I Pledge Allegiance, To the Diversity…

Let’s do a little thought experiment. Suppose that the administration at a state university announced that it was going to change its policy regarding promotion and tenure for faculty members to include the following language: “Special attention will be given to the candidates involvement with efforts to advance laissez-faire capitalism.”

Is there any doubt that the announcement would swiftly generate a tidal wave of indignant opposition? We would expect the American Association of University Professors, for example, to proclaim the new policy an affront to academic freedom and a blatant effort at thought control. The AAUP’s press release might explain that this policy would cause faculty members to refrain from saying or doing anything that might be regarded as in any way hostile to laissez-faire capitalism.

That would be exactly right. Colleges should not have ideological litmus tests that faculty members must pass before they can be considered for promotion and tenure. A faculty member’s economic philosophy has nothing to do with his competence in teaching and research.

Now let’s return to the real world. In March, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (nearly always just called Virginia Tech) announced that it was considering new guidelines for faculty assessment. A crucial sentence in the proposal reads, “University and college committees require special attention be given to documented involvement in diversity initiatives.”

There no more is universal agreement on the desirability of laissez-faire capitalism than there is on “diversity,” but the latter enjoys sacred cow status within the realm of American higher education. Therefore, university administrators see nothing wrong in setting up a litmus test of fidelity to their “diversity initiatives.”

To see how blatantly inconsistent this proposal is with the core academic value of free inquiry, imagine a tenure track assistant professor of chemistry who comes to the conclusion that the push for ever-increasing “diversity” on campus detracts from the educational mission of the school. Let us say he finds that many of the students admitted under “affirmative action” policies aren’t capable of handling the workload in his course. Should he say anything about it?

If his school operates under promotion and tenure guidelines like those proposed at Virginia Tech, doing so would be risky.

Open, honest commentary critical of “diversity” might not be held against him, but he has no way of knowing that. It would be much safer not to put his career in jeopardy by writing or saying anything negative about the diversity policies at the school. Colleges and universities constantly proclaim that they want to teach students “critical thinking” but Virginia Tech’s guidelines would stifle it among faculty members who aspire to tenure and promotion.

Most professors are acutely aware of the “publish or perish” regime they live under. Virginia Tech would add a new wrinkle: “celebrate diversity or perish.”

Unfortunately, there is nothing especially new in this. An explicit policy that makes allegiance to “diversity” a requirement is a logical progression from the phrase one commonly finds in job postings for faculty and administrators: “Must show demonstrated commitment to diversity.” It would be difficult if not impossible for a candidate to be hired for an assistant professorship in many of the “soft” academic fields or for nearly any administrative position unless he at least affects enthusiasm for “diversity.”

It’s almost funny how the zealots for “diversity” insist on uniformity when it comes to their big issue. Can’t they see the contradiction? Aren’t they aware that education is a search for truth and that you don’t get there if you close off ideas from criticism? John Stuart Mill’s argument for free speech applies just as much to “diversity” as anything else. If it really is a good policy, no harm can come from questioning it, and if it isn’t a good policy, how will we ever know if we don’t allow people to debate it?

Virginia Tech’s proposal has received a barrage of criticism, which has been brought to the attention of the head of the school’s Board of Visitors, John R. Lawson. When pressed on the issue, however, Lawson would only say that any policy change would have to be approved by the Board of Visitors. Whether the Board will undertake a review of the proposal for consistency with the academic freedom of faculty members is still unknown. (To read more about Lawson’s ambivalence on this matter, go here. If they decide to review the university’s guidelines, perhaps Mr. Lawson and the Board will also ask why the administration saw fit to say, in effect, that only diversity enthusiasts are fit to teach at Virginia Tech. Do they believe that doubting “diversity” is akin to doubting that the earth is round?

“Diversity” enjoys sacred cow status at most American colleges and universities, but faculty members should be free to ignore or even ridicule campus “initiatives” without putting their careers at risk.