University Uses Ideological Litmus Test for Professor Tenure

Sign of things to come?


If you were asked to name a university that bears a disturbing relationship to an ideological re-education camp, Virginia Tech probably would not be the first to come to mind. The land-grant college has an enrollment of more than 31,000 and accepts almost three-fourths of applicants, and it is nestled in bucolic Blacksburg, far from left-wing redoubts. Yet it seems to have a chronic case of political correctness — which apparently has flared up yet again.

Seven years ago the office of the provost sent out a memo imposing an ideological litmus test for faculty members seeking promotion or tenure. It stressed that faculty should "do a better job of participating in and documenting their involvement in diversity initatives." A draft of new guidelines for the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences reiterated the demand that faculty demonstrate their commitment to diversity by, e.g., "participating in diversity awareness workshops," and even suggested they revise course curricula to incorporate "issues of gender, race, and other perspectives."

And "diversity" was not merely the anodyne sentiment that demographic variation is nice to have. As Virginia Tech defined it, diversity entailed the belief "that socially constructed differences based on certain characteristics exist within systems of power that create and sustain inequality, hierarchy, and privilege…"  In short, faculty members were expected to sign on to an entire weltanschauung.

Under public pressure, the university backed away from that policy. Or at least seemed to. But the school soon found itself embroiled in controversy again when anonymous, bigoted comments posted on the website of the student newspaper elicited calls for censorship. The university's Commission on Student Affairs wanted to sever ties with The Collegiate Times and threatened to block its advertising. Vice president for student affairs Edward Spencer insisted, apparently with a straight face, that the dispute "isn't about free speech."

Yes it is, explained the Virginia ACLU: The 4th Circuit had ruled quite clearly in a similar 1973 student-paper case that "censorship of constitutionally protected expression cannot be imposed by… excising repugnant material, withdrawing financial support, or asserting any other form of censorial oversight based on the institution's power of the purse."

Once again, Virginia Tech backed off. But the school maintains a bias-reporting system enabling members of the university community to inform on those who commit thoughtcrimes: Virginia Tech defines bias incidents as "expressions against a person or group" based on age, color or similar markers of demographic classification. Note: "expressions," not "acts." What sort of expressions might constitute bias incidents? Among others, "hosting a culturally themed party" and "jokes that are demeaning to a particular group of people."

So if you see something, say something.

Some forms of bias are more equal than others, however. Two years ago Steven Salaita, then an English professor at Virginia Tech, wrote a piece for Salon explaining why he didn't "support the troops": Asking people to support the troops is asking them "not to think," he wrote. Besides, "troop worship is trite and tiresome," and anyway "I don't consider patriotism a beneficent force."

Whether you agree or disagree with those sentiments, Salaita certainly did what good professors should: He provoked thought. He also provoked calls by some for Virginia Tech to give him the boot. Although many people found his comments terribly offensive, the university did not treat him the way it treated the student newspaper. Rather, the university stood by him — as it very well should have.

But what would Virginia Tech have done if Salaita had written a much different piece — one denouncing the ideals of diversity and inclusion? Based on new guidelines for promotion and tenure, it might have derailed his career.

A recent article in the newsletter of the National Academy of Scholars, a conservative group, points out that the latest version of the guidelines (issued only a month ago) now requires that candidates repeatedly demonstrate their commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Among other things, candidates should "include a list of activities that promote or contribute to inclusive teaching, research, outreach, and service"; they should report information about their "contributions to an inclusive campus"; they should write about their "active involvement in diversity and inclusion"; demonstrate that they have pursued "training in inclusive pedagogy" and incorporated "the Principles of Community into course development"; and so on. A spokesman for the university says providing such information is purely voluntary — but who applying for promotion or tenure is likely to see it that way?

("Inclusive pedagogy" goes well beyond, say, making sure professors engage with female students as often as male students, or include slave diaries in a course on the American South. It extends to incorporating different "learning styles" and "varied means of assessment" to promote student success. Does a student have trouble writing essays? Perhaps allowing him to present a portfolio instead would suffice. And if a professor objects? The Association of American Colleges and Universities says "academic freedom is another barrier" to inclusive pedagogy.)

Perhaps this all sounds perfectly appropriate. After all, diversity and inclusion are valid — and, nowadays, nearly universal — ideals. If that is how the preceding strikes you, then try substituting another valid, nearly universal ideal: patriotism.

Should a university condition promotion and tenure on whether professors can show their active involvement in patriotic organizations?  Should they be made to document their "contributions to a patriotic campus"? Should instructors be expected to "incorporate a belief in America's inherent goodness into course development"?

Most people would say, sensibly, of course not. Professors should be promoted based on their ability, not their beliefs. Yet having tried and failed once to impose ideological conformity across the faculty, Virginia Tech apparently intends to try again.

Believe it or not, this just scratches the surface of Virginia Tech's obsession with the issue. The school has launched a university-wide "InclusiveVT" effort, under which senior leaders were told to produce three inclusion  initiatives — each. They came up with 86, and in May the school rolled out a 343-page progress report on how those are coming along.

That might not be so unusual; just about any college with a dormitory has at least one diversity initiative, and usually several. At least in Virginia, however, Virginia Tech stands apart by seeking to make diversity and inclusion an ideological litmus test for career advancement. The University of Virginia, William and Mary, George Mason University — none of those schools has similar requirements.

Virginia Tech shouldn't, either. If the university will not protect the academic freedom of its faculty, then the General Assembly should step in and do so for it.

This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.