Editor’s Note: Carey Stronach is professor emeritus of physics at Virginia State University and president of the Virginia Association of Scholars.
The “diversity” world-view now dominates among university administrators. When they don't have enough to do, or run out of other excuses to expand their empires, raising the diversity flag is a sure-fire way to appear to be busy with something important. Often it even justifies more administrative staff.
Diversity sounds like a lofty goal. Who (this side of the Ku Klux Klan) is opposed to diversity? Who still favors excluding people just because of race or other innate characteristics? Those of us who marched with Dr. King in our youths should see diversity as the ultimate manifestation of our ideals.
There is nothing wrong with diversity as a goal or aspiration. And certainly, the Fourteenth Amendment, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and many other laws require that minorities—and everyone else—receive equal treatment under the law. That is both right and just.
But that isn’t the whole story. Over the past two decades, the concept of diversity has become pervasive in higher education. Unfortunately, that concept has almost nothing to do with the idea of equal treatment for all and judging people on the basis of their capabilities and accomplishments. It ignores individualism and obsesses over presumed group identities.
And now, in the name of diversity, the Virginia Tech administration proposes an Orwellian sort of thought control. As part of any application for tenure, promotion, or merit pay, faculty members must display activities in which they have been engaged that further diversity. (The history of this dispute and links to the relevant diversity documents are in this letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education to Virginia Tech’s rector.) That may help those who conform to the diversity philosophy, but will probably hurt those who do not.
The administration’s diversity philosophy may well be orthogonal to a professor’s area of specialty. How, for example, does diversity relate to quantum mechanics or horticulture? And why should any professor, no matter what his or her field, be pressured into "diversity accomplishments" instead of true academic accomplishments?
This past May, I sent a letter to Dr. Charles W. Steger, president of Virginia Tech. He never deigned to reply, but I’ll share some of what I wrote:
I write to express my disappointment at your commitment to a set of policies that are political in character and that do profound harm to the quality of education at the institution that you serve.
It was reported that on April 14 you had instructed the provost to "rework the guidelines" that included the politicized standard for faculty promotion and tenure. We understood this to mean that you had heard the widespread criticism of the proposed policy and had sensibly intervened to stop it.
Clearly we were mistaken. Your action now appears to have been a tactical pause while your administration decided how to advance the same political goals under cover of more opaque language. But putting the emphasis on obfuscating terms such as "inclusive excellence" doesn’t change the reality. And that reality is that you and your administration are attempting to force a political doctrine on the faculty and students of a public university.
We are concerned about the assault on academic freedom and the decline of educational integrity at Virginia Tech. The assault and the decline are, in some substantial part, the work of an administrator, Dean Sue Ott Rowlands, who lacks appropriate academic credentials, has no significant accomplishment in any of the fields she oversees, and is best known for her strident advocacy of political causes. To us this is disheartening.
And we wonder about the role of a university president who is not only complacent in the face of these facts but who has gone out of his way to express his enthusiasm for the same policy goals this dean has enunciated.
Virginia Tech would better serve the people of Virginia by adhering to the ideals of the U.S. Constitution, the Civil Rights Act, and the principles of academic freedom. Individuals should be treated as equal before the law and not divided into groups on the basis of race and other accidental characteristics. Faculty members should be judged on the quality of their scholarship, teaching, and—to a lesser degree—service to the institution. And "service" should mean service, not conformity to a political credo dictated from above.
For over a century, American faculty members fought hard for the right to be judged by the quality of their work rather than by their degree of conformity to various political standards. It is, apparently, a never-ending battle. As one form of loyalty oath gets chased from the scene, another arises—and always in the minds of its proponents, it is a wholesome thing. What could be wrong with requiring every faculty member to demonstrate commitment to "diversity?"
There is plenty wrong with it. But there are two main things. One is that forcing faculty members to espouse an idea violates their academic freedom. It doesn't matter what the idea is. It is the coercion that is poisonous. And it doesn't become less poisonous by being made covert. Eliminating the word "required" doesn’t eliminate the violation of academic freedom if the coercion continues out of sight.
The other thing is that the concept of diversity and its tag-alongs such as "inclusive excellence" are code words for rejecting rigorous intellectual standards in favor of policies that admit students, appoint faculty members, evaluate academic work, and otherwise conduct the affairs of higher learning on the basis of racial favoritism and the privileging of identity groups.
On a personal note, as a professional physicist with over forty years experience in the field and over 120 publications, I have long realized that the delivery of quality education to all students requires fairness and objectivity unperturbed by the irrelevancies that are magnified by the "diversity" agenda.
We of the Virginia Association of Scholars hope that you will rethink your position.
Very sincerely yours,
Carey E. Stronach, Ph.D.
As my letter suggests, there is suspicion that the diversity push at VT is a manifestation of a power struggle in the VT administration, and that diversity is being used as a wedge issue to empower certain individuals and/or group(s). Whether that’s true or not, the only responsible position for the administration is to abandon the idea that faculty members should be evaluated on anything other than their professional competence.
Academia is notoriously fickle, and diversity for diversity's sake will eventually become unfashionable. In the meantime, how many academic careers will be stunted or distorted in this quixotic quest? Perhaps someday we'll fulfill Dr. King's hope and judge people on the basis of their character. Then we can resume the quest for excellence and intellectual fulfillment in higher education.