Thanks to the diligent reporting of an Argus volunteer, we have an update on the latest efforts to enforce “diversity” on faculty members at Virginia Tech. Before we get to Virginia Tech, however, let’s survey the larger reasons why in September 2010 we are still talking about the effort to advance racial and ethnic understanding by means of this peculiar doctrine.
The National Association of Scholars has been a skeptical observer of the “diversity” movement since its emergence in the 1980s as the leading academic rationale for race preferences and other identity-group-based compromises of academic standards. Campus fervor for the diversity ideology has subsided in recent years as trendier causes (such as “sustainability”) have emerged, but the advocates of diversity succeeded over the years in institutionalizing their creed at many colleges and universities. They were especially successful in promoting “commitment to diversity” as a job requirement for college presidents and provosts.
Over time that has given rise to a situation in which higher education administration is dominated to the point of saturation by “diversiphile” administrators. In all too many cases, we encounter college administrators of limited scope and ability whose primary claim to academic authority seems to be their inexhaustible enthusiasm for this spent ideology. We think, for example, of the president of California State University at Chico as the archetype of this kind of college president. He is a man whose scholarship consists of books about baseball and golf, and whose vision of higher education is obsessively focused on promoting “diversity.”
Administrative careers based on recycling this old fad, unfortunately, have real consequences. They end up diverting large amounts of time and money to a pursuit that is at best academically irrelevant and more often destructive. “Diversity” is a doctrine that virtually never delivers what it promises. It promises an intellectually enlivened campus; it promises mutual respect among identity groups; it promises open-mindedness; it promises an abiding spirit of fairness. But it delivers dull and sometimes fearful conformity. It restricts the topics people can discuss. It fosters low-level resentment, self-doubt, and a victim-mindset. It erodes self-confidence and breeds a testy defensiveness among both its supposed beneficiaries and its advocates. It lowers academic standards from the admissions office to the classroom. And it makes the American college campus synonymous with a hypocritical unfairness: an unfairness sensed by nearly everyone, but that few dare to articulate.
What to do when your own career is inexorably tied to promoting an ideology that sounds nice in the abstract but that has proven over three decades of implementation not to work as advertised? Their all-too-typical answer is to blame the faculty and to blame the students for their lamentable lack of zeal in embracing the beautiful ideals of diversity. If only we could get the faculty to really really really embrace diversity, it would work. It would have to! If these diversiphiles sometimes sound like disappointed cultists who can’t figure out why the flying saucer didn’t arrive on schedule, well…
This brings us back to Virginia Tech, where indeed the flying saucer didn’t arrive and the diversiphile administrators who seem to have no other ideas to turn to keep doubling down on their favorite concept.
In the Last Episode
In March 2009 we broke the unwelcome news that the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences (CLAHS) had imposed a political test on candidates for promotion and tenure: candidates were to prove the value of their “contributions to diversity.” We called on Virginia Tech to repudiate this violation of academic freedom. We were joined in our criticism by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), our affiliate the Virginia Association of Scholars, and the editors of the Virginia Tech student newspaper.
Charles Steger, Virginia Tech’s president, seemed to take these admonitions to heart, and he indicated that the college would “rework” its policy. But just weeks after his announcement, the dean of the college, Sue Ott Rowlands, quietly assured the CLAHS faculty that “our commitment to equity and inclusive excellence has never been stronger,” and promised a “soon-to-be-unveiled strategic diversity plan.”
A Step Further
Last year Virginia Tech contented itself with trying to make its existing faculty tremble before the gods of diversity. This year, the University is taking it a step further, seeking to ensure that only those who play the game get faculty appointments in the first place. To this end it has fashioned a “diversity” litmus test for faculty hiring. In March, the university issued a 51-page document Faculty Search and Screen Procedures: Resources for Search Committees (Including Sample Forms, Letters, Interview Questions), (FSSP) that put forth techniques intended to boost the number of women and minority candidates for faculty appointment while staying narrowly clear of anti-discrimination laws. In this context, the word “diversity” operates as magical shield—although it won’t stop us.
The FSSP strategies for creating a “diverse pool of applicants” include some old standbys in the diversity industry:
- Use campus-based networks, such as the Black Caucus, Hispanic Caucus, the Advance program, and your college’s diversity committee(s).
- Contact historically Black, Hispanic, Asian & Tribal colleges for new Ph.D. lists.
- Use the Minorities & Women Doctoral Directory, and others like it
- Use author names in journals to identify possible candidates of color and women
Of somewhat greater interest is the list of questions to be used in checking candidates’ references. Search committees are asked, for example, to ask referees to “Describe the candidate’s efforts and successes in recruiting, retaining, and advancing women and minorities in programs or organizations in which he or she has been involved, or in advancing diversity issues in other ways.” A section in the “Resources for Search Committees” document specifies lawful and unlawful questions to ask during interviews. It is unlawful, for example, to ask, “Of what country are you a citizen?” or any questions regarding race. But questions about diversity efforts are legal and operate as a kind of code for finding out what is otherwise forbidden to ask.
How to Detect Unbelievers
Last week the 51-page FSSP gave birth to a new one-page baby. The College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences sent out a memo to employees, “Diversity Related Questions for Search Committees to Consider Using.” The link gives a copy of the original text. Below we offer an annotated (“fisked”) version, with the original text in boxes followed by our out-of-the-box comments.
Diversity Related Questions for Search Committees to Consider Using
Let’s start with an elementary point. What does “diversity” mean in this context? When the memo declares, “Diversity is a strong value in our college,” does it mean:
- “We value the variety in the academic programs we offer – ranging from Air Force ROTC to Music to Science and Technology,” or
- “We value the spectrum of talent among our faculty – some excel at textile manufacturing, some are experts on ‘supervenience and realism,’ and some direct campus plays such as Topgirls,” or
- “We value discussing a number of different and competing viewpoints.”
Of course, it doesn’t mean any of these in the minds of the CLAHS memo-writers or their intended audience. The narrowing of the word “diversity” to mean the promotion of racial, ethnic, and sexual variety is actually a serious loss precisely because it marginalizes all these other—intrinsically more important—forms of diversity.
Below we offer possible questions related to diversity that you may wish to ask during job interviews.
These are “possible” questions that search committees “may want to ask.” We suspect that the members of faculty search committees can take a hint.
Such questions can help identify candidates who will work proactively to increase the diversity of the student body, faculty, and administration and create an environment where diverse people are welcomed and respected.
Actually, the result is likely the opposite. Such questions put every candidate on alert that Virginia Tech will scrutinize them for conformity to this dogma. Putting these questions into the interview is a way of teaching the prospective faculty member what idols to bow to. Job-hungry candidates aren’t usually deterred by such things. Too much is at stake for them to forego potential employment just for the satisfaction of plain speaking. So they do the prudent thing and recite the diversity pledge of allegiance. Does this sound like it conduces to “an environment where diverse people are welcomed and respected”? We would hope that people of all backgrounds would be welcomed and respected on a college campus, where respect is meted out for talent and actual achievement. Instead, Virginia Tech offers pre-fabricated “respect.”
Asking questions like the ones CLAHS recommends also assumes that the candidate has already embraced this idea and leaves no room for thoughtful disagreement. There is an affront to freedom of conscience buried in this procedure. Should a public university make commitment to the dogma of diversity a condition of hiring?
We wonder what would happen to the candidate who misinterprets the code and uses the occasion to express enthusiasm for genuine intellectual diversity. The candidate could say something like, “Website statements such as Virginia Tech’s—‘We affirm the value of human diversity because it enriches our lives and the University. We acknowledge and respect our differences while affirming our common humanity’—encourage me. They let me know that the university is dedicated to the plurality of thought and differing points of view, and civil discussion of controversial and unpopular ideas, provided they are grounded in reasoned argument and evidence. Diversity is an outward measure of academic freedom, and I look forward to working with colleagues who benefit from Virginia Tech’s robust commitment to it.”
Let’s continue imagining our Blissfully Unaware Candidate [BUC] fielding these questions. He (or she) answers:
“My students have been extremely diverse. I’ve taught students from Southern farms and Northern cities, libertarians and socialists, hockey players and vegans, virtuoso violinists and single parents, Mennonites and Goths. I teach everyone the same material and give everyone an equal opportunity to debate and disagree.”
3. What readings would you assign in your classes to address issues of diversity?
BUC: “My favorites are Pluralism: the Philosophy and Politics of Diversity,by Maria Baghramian and Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, by Peter Wood.”
4. How does your teaching philosophy reflect your commitment to diversity?
BUC: “I believe a diversity of ideas is essential to the transmission of our civilization’s legacy. Students should read both Nietzsche and Aquinas, learn each side of current public policy debates, and take a variety of subjects. In every course I teach I always present opposing arguments and ask students to weigh them on their merits. Whenever possible I set up in-class debates between students. I keep my own views on controversial matters out of sight to avoid having students attempt to match their opinions to mine and to foster an environment in which students really are free to develop their own assessments. I also challenge students who seem ready to accept a cliché or some popular idea just because it is popular. One of the enemies of intellectual diversity is lazy conformity to common opinion. To promote diversity a teacher needs sometimes to challenge students’ too-easily-achieved agreement with prevailing ideas, especially the ideas prevailing on campus.”
We call on the Virginia Tech community to recognize the path the University is on and to insist on a return to academic integrity.