The Board of Visitors at Virginia Tech announced last week that it would review the university's tenure and diversity policies after claims by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education that academic freedom was under threat.
"Promoting one's own view of diversity is one thing but making narrowly defined and politicised views about diversity an ideological requirement for faculty members is quite another," FIRE* President Greg Lukianoff said. "Political litmus tests have no place in higher education and the Board of Visitors must help defend individual conscience and academic freedom at Virginia Tech."
Lukianoff claimed that over the past three years, Virginia Tech provost Mark McNamee had increasingly demanded ideological conformity in the form of "diversity accomplishments" from the school's faculty.
Last year, in a memorandum to all department heads and promotion and tenure committees, McNamee insisted that candidates for promotion or tenure "do a better job of participating in and documenting their involvement in diversity initiatives", noting that such participation was "especially important for candidates seeking promotion to full professor".
The university's College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences adopted rules governing pay increases, promotion, and tenure that would require academics to demonstrate "diversity" in their research, teaching, and personal enrichment activities.
The college defined diversity as "the desirability and value of many kinds of individual differences while at the same time acknowledging and respecting that socially constructed differences based on certain characteristics exist within systems of power that create and sustain inequality, hierarchy, and privilege".
The list of "diverse" characteristics ranged from race and gender to "body size and condition". The college pledged "to eliminate these forms of inequality, hierarchy, and privilege in our programs and practices".
"It boggles the mind that Virginia Tech does not seem to understand that some professors may object to the fact that they are being evaluated by how seriously they pledge to fight for the elimination of 'inequality based on body size'," Lukianoff said.
"Are they really saying that one cannot be a good literature professor without believing that fighting anti-fat-ism is worthwhile? Academic freedom means the freedom to differ on issues that cut to the heart of even the most dearly held beliefs. If Virginia Tech cannot even tolerate heretical views on 'body size', academic freedom is certainly in grave danger."
FIRE wrote to the university's President Charles W Steger last month about what it called "this ideological litmus test" and demanded the school's policies be revised to accord with academics' First Amendment right to freedom of conscience.
After the American Council of Trustees and Alumni wrote to the Board of Visitors, including FIRE's letter and requesting a full review, board Rector John R Lawson said the board would fully review Virginia Tech's diversity and tenure policies university-wide.
* FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation's colleges and universities.
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