The Race Isn't Over

Ashley Thorne

Is Virginia Tech at it again? 

Three months ago in “Free to Agree,” NAS broke the story about Virginia Tech’s policy mandating “diversity” service from its faculty as a prerequisite for promotion and tenure. We and others, including FIRE and ACTA, showed that the policy was essentially a litmus test intended to impose political conformity on professors.

The story gained wider attention after being covered by the Chronicle of Higher Education and Virginia Tech’s student newspaper the Collegiate Times. In April, under pressure from the media coverage and letters from FIRE and NAS’s Virginia affiliate, the university announced that it would “rework the proposed guidelines.”

We welcomed the news and thought about writing it off as a victory for freedom of conscience, but we suspected the university would drag its feet. In fact, ever since the university made its announcement, administrators have been amplifying their “commitment to inclusive excellence” and “vision for an inclusive community,” in which inclusive really means “inclusive only of the people we decide to include.” NAS president Peter Wood explained: “Since it is the administrators who get to decide who belongs to what group and what might be entailed in that group’s supposed vision of success, ‘inclusive excellence’ pretty much means, ‘We promote the people we like on whatever ad hoc basis we like.’” In other words, he wrote, inclusive excellence is merely “affirmative action for ideas.”

We hadn’t heard much from Virginia Tech after these first pep rallies for political correctness. But then last week we received an email that went out to the VT community from an unnamed sender. The email asks students to update their race and ethnicity information for the university’s records in compliance with “new Department of Education regulations.”

This mention of “new” regulations was puzzling. We hadn’t heard of any, and on checking the Department of Education website found no mention of them. Maybe we are missing something. Or maybe not. 

The Department of Education did issue some new rules two years ago, when it announced that institutions must use a new two-part question (one on ethnicity, one on race) that allows people select more than one race. Colleges are to implement these new categories gradually into their data collection methods until they become mandatory for the 2010-2011 year. Our guess is that Virginia Tech is referring to these rules. A suspicious mind might ask, “Why now?” But we haven’t been very successful in getting the Virginia Tech administrators to answer our questions.

So it seems Virginia Tech is just now getting around to updating their records to comply with the DOE standards. We don’t want to single out Virginia Tech; we assume these regulations are being put in place at institutions all over the country who want to qualify for federal student loans. But since we have the email from VT, let’s take it as possibly representative:

Date: Wed, 24 Jun 2009

From: Virginia.Tech.news@vt.edu
Subject: Data collection on faculty / staff ethnicity
To: Multiple recipients

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

In an effort to comply with new Department of Education regulations on how educational institutions collect and report racial and ethnic data, the Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness and the Office for Equity and Inclusion request your assistance.
 
The regulations stipulate that educational institutions must collect race and ethnicity data using a two part question. The first question will ask individuals to identify whether they are Hispanic/Latino. The second question asks individuals to identify membership to one or more of the following racial categories:
 
* American Indian or Alaska Native.
* Asian.
* Black or African-American.
* Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.
* White.
 
To comply with these regulations, Virginia Tech has updated the race and ethnicity data collection instruments. Part of the update process included converting existing race/ethnicity data stored in our administrative systems to the new format. We recognize that during the conversion, previously reported self-identification information may have translated incorrectly. We would appreciate your assistance in reviewing the new race/ethnicity data stored for you to ensure the accuracy of the data.  A new web page in HokieSPA has been created for your review and update.
 
Log into HokieSPA (www.hokiespa.vt.edu) using your PID and password.  Click on the Hokie Team menu item.  The last menu item on the Hokie Team page is Update Ethnicity and Race.  Click on this item.  First select your ethnicity by clicking in one of the two boxes next to the appropriate description.  Then select the appropriate race codes by clicking in the boxes below the descriptions.  Race not yet selected is not valid for Non-Hispanic or Latino ethnicity.
 
If you are logged into MyVT and want to review/update your race and ethnicity information, click on the Personal Info tab, scroll to the bottom of the page, click on the link to Hokie TEAM in the grey More options area, and follow the instructions above.

Of course, these little forms asking people to submit information about their race have been around for decades. But in the academic context, the concept of race reporting brings up two categories of questions:

  1. After sending the results to the government, what else do colleges use this information for? Do they use it to determine who is eligible for certain programs, events, scholarships?
  2. What keeps respondents from reporting a race other than their own? After all, if identity is socially constructed, what’s to stop a white student from deciding he is, for instance, black at heart? How many embarrassing administrative mishaps could occur as a result? What if the student was offered a scholarship reserved for minority students? 

Under the DOE regulations, if a student in elementary or high school fails to complete the questionnaire, an “observer” must complete it on his behalf. The Indiana Department of Education advises those designated as observers to keep in mind that:

Self-identification is based on how people define themselves or their children. Assigning a race and ethnicity to an individual is a somewhat arbitrary exercise because these are not scientific or anthropological categories. While assigning race and ethnicity to another person is a difficult task, given the emotionally charged feelings and deep beliefs that many people have concerning the issue, your job as an observer for federal reporting purposes is to assign race and ethnicity categories to the best of your ability. It is important that you are consistent in your observation, and make your judgments objectively.

So...assigning a race to someone else is an “arbitrary exercise” but it should be done “objectively.” What about assigning your own race?

On Monday the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the New Haven firefighters in Ricci et al. v. DeStefano et al, judging, essentially, that fear of lawsuits by black people is not a valid reason to withhold earned rewards from white and Hispanic people. But will the case change race-related policies in higher education? Ada Meloy, American Council on Education (ACE) general council, was quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education insisting, “The opinions rendered today do not explicitly or impliedly threaten the complex and nuanced faculty hiring or promotion procedures used in most institutions which struggle to increase diversity while complying with the law.” And as Peter Wood perceived, although the Ricci case is significant, it will do little to deplete academe’s zeal for racial preferences in admissions and hiring.

As for Virginia Tech's call to students to identify themselves, the problem this time is not VT's policy but the federal census which calls for color-specific classification. America’s obsession with racial labeling is far from extinction, and the Department of Education regulation is just one example. The emphasis on race isn’t over yet.

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