Virginia Tech Reasserts 'Diversity' Folly: Part 1

Peter Wood

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University—better known as Virginia Tech—is in the midst of an extraordinary campaign to impose a comprehensive regime focusedon “diversity.”  Reading through Virginia Tech’s official documents since March is something like watching a colonial power laying out a plan to force its language, culture, laws, religion, and ideals on a subject people.  The put-upon natives in this case are, first of all, the faculty of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.  But the imperial power, of course, doesn’t mean to stop with subordinating the faculty chiefs to the Empire. The rule of Diversity must ultimately extend to every student and every employee. 

Diversity?  It must surely strike most readers that the ideological campaign for diversity on campus is by this point rather old-fashioned.  Diversity as a rallying cry for the campus left took its initial impulse from Justice Lewis Powell’s opinion in the Supreme Court’s decision in the 1978 case, Bakke v. The Regents of the University of California.  Powell’s remarks weren’t supported by any other justice and did not have the force of law, but they nonetheless suggested a rationale for using racial preferences in college admissions.  A racially diverse college classroom, in Powell’s opinion, was bound to be a more pedagogically enriching one, since it stood to reason that people of different races would learn from each other. 

Starting in the early 1980s, colleges and universities that were already committed to using racial preferences in admissions migrated from an affirmative action rationale for these preferences to a Powellian “diversity” rationale.  But by the mid 1980s, the diversity rationale took on new significance.  Its advocates shifted from a focus on college admissions to other ways that higher education could advance diversity.  It became a priority at most colleges and universities to extol the ideal of diversity by making changes in the curriculum, student activities, faculty appointments, and administration.  In 1988, “diversity” jumped from the university to the world of business and from there to popular culture.  The history of this migration of a concept from the dicta of an irascible Supreme Court judge to a theme for Hallmark cards is told in Diversity: The Invention of a Concept

By 2009, however, the once provocative idea of diversity was over 30 years old.  Like an aging rock star, it was settling to a career of competing in Dancing with the Stars and reunion concerts featuring ZZ Top and its 10,000th rendition of “Legs.” The world has moved on.  The ideology to get down with today if you want to compete for status among colleges and universities is sustainability.  Not that we are promoting it.  But if you are going to trash your university to promote a political ideology, you might as well get the decade right. 

Perhaps there is something to be said, however, for Virginia Tech’s trip down memory lane.   Diversity, while not a new political gambit, is still an effective way to play a certain kind of racial politics.  And perhaps that is important to Virginia Tech’s administrators, stuck in Blacksburg in the largely white and conservative southern part of the state, and eager to assert that they are doing their part for the greater multicultural good. 

But let’s be clear what “diversity” means in this context.  It is not about eliminating obstacles to admission or participation by members of minority groups.  In Virginia Tech’s scheme of things, “diversity” is a set of beliefs that it insists must be shared by everyone who works there.  The College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences (CLAHS) has its own three-sentence definition:

We, the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences Diversity Committee, use the term “diversity” to mean the desirability and value of many kinds of individual differences while at the same time acknowledging and respecting that socially constructed difference based on certain characteristics exist within systems of power that create and sustain inequality, hierarchy, and privilege. The College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences is determined to eliminate these forms of inequality, hierarchy, and privilege in our programs and practices. In this sense, diversity is to be actively advanced because it fosters excellence in learning, discovery, and engagement.

Confronted with this pile of words, the reader may be inclined to nod and move on, but let’s stop for a moment and look.               

            …the desirability and value of many kinds of individual differences

Surely we all agree that many kinds of individual differences are valuable. It is good that we have violin players as well as those who play the bassoon.  The question is really, whichindividual differences ought to matter in view of the larger purposes of higher education?  It is silly to say “all” such differences matter, because that is logically equal to saying that none matter—that we can’t draw any distinctions.  Should the individual differences between people who are 5 foot 5 inches tall and 5 foot 5 ½ inches tall be a matter of “desirability” to the good folks at Virginia Tech?  Or, rather, shouldn’t differences like that—and a multitude of others—be a matter of indifference?  They are differences that do not and ought not to make a difference in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, the acquisition of college-level skills, and anything else that higher education ought to concern itself with.

So, to start, the CLAHS definition of “diversity” begins with a vacuous gesture. “Many” kinds of individual difference matter, but will CLAHS say which kinds?  It does, in a footnote: 

These characteristics included, but are not limited to ability, age, body size and condition, class, color, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, geographical and cultural background, health status, national origin, political affiliation, race, religion, sexual orientation, and veteran status.  

So apparently the difference between the 5 foot 5 inches tall student and the 5 foot 5 ½ inches tall one does matter to Virginia Tech as a matter of the inherent value of “body size.”  But this seems a truly weird position for an institution of higher learning to have struck.  Are we missing something?  Of course, the real purpose of the list is to elevate a set of categories that the ideology of diversity promotes as important—without having to explain why. 

Once the categories are valorized, moreover, they cease to be about individual differences at all.  They are a way of putting people into standard groups which then dispense with individuality altogether. If Virginia Tech knows your “class, color, ethnicity, gender, gender expression,” etc. it knows as much about you as it needs to.  That you read the poetry of John Donne, speak fluent Russian, and can write well—those bits of your individuality may matter a lot to you and contribute a great deal to what you bring to the experience of other students, but they matter not a whit in the Virginia Tech scheme of “diversity.” 

Note, however, the self-protecting legalistic loophole, “These characteristics included, but are not limited to…” (Why the past-tense?)  Virginia Tech is willing in principle to say some other kinds of individual differences matter.  But the differences it actually lists are standard-issue diversiphilly. The differences that matter in diversity ideology are those associated with membership in a group that has been stigmatized. (Ah, that’s why the past tense!)  Diversity is a doctrine of making people in the present do a sort of institutional penance for the prejudices of people who in the past acted with animus against a particular group.  Diversity calls for extending differential access to social goods to anyone who can lay a claim to membership in or affiliation with a group that has suffered from prejudice. 

All of this lies there quietly in the first clause of Virginia Tech definition of “diversity” that ostensibly extols “individual differences.” We haven’t even gotten to “systems of power that create and sustain inequality, hierarchy, and privilege.” 

But, on second thought, we won’t.  The reader can see clearly enough that Virginia Tech’s idea of “diversity” is not a mild paraphrase for affirmative action to overcome racial barriers. It is something else entirely: an ossified doctrine of antipathy towards the American social order.  It is a summons to political action.  And the definition makes that defiantly clear: 

The College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences is determined to eliminate these forms of inequality, hierarchy, and privilege in our programs and practices.

“Inequality, hierarchy, and privilege” don’t register in the American ear as good things.  But thoughtful people recognize that they are not quite the unmitigated evils implied in Virginia Tech’s statement.  There are inequalities that result from unequal ability and unequal effort; there is hierarchy among those who know better over those who are ignorant, and those who achieve over those who efforts flag; and there are privileges that are earned and that are accompanied by responsibility.  

It seems unlikely that Virginia Tech would seek to “eliminate” all forms of inequality, hierarchy, and privilege, and it has delicately preserved its options by saying it seeks only to eliminate “these forms” of I/H/P.   Even so, the formulation is troubling. Are there not valuable forms of diversity that actually depend on inequality, hierarchy, and privilege?  Think of the diversities of skill that are required to put together an effective soccer team, jazz combo, art gallery—or academic department. 

The National Association of Scholars singled out Virginia Tech in March 2009 when someone there leaked to us a document from the CLAHS. The dean was on the verge of promulgating a set of rules for promotion and tenure of faculty members that would have put the onus on candidates to prove the value of their “contributions” to diversity.  NAS cried foul at this gross violation of academic freedom.  What of the faculty members who do not subscribe to the doctrine of “diversity,” who hold to a different account of American history and social order?  Or who believe in the classical ideal that universities should reflect individual talent and achievement, not membership in social groups?  

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education also joined in criticizing Virginia Tech for this policy, and so did the American Council or Trustees and Alumni, and our affiliate, the Virginia Association of Scholars. The editors of the Virginia Tech student newspaper even agreed and editorialized to that effect. The criticisms seemed to hit home—for a while.  The president of Virginia Tech and the Board indicated that the policy would be “reworked.”  But hardly had the dust settled than President Steger and Dean Sue Ott Rowlands issued campus statements asserting that it would be full-steam-ahead for diversity.  We last commented on this issue in May 2009.  But we now have reason to revisit it.

On December 1, the CLAHS issued its “Strategic Diversity Plan.”  The document is part of a suite of documents executing the University 2006-2012 Strategic Plan. A few days after the “Strategic Diversity Plan” was issued, CLAHS issued its own “Strategic Plan 2009-2012,” which incorporates by reference the “Strategic Diversity Plan.”  Virginia Tech is clearly fond of strategizing. 

We draw attention to this university once again, however, not as a case study in vapid strategizing.  Rather, it serves as a bookend to the whole diversity movement.  Marx’s famous remark that great events and personalities in world history repeat themselves, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce,” seems apt. Virginia Tech, a large regional university known more for its football program and a series of horrific killings, has chosen to play out a spent ideology to its final dregs.  That it is does so in the delusion that it is somehow on the cutting edge of academic innovation is what makes this farce.

Farces are not without their victims.  Virginia Tech is an institution of modest academic standing that seems intent on winning a certain kind of race to the bottom.  Faculty members there have privately reassured us that the administrators aren’t as crazy as they sound. They are just playing the cards that they think they need to.  It’s an excuse I don’t buy.  The administrators have wrapped themselves in such fervent diversity rhetoric that we have to take them at their word.  They may have started off as cynical players, but they are now totally invested in this folly and are surrounded with minions who are clearly true believers. 

So the Virginia Tech story does seem worth yet another look. A large state university is spiraling downward into an anti-intellectual orthodoxy, and as it plummets it is busy praising its ability to take flight. 

Here is the Virginia Tech CLAHS Strategic Diversity PlanLook for Part 2 of this report next week, when we will provide a fisk version: the document plus our comments.

 

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