Legal Docket – Mandating sensitivity

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Monday morning and the start of a new work week for The World and Everything in It. Today is the 14th of September, 2020. 

Good morning to you, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. The academic publication Inside Higher Ed reports the story of a professor of politics at a South Carolina school who had been facing termination for refusing mandatory diversity training.

His name is Jeffrey Poelvoorde. He’s a professor of politics at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  He wrote a letter explaining why he objected, and then read it on a YouTube video:

POELVOORDE: I do not dispute that the leadership of Converse College is well-meaning in its attempts to extirpate bigotry. But those attempts must occur within the framework of a liberal education, guided by an essential respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual to think and learn on his or her own.

EICHER: Converse College mandated the training in March. According to published reports: It required faculty to undergo diversity and inclusion training, along with a course in recognizing something called unconscious bias.

College president Krista Newkirk wrote a memo to students in response to Poelvoorde. In it, she says the right to freedom of speech is “balanced by our policy on discrimination” and that “Converse does not tolerate discrimination” on … “any other status protected by applicable federal, state, or local law.’”

Poelvoorde continues reading a portion of his letter.

POELVOORDE: Converse College, like the American nation around it, is an imperfect entity, as must any entity engendered by the broken and corrupt human heart be. Converse and America may contain dark and ugly elements that frustrate the attainment of our highest ideals, but in life? In life, we must never confront our lowest by abandoning our highest.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what the leadership of Converse college has done by imposing the coercive mandate and embracing an expedient to address the problem of racism that departs from the essential nature of a liberal arts education.

REICHARD: Poelvoorde refused to submit to what he sees as a condescending, ideologically-infused training. When he refused to bend to coercion, he thought his job was at risk.

So he hired a lawyer, Samantha Harris. She represents him throughout this process.

HARRIS: And Dr. Poelvoorde objected to this as a violation of his freedom of conscience, particularly because he learned from some faculty who did take the trainings that you actually had to on at least one of them, you had to select particular answers that you, that were, you know, the right answer before being able to move on, but that some of these answers were actually matters of opinion. So he believed that taking this training and the fact that the college was, you know, imposing this training on its faculty was a violation of his right to freedom of conscience.

Harris told me that this training often requires you to answer a yes or no question, but that actually has an ideological tilt to it. So, Poelvoorde felt the training was an ideological imposition.

HARRIS: He actually said that if the college would make it voluntary, that he would take it. But he felt that this wasn’t the college’s place to require faculty and staff to sort of share, you know, the college’s official view on racial dynamics in this country in order to be faculty in good standing.

According to Poelvoorde, Converse told him he could be terminated for insubordination if he refused the training.

HARRIS: It chose instead just to issue him a reprimand which really, I think is a result of the fact that he was willing to speak up about this. And when he spoke up about it, he received you know, support from around the country. I think, you know, universities often try to do things privately that they wouldn’t be able to defend publicly. And I think that firing a faculty member for not wanting to submit to essentially a program of thought reform is something that was not going to play well with the public. And once Converse realized that this was not something that was just going to be a private matter. It chose just to issue this reprimand which, you know, has little practical effect, and Dr. Poevoorde remains a faculty member at the college.

The pressure to bend to ideology is strong everywhere, across industries.

I asked Harris to talk about what protections Americans have against this sort of thing.

HARRIS: Well, you know, we obviously have the, the First Amendment which prevents the government from taking any official action based on the content of people’s speech. You know, I think the real thing though, is that the legal protections don’t mean a lot if people are not willing to stand up for their rights. And that’s what’s happening right now is that there’s really a climate of fear that’s prevailing not only yeah, on campus, but also you know, in the media and in you know, in corporate, in the corporate world as well. 

I mean, I had another there was another professor at Princeton who wrote a piece in Quillette in which he challenged or sort of pushed back against a petition by faculty at Princeton to take all of these new anti-racism initiatives. And you know, after he published that there was a lot of anger and people called for the university to investigate him. And he received, you know, just voluminous sort of hate online and everything. But the support that he got was all these sort of private messages saying, “Hey, listen, you know, I wish I could speak up in your defense, but I’m afraid of losing my job.” And some of these were from within academia, but some of these also were from people in corporate jobs.

Harris said the issue is more about whether individuals have the courage to stand up for their rights, no matter the personal or professional cost.

HARRIS: The reason this mob behavior is allowed to continue is that too many people are afraid. I think that if a critical mass of people push back and I think that’s evident in the case of Dr. Poelvoorde and in the case of Professor Katz, who is the case, I was just talking about at Princeton. These were cases where you know the faculty themselves and their supporters did publicly stand up.

Poelvoorde received a reprimand in his employment file. But Harris said that shows the college backed down from its original threat to fire him.

HARRIS: Well, it’s interesting because you know, all of the emphasis that’s being placed on diversity, there really is, you know, a problem with diversity of thought. And I think that’s because there’s, there’s really an arrogance among a lot of the people in positions of authority you know, at colleges and universities today that they sort of have a monopoly on the truth. And I think there’s a real lack of intellectual humility there. In that desire to suppress dissenting points of view.

What does Harris think the ultimate message of Professor Poelvoorde’s case is?

HARRIS: You know I think the real message here is that what should be conducted as good-faith debates are now conducted as these cancel campaigns, where if anybody expresses a view that’s out of step with the prevailing ideology on campus you know, people are sort of calling for their personal and professional destruction. I think that we need more people like Dr. Poelvoorde who are willing to stand up for their rights even you know, at, at cost to themselves, because that’s the only way we’re going to fight back against this cancel culture.

I’ll let Professor Poelvoorde have the final word. Note this is edited for flow.

POELVOORDE: As the political philosopher, Leo Strauss reminds us quote, “indignation is a bad counselor. Our indignation proves it best that we are well meaning. It does not prove that we are right.” Unquote. This is from his work, “Natural Rights in History,” on page six. I do not tell president Newkirk or Provost Barker, what to read or watch or think I demand the same respect from them. And God willing, let them see beyond ideology and embrace the complexity and diversity of opinions and interpretations that these events require. And finally let them check their coercive impulses at the front gate.

And that’s this week’s Legal Docket.

(Photo/Wikimedia Commons) The main building at Converse College, Spartanburg, S.C. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Legal Docket – Mandating sensitivity

  1. Geoffrey Vanden Heuvel says:

    While this story looks at a professor with views similar to ours who pushed back, the principle your story promoted, fighting back against colleges’ efforts to have their professors view consistent with college values can and is being used by “progressive “ professors in confessionally sound Christian colleges. This is a huge problem for Christian colleges trying to stay strong in this culture.

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