Will You Promote Diversity? Virginia Tech Tests Faculty Candidates Commitment

Peter Wood

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.”

The strategic plan came out in December 2009. We gave it a thorough sifting in “Virginia Tech Reasserts ‘Diversity’ Folly” (Part 1 and Part 2).  

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

Preface

Diversity is a strong value in our college.

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.

Just in case Forest Gump, Candide, or another one of nature’s innocents shows up, the CLAHS website does have an official definition of diversity, one that we dissected here.

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? 

Questions 

Concepts and attitudes

1.  Most University websites say something about an interest in promoting diversity. What do such statements mean to you?

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.” 

Teaching

2.  Can you tell us about how you work with diverse students in your classroom?

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.” 

Actions

5.  Do you have any thoughts or ideas regarding the recruitment of more diverse students and faculty?

BUC: “People who help increase genuine intellectual diversity on campus should always be welcome. We shouldn’t be afraid to include people we don’t agree with. On the other hand, students and faculty should be recruited strictly on the basis of merit. That can be difficult. Seeing the merit of someone as a teacher and as a researcher who holds views that are very different from one’s own or who perhaps contradicts one of your own cherished opinions requires a certain amount of self-discipline. I’m glad Virginia Tech is so open-minded. Nothing could be worse for a university than its having an ideological filter for faculty appointments.” 

6.  Do you have any thoughts or ideas regarding retaining diverse students or faculty once they arrive on campus?

BUC: “It’s important for those who hold minority views or who have opinions that some might find provocative to know they are welcomed. A university can’t make students and colleagues respect someone’s ideas. Only good arguments and scrupulous use of evidence accords respect, or that and a winsome attitude. If you argue an unpopular idea, you should expect criticism. A large part of retaining diverse students and faculty members consists not of shielding them artificially from criticism, but ensuring that they have a fair chance to make their cases in a forum that respects the genuine give and take of hard intellectual argument. Those who espouse unpopular ideas don’t necessarily expect to win every argument or to have their ideas adopted by the majority. They thrive when they have the security of knowing they can express and defend their views openly.”

7.  What do you see as the most challenging aspects of an increasingly diverse academic community? How would you address them?

BUC: “The two biggest challenges are the instinct to silence unpopular views and the tendency for people to adopt a party line as the path of least resistance.  I’ve addressed campus censorship in my classes. I ask students to consider whether it’s ever appropriate to prevent unpopular views from being expressed. They are required to give this some serious thought by looking at case studies, debating one another, and writing papers. Often someone from my class will write about the experience in the student newspaper. Most people ultimately agree that freedom of conscience and freedom of expression should never be stifled by censorship.

The tendency towards passive conformity is more insidious. Students and even faculty members often don’t realize how much they alter their opinions to match the herd and how much of their own individual freedom and creativity they sacrifice just to get along. The instinct to conform may be the biggest challenge to maintaining a diverse academic community. Conformity is, of course, easier to manage than real diversity, and a lot of academic administrators prefer a situation in which everyone is on the same page. Thank goodness that Virginia Tech isn’t that kind of university.

To combat this tendency towards complacent conformity, I think a faculty member ought to unsettle students’ superficial certainties about matters on where there seems a superficial consensus. That means asking probing questions, assigning readings that go against the prevailing views, and inviting guest speakers who advocate such views.”

8.   Please discuss your experiences working with underrepresented groups and your thoughts on working with underrepresented groups.

BUC: “I’m not sure I understand the question. What do ‘groups’ have to do with diversity? We achieve intellectual diversity by being open to diverse ideas, not by taking a census. But I have had some experience with groups that don’t have much of a presence on many college campuses. I worked with ROTC students at my last job; I volunteer at the hospice center in my town; I taught for a while in a prison education program; and I recently advised an evangelical Christian group at a college where they were being denied recognition because of their policy of not admitting non-Christians.

What I’ve learned from these experiences is that you need to forget the labels and treat people as individuals in the full complexity of their personal experiences. People are far more complex than the labels society puts on them. Paradoxically, perhaps, I’ve also learned to see commonalities that the labels mask. We are all human. Treating someone as special or different because he is associated with an ‘underrepresented group,’ is a subtle way of subtracting from his humanity. In any case, no one is ‘underrepresented’ in the university because the university isn’t a representative institution. We are all equal in the search for knowledge and the pursuit of truth.”

9.  What has been the impact of your efforts in this regard?

BUC: “I guess I’d have to say that only time will tell. The ROTC students are now mostly in Afghanistan and otherwise on active military duty. My friends at the hospice have passed on. The prisoners I taught all had long sentences and are still mostly behind bars. The Christian group got turned down and is meeting off campus without official recognition. So outwardly there isn’t much to show the ‘impact’ of my efforts. But ‘impact’ seems a funny word for this. I am a teacher, not a windshield. We teachers are sometimes more about trying to cultivate in people a deeper understanding, an emerging awareness of things, a quickening of moral and intellectual insight. That inevitably sounds vague but when it works well, we have profound influence. I’m glad Virginia Tech recognizes the nature of my calling.”

Farewell, BUC

BUC, optimist though he is, probably shouldn’t get his hopes up for a career at Virginia Tech. The interviewer, no doubt, would have stopped him at the first answer with an awkward clarification, “Uh, you know, by diversity I actually mean diversity of race, class, gender; you know, the people who have suffered oppression under the exclusionary practices of the university in the past and who today still suffer the legacy of oppression despite our many good attempts to set things right.”

BUC’s chances at other colleges and universities might not be much better. We have singled out Virginia Tech not because it is necessarily the most egregious offender but only because it has been so astonishingly clumsy in laying out its commitment to elevating identity politics above the interests of educating its students and treating its faculty as serious scholars. Virginia Tech offers an especially vivid case of diversiphile administrators proudly and relentlessly taking their one Big Idea to its logical extremis.

If you’re on the hiring committee side of things, take a look at Roger Clegg’s “Half a Dozen Push-Backs for Faculty Hiring Committees.” For faculty members who understand that hiring for “diversity” is really discrimination, Clegg has some helpful talking points you can use.

CLAHS’s new set of interview questions is troubling. Although hiring committees are apparently not required to use it, that the College would give it a stamp of approval as an aid to advancing what the College considers a “strong value,” means that hiring committees probably will use it because they know that succeeding at their jobs means currying favor with campus bureaucrats.

Virginia Tech officials may protest that these documents are guides, not mandates. That is technically true, but CLAHS’s nine-question “guide” and VT’s 51-page “resource” have institutional heft.  Virginia Tech’s administrators have left no uncertainty about what they want and it would take a faculty member free of any concern about administrative favor to ignore this protocol.   The University’s obsessive need to prove itself in the eyes of the PC police is evident in its tone of repetitive urgency. Asking search committees to “hire for diversity” is bad for candidates, bad for search committees, and bad for a university. By doing so, Virginia Tech reveals a disdain for academic freedom and for the true ideals of the academy. 

We call on the Virginia Tech community to recognize the path the University is on and to insist on a return to academic integrity.

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