Letter to VT from Virginia Association of Scholars

Carey Stronach

VIRGINIA ASSOCIATION OF SCHOLARS

 

2241 Buckner Street

Petersburg, VA 23805-2207

(804) 732-8993

cestronach@comcast.net

April 5, 2009

 

Dr. Charles W. Steger

Office of the President

210 Burruss Hall

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Blacksburg, VA 24061

 

Dear Dr. Steger,

 

I am writing on behalf of the Virginia Association of Scholars (VAS). We are a group of nearly 300 scholars, mostly current and retired faculty members, who live in Virginia. More than a dozen of us are members of the Virginia Tech faculty. The VAS, founded in the 1980s, is an affiliate of the National Association of Scholars, an organization of college and university faculty and independent scholars dedicated to upholding high academic standards and traditional scholarship. The NAS and VAS oppose the politicization of academia and pressure to promote "political correctness" therein. We endorse the concept of colorblind procedures in admission and retention of students and in hiring and promotion of faculty.

On behalf of our members, I am writing to express our strong opposition to the requirement that faculty members display their commitment to "diversity" and to put that commitment into action to qualify for promotion, tenure, or merit pay. Our reasons are as follows:

The proposal threatens academic freedom. Excellent teaching and an effective research record have traditionally been at the heart of tenure and promotion decisions. Requiring that professors demonstrate a commitment to diversity will introduce a consideration unrelated to teaching and scholarship. Faculty will be encouraged to eschew critical areas of research that bear no obvious relation to diversity. Worse, the directive will chill pursuit of important areas of research that might be challenged as inconsistent with the diversity mandate.

For example, what will become of faculty whose work includes research into controversial issues, such as sex differences in personality or abilities? As the expulsion of Lawrence Summers from his Harvard presidency makes clear, many consider the mere discussion of these topics incompatible with insuring that both sexes feel equally welcome on campus. Formalizing the diversity commitment as proposed would give faculty good reason to fear that such inquiry would dim their promotion and tenure prospects. Thus, the proposal would undermine the university's most important mission: the pursuit of knowledge. Rather than advance scholarship, it would encourage ignorance about certain subjects by encouraging faculty to choose research pursuits based on consistency with this proposed mandate rather than importance to their discipline.

The proposal is based on current fashion rather than scientific evidence. VAS members understand that "diversity" is a popular concept on campuses nationwide. As scholars, we are also aware that convincing evidence to support claims of its educational benefits is lacking. For every study that purports to show the benefits of diversity, one can point to evidence that students learn just as well in non-diverse environments.

Further, this is not solely a matter of easily measured outcomes such as test scores. The proposal is not easily reconciled with the work of Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, both VAS members, and a retired Harvard professor and retired senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute, respectively. They report that graduates of decidedly non-diverse institutions, for example Historically Black Colleges and Universities, have striking career success: 

Is it merely coincidental that historically black colleges, which account for only a sixth of total black college enrollment, produced 43 percent of the 1995 congressional black caucus, 39 percent of the black officers in the U.S. Army according to a 1996 survey, and fully a quarter of black MacArthur "genius" grantees in the last two decades? Of the ten undergraduate institutions responsible for the greatest number of blacks who went on to earn Ph.D's in the years 1992-96, nine were black colleges. (1)

Similarly, VAS member Patricia Hausman has examined the question whether the representation of women on a science faculty correlates with enrollment of female students in science courses. Her findings do not support a relationship with the percentage of women on the faculty, nor suggest that a same-sex mentor is important. (2) In fact, of the fields for which she could obtain data, computer science had the most women faculty. Yet this field saw the most precipitous drop in participation of female students during the very years that the percentage of women faculty was rising. 

It is not difficult to see why efforts to demonstrate that diversity enhances learning have been at best inconsistent. Conceptually, one is hard-pressed to describe a mechanism by which students' ability to master material would be impacted by the gender, race, sexual orientation, or class origins of their classmates or professors.

The proposal is particularly ill-suited to certain disciplines.In the experience of VAS members, proposals such as this often sound good until the realities of implementation are considered. The sciences are a case in point. After teaching university physics for forty years, it is unclear to me how I or my colleagues would satisfy the proposed requirements. Exactly how does one demonstrate a commitment to diversity while teaching subjects such as calculus, cosmology, or evolutionary biology, where the content is abstract, theoretical, and/or concerned with nonhuman organisms? This is not the only problem relative to the sciences. The very basis for placing so much emphasis on diversity is foreign to the philosophy of science. 

Diversity advocates argue that individuals of different "backgrounds" (understood to mean race, gender, sexual orientation, and class) bring different experiences to the classroom. This reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of science. The purpose of the scientific method is not to incorporate the different life experiences of students or of scientists. It is to do the opposite: to remove personal experience from the process. Once this is understood, arguments that diversity considerations should be factors in promotion and tenure can be seen for what they are: not just unwarranted, but wholly inappropriate.

None of this is to deny a place for analyzing certain research data by characteristics such as gender, race, etc. However, it is hardly necessary for Virginia Tech to institute a diversity mandate to insure that such analyses are performed when relevant.

As faculty members and independent scholars, VAS members appreciate the pressure that administrators feel to conform to popular notions. Nonetheless, we firmly believe that institutions must resist these pressures when evidence of efficacy is absent. This is all the more important in cases such as this, where what may sound good in theory would create unintended problems in practice.

Accordingly, the Virginia Association of Scholars urges Virginia Tech to abandon its requirement that, in order to prosper, faculty must demonstrate attachment to the doctrine of diversity. Such a policy, if implemented, is likely to cause Virginia Tech to degenerate into an Orwellian society dedicated to thought control with enforcement procedures mimicking those found in a Franz Kafka novella. We make this request because, like you, its president, we, as friends of Virginia Tech, wish it well.

We appreciate your consideration of our comments.

 

Sincerely yours,

Carey E. Stronach, Ph.D.

President, Virginia Association of Scholars

 

(1) Stephan Thernstrom & Abigail Thernstrom. "Racial Preferences: What We Now Know." Commentary, (February 1999) http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/_commentary-racial_prefs.htm

(2) Patricia Hausman. Plenty of Nonsense: How the Land of Plenty Report Denies Female Scientific Achievement (Arlington, VA: Independent Women’s Forum, 2000) http://patriciahausman.com/uploads/cwamsetcrit.pdf

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