is a controversial point even for the United States. Attempts to pin down the alleged advantages of diversity in the workplace have foundered or come to rest on the sandbars of mere assertion. Be that as it may, when we look at nations that lead the way in globalization, they are conspicuous by their purposeful rejection of domestic diversity.  Japan and China aim at cultural homogeneity. India has plenty of internal diversity, but pushes it aside when it comes to its participation in the global economy. The European Union is hard at work attempting to overcome the cultural differences of its member states to create a new European unity. In short, "diversity" and "globalization" are awkward partners. This doesn’t necessarily mean the U.S. should follow the lead of Japan, China, India, or the European Union, but it does mean that McDonald is just tossing around words. If there is an argument here, he hasn’t made it.  

Nothing about McDonald’s letter suggests he actually thought about what diversity might contribute to Virginia Tech and what its drawbacks might be. He doesn’t draw the elemental distinction between diversity as a demographic fact and “diversity” as a political theory that emphasizes the need to elevate identity groups in access to public goods. His letter is composed of magical catch phrases, not coherent thoughts. One might think that a university that takes itself seriously, or a university president capable of intellectual embarrassment, would have taken the trouble to compose an actual defense of its position. But no, we are being treated to trivialities instead. 

Sorry for all the grumbling. Perhaps my intellectual, social, emotional, cultural, and civic capacities are misaligned. My institutional and global imperatives may be shorting, and my creative energy and insight are a little low.  Can anyone spare some synergy? 

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