Victory for Freedom of Conscience at Virginia Tech

BLACKSBURG, Va., April 14, 2009—The president of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) has announced that proposed new guidelines for faculty assessment, which would have mandated reporting of "diversity" activities in violation of academic freedom and freedom of conscience, are no longer under consideration. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) had called on President Charles W. Steger to rescind the proposed guidelines after a tenure-track faculty member came to FIRE for help.

"By shelving mandatory ‘diversity’ requirements for tenure and promotion candidates, President Steger has taken an important first step towards preserving faculty rights," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "Political litmus tests have no place in higher education, and FIRE calls on Virginia Tech and its Board of Visitors to withdraw all other such infringements on individual conscience and academic freedom."

Over the past three years, Virginia Tech’s provost, Mark McNamee, has increasingly demanded ideological conformity in the form of "diversity accomplishments" from the school’s faculty. Last year, in a memo to all department heads and promotion and tenure committees, he 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 is "especially important for candidates seeking promotion to full professor."

In March, Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences (CLAHS) concluded voting on new rules for faculty merit raises, promotion, and tenure that would require faculty to demonstrate fealty to a highly politicized definition of diversity in their research, teaching, and personal enrichment activities. The results of the vote have not been made public.

In an e-mail today, however, Steger wrote that this proposal is "no longer under consideration." A Virginia Tech spokesman confirmed that "the provost has asked the college to rework its proposed guidelines. The fundamental problem was a requirement to produce materials in support of diversity."

CLAHS defines "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 ranges from race and gender to "body size and condition." Accordingly, CLAHS has pledged "to eliminate these forms of inequality, hierarchy, and privilege in our programs and practices."

"Even without that definition, and even prior to the proposed changes, Virginia Tech was telling faculty members across the university that they had to conform to the university’s political agenda or else put at risk their promotion, tenure, and merit raises," Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, said. "FIRE will pursue this issue until no faculty member is pressured to adhere to the university’s political orthodoxy."

FIRE wrote Steger on March 25 about the ideological litmus test in CLAHS’s promotion and tenure reviews and demanded that the school’s policies be revised to accord with faculty members’ First Amendment right to freedom of conscience. After the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) wrote the school’s entire Board of Visitors, including FIRE’s letter and requesting a full review, the Board’s Rector, John R. Lawson, II, notified ACTA on April 1 that the Board would fully review Virginia Tech’s diversity and tenure policies university-wide. Although Virginia Tech later denied that such a review would occur, ACTA published an account of the conversation that shows Lawson’s intent to review these policies.

"Whether the review of existing policies is performed by the Visitors or by the President, it must be completed promptly," Lukianoff said. "Imagine telling faculty members that ‘patriotic accomplishments’ or ‘spiritual accomplishments’ were especially important for faculty members to demonstrate in order to be considered for career advancement. The proponents of Virginia Tech’s ‘diversity’ policy likely would quickly understand the essentiality of academic freedom if the university attempted to impose different ideological requirements. Mandatory points of view in higher education short-circuit the scholarly process by ordaining dogmatic ‘correct’ answers to the deepest questions of nature, society, and existence. FIRE hopes that institutions will start to understand that required ideologies stifle and corrode the open-ended search for truth and are utterly at odds with the freedom of conscience that the First Amendment steadfastly protects."

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. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Virginia Tech and on campuses across America can be viewed at

Adam Kissel, Director, FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program: 215-717-3473; [email protected]
Charles W. Steger, President, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University: 540-231-6231; [email protected]
John R. Lawson, II, Rector, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Board of Visitors: 540-231-6231; [email protected]