Yesterday, the president and the provost of Virginia Tech released an open letter to “the VT faculty, staff, and student community” enunciating their “commitment to inclusive diversity.”
The letter comes apparently as a public response to my article posted Sunday night, April 26, Virginia Tech, Round 2: Staging Diversity. The broader controversies are whether this public university should employ an ideological litmus test for promotion and tenure, and whether faculty members should be forced to adapt their syllabi, research, and all other university activities to advancing the goal of “diversity.” Broader still is the question of whether other colleges and universities across the United States will follow suit by adopting similar political tests for faculty members.
The Virginia Tech situation is emblematic of a national problem. At its root is the success of the progressive left in this country in imposing its political agenda on institutions of higher education. The politicization of higher education has been underway for several decades but has often usually proceeded incrementally and with a degree of caution. The mood has changed in the last six months. With the election President Obama and a Congress dominated by the progressive left, the campus left has felt empowered to move to a more openly radical stance.
Virginia Tech is one example of this. With the urging of some administrators who have very thin academic credentials but a very vocal commitment to “diversity”—Virginia Tech’s Dean Sue Ott Rowlands exemplifies the category—the university has begun to swap out academic accomplishment and intellectual standards in favor of conformity to its ideological shibboleths. The hard-core agenda is hidden to some degree behind a scrim of obfuscation. Do people outside academe, for example, know what is meant by the term “inclusive excellence?”
Don’t bother reaching for the dictionary. It isn’t there. You have to command to the lingo of the multiculturalists to decipher it. “Inclusive excellence” is based on the idea that different social and cultural groups have their own standards for excellence that cannot be shared or in most cases even translated across group boundaries. The excellence pursued by white Americans is one thing; that pursued by African-Americans another. The excellence pursued by women is one thing; that pursued by men is another. Under the doctrine of “inclusive excellence,” a university makes clear that it recognizes and values the distinctive excellences of each and every campus group.
Well, not really. In practice it means having separate (and lower) expectations for some groups than others. A simple translation of “inclusive excellence" is that it is affirmative action for ideas. Ideas that are too weak, too flawed, too unsupported to withstand critical inspection get a sharply discounted admission ticket under the reign of “inclusive excellence.” The doctrine clearly owes something to several decades of post-modernism and various other attempts to diminish respect for reason and rational inquiry.
Virginia Tech’s president, Charles Steger, and its senior vice president and provost, Mark McNamee, of course, are not much interested in explaining the philosophical basis for their commitments. In their view, it is enough that “inclusive excellence” serves to promote “diverse and inclusive communities.” On this, they are mistaken. Social diversity can flourish in a community of people who subordinate their individual differences to the common goals of higher learning. It’s an ancient idea. In the Middle Ages, the first universities drew students from across Europe. The actual cultural diversity among students at Paris, Bologna, and Heidelberg far exceeded any measure of diversity at today’s Virginia Tech or any other American university. It didn’t come about with a doctrine of “inclusive excellence.” It rested on the idea that promising students from the English midlands, the Loire Valley, Bavaria, Tuscany, Denmark, and Poland had, despite their differences, a common and unifying project.
The university as an enterprise that pursued excellence, unqualified by the social origins of its students, has been the guided idea of the institution for most of its 1200 years. The real institution often fell short of its ideal, but the movement of history has been towards admitting those who were once excluded: the impoverished “Jude the Obscure” depicted in Hardy’s novel; the Jews once excluded by “the gentleman’s agreement;” women, who gained admission both to women’s colleges and to higher education generally; and African-Americans. Increasing diversity in this sense—the opening up of an institution that once barred whole categories of would-be students—has been a triumph of Western liberal thought.
We are now, however, at the moment, when Western liberal thought is doubling back on itself and prefers in all too many cases to valorize the very distinctions it has spent centuries overcoming. “Diversity” has become a code word for administrative elites who seek to enforce group identity as more important than individual freedom. The great threat is to intellectual freedom: the invitation to students to become part of the great conversation extending over the millennia in search of what is true and what is best in humanity. The pursuit of truth and the idea of human excellence that transcends the accidents of race, nationality, sex, and so on, have been subordinated to the new pursuit of putting each identity group in its own sandbox. That’s what “inclusive excellence” means.
I don’t know whether the faculty of Virginia Tech or the people of Virginia still have the capacity to be outraged by this soft bigotry—or soothingly sweet racism and sexism. We’ve been led down this trail so long, with the omnipresent counsel to “celebrate diversity,” and have been taught never to ask “Why?” or think what the alternative might be. I don’t know of a college or university that dares say, “Celebrate human equality,” or, “Intellectual standards are liberating!” But we ought to celebrate human equality, and intellectual standards really are the key to liberation from the prison of group identity.
My unpacking of the idea of “inclusive excellence” is, of course, a bit different from the exposition given by its advocates. Four years ago, the Association of American Colleges and Universities published what might be taken as the canonical test on “inclusive excellence,” titled Toward a Model of Inclusive Excellence and Change in Postsecondary Institutions by Damon A. Williams, Joseph B. Berger, and Shederick A. McClendon. It is widely cited by diversiphiles and apostles of inclusive excellence, and is worth examining for the light it throws on this movement,
But enough preface. The reader is equipped, I hope, with due skepticism about President Steger’s and Provost McNamee’s slippery vocabulary to catch their drift. Here is their “open letter” in its entirety:
Charles W. Steger, President
210 Burruss Hall (0131)
Blacksburg, Virginia 24061
540/231-6231 Fax: 540/231-4265
April 30, 2009
Open letter to the VT faculty, staff, and student community from President Charles Steger and Senior Vice President and Provost Mark McNamee:
As the spring semester draws to a close, we wish to reaffirm that Virginia Tech is firmly committed to growing and sustaining a diverse and inclusive learning, living, and working environment. Our progress toward this goal will continue to be reflected in the composition of Virginia Tech’s leadership, faculty, staff, and students; our policies, procedures, and practices; across our curricula and co-curricular services and programs; and woven throughout the fabric of our community.
Our institutional core values of freedom of inquiry, mutual respect, lifelong learning, a commitment to diverse and inclusive communities, Ut Prosim, personal and institutional integrity, and a culture of continuous improvement are clearly aligned with our University Strategic Plan. Therefore, we affirm our commitment to inclusive excellence as an organizational strategy, because we believe that our achievement of educational and institutional excellence is inextricably bound to our diversity and inclusion efforts.
Fundamental to these priorities are Virginia Tech’s Principles of Community (http://www.vt.edu/diversity/principles-of-community.html), which underpin our on-going efforts to increase access and inclusion and to create a community that nurtures learning and growth for all of its members. We also affirm individual and collective responsibility for helping to eliminate bias and discrimination and for increasing our own understanding of these issues through education, training, and interaction with others.
We are committed to creating opportunities to engage you (faculty, staff, and students) in substantive discussions about the ways in which we can continue to work together to realize these goals across all dimensions of our university. We are holding meetings with representative groups and we look forward to ongoing discussions in the near future.
Thank you for your active support and many contributions towards our shared vision for an inclusive community.
Charles W. Steger Mark G. McNamee
President Senior Vice President and Provost
Their letter is a Nicene Creed of diversity clichés, but not to be taken any the less seriously for its lack of intellectual substance. In the second paragraph, Steger and McNamee affirm that “diversity” will rule over virtually every aspect of university life: “leadership, faculty, staff, and students; our policies, procedures, and practices; across our curricula and co-curricular services and programs; and woven throughout the fabric of our community.”
Did I say rule? I mean “continue to be reflected in.” But one might ask what sort of optical apparatus they have in mind. How will this reflection come about? What will happen to those who resist the imaging?
And let’s not forget, even for a second, that the “diverse and inclusive learning, living, and working environment” of which they speak is founded on an illiberal political vision in which individual identity is prescribed by group membership and the entailments of group membership are determined by university bureaucrats. This is the logic of group identity that underlay Virginia’s Jim Crow laws, just applied to a different set of beneficiaries and administered by a different set of ideologues.
In that light it is a little jarring to see Steger and McNamee also extolling “our institutional core values of freedom of inquiry, mutual respect, [and] lifelong learning.” But the list is topped by “a commitment to diverse and inclusive communities.” These last items employ that extraordinarily helpful ambiguity. Do they mean “diversity” and “inclusiveness” in the sense of openness? Or do they mean that Virginia Tech’s “core institutional values” include a racial spoils system?
Unfortunately, the weight of the evidence suggests the latter. They see themselves as fighting an endless battle against insidious “bias and discrimination,” with no trace of awareness that the University’s own allegiance to “inclusive excellence” is a profound source of both. The bias and discrimination are first of all directed at anyone who dissents from their embrace of a radical leftist identity politics. But it is also directed against the students of Virginia Tech, who are being relentlessly herded into social categories that subtly undermine their basic dignity.
The tone of high-minded righteousness in Steger and McNamee’s letter bears a comment too. One never knows whether an administrator who adopts this rhetoric really believes that he or she is on the side of virtue and goodness. It could be protective camouflage, but in the end we have to take public figures on their own terms. Steger and McNamee have in this letter chosen to wrap themselves in the flag of a movement that proudly proclaims that our racial, “gender,” and cultural backgrounds matters far more than our common humanity, our capacity as individuals to strive for universal standards of excellence, and our shared civilization. It is a pretty sorry place for the leaders of a university to take their stand.
The Latin motto of the university that Steger and McNamee cite, Ut Prosim, “That I May Serve,” has its own ambiguity. Who are Steger and McNamee serving?
UPDATE 05/01/2009 6:00pm
This just in - a new email from the CLAHS Diversity Committee in reference to our articles mentioning Dean Ott Rowlands:
To the CLAHS Community:
In light of the recent public commentaries on Virginia Tech’s commitment to creating and sustaining an inclusive campus climate, members of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences Diversity Committee wish to endorse Dean Sue Ott Rowlands’ recent statement to our faculty, staff, and students.
We honor the integrity of Virginia Tech’s Principles of Community, affirmed by the Board of Visitors on March 14, 2005, and signed by eight university organizations. The Virginia Tech Principles of Community acknowledge that there are “aspects of our [institutional] legacy that reflect bias and exclusion,” and that diversity in research, pedagogy, and service offers an opportunity to move our community forward as a competitive, world-class university.
In sum, the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences Diversity Committee affirms Virginia Tech’s mission to increase the diversity of its faculty, staff, student body, and administration.
The College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences Diversity Committee
I'm not surprised that the diversity committee is rallying to Dean Ott Rowlands' defense. Her credentials for the position she holds are extraordinarily weak and she appears to owe her position largely to her ardent declarations about diversity during her candidacy. Dean Ott Rowlands made clear on that occasion that advancing diversity was not only her priority but more or less the entirety of her program.