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Virginia Tech Decision Sparks Debate on Diversity Work and Faculty Evaluations

The decision by Virginia Tech to abandon a controversial proposal aimed at requiring faculty to engage in diversity-related activities, has prompted a larger debate on college campuses across the nation over what role, if any, should diversity work play in the evaluation of faculty members.

While many colleges and universities across the nation have long rewarded faculty members who voluntarily engage in promoting diversity on their respective campuses, the accolades often come in the form of monetary grants, certificates or awards and are not requirements that have to be met in order to secure tenure or gain a promotion in faculty rank.

But there are some faculty members and administrators who are pushing to make faculty diversity work a requirement for promotion, arguing that if academics are not forced to expand their comfort zones and scholarly interests, they simply won’t.

Still, when universities have tried to implement such policies, they have faced fierce criticism from faculty and from outside conservative and first amendment groups that argue such a requirement is too stringent and violates academic freedom. In the end, all of these institutions eventually backed away from their original proposal.

Diversity work, however, is still being considered and evaluated by tenure and promotion committees at institutions all across the nation, says Dr. Winnifred R. Brown-Glaude, an assistant professor of Africana studies at The College of New Jersey.

Brown-Glaude is the editor of Doing Diversity in Higher Education, a collection of case studies that examine diversity issues at 12 colleges across the United States.

“What we found was that faculty members viewed diversity work as an extension of their intellectual work and to separate the two is a false divide,” says Brown-Glaude, who adds that many institutions mistakenly treat diversity work as service to the college or university and such service is often weighted less than scholarly work.

“Many faculty do not see a separation between their intellectual and activist work,” says Brown-Glaude. “Universities, in my opinion, need to rethink this issue of diversity and rethink the ways in which faculty are engaged.”

She also believes that academicians should broaden their definition of diversity beyond race to also include other issues like gender and sexual orientation.

Officials at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit organization that monitors free speech issues on college campuses, and the National Association of Scholars (NAS), an independent membership organization that tracks intellectual freedom issues at colleges and universities, say that they are not opposed to promoting diversity, but they do not believe that professors should be required to incorporate diversity into their academic work.

These organizations were the first to criticize Virginia Tech’s proposal, forcing the school’s president, Dr. Charles W. Steger, to declare last week that the policy was “no longer under consideration,” according to a Virginia Tech spokesman.

Virginia Tech is not the first university that has attempted to impose diversity requirements on its faculty. Several years ago, the University of Oregon put forth a similar proposal, but faculty protested and the measure was ultimately rescinded.

“The university is not a church or a political party,” says Dr. Peter Wood, president of NAS. “The university is a place where people of different ideas are putting forth their best arguments. We can’t reward those who say and believe the right thing and punish or withhold recognition for those who refuse to engage in political orthodoxy.”

Meanwhile, Adam Kissel, the director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, says that the definition of diversity work as a measure for evaluating faculty members is too broad and that there is no general consensus about what exactly constitutes diversity.

In the case of Virginia Tech’s proposal, diversity was defined 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 characteristics ranged from race and gender to body size and condition.

Private schools that decide to implement diversity requirements are under less political pressure than publicly funded institutions, says Kissel, who adds that the recent decision by the president of Virginia Tech to rescind the proposal is “an important first step toward preserving faculty rights.”

Others, like Wood of NAS, suspect that diversity proponents will regroup and try to push forward similar proposals at other colleges and universities in the future.

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