What started out as a little memo sent to University of Alabama (UA) professors from one of the school deans in February is becoming a rather large public-relations problem for the school as May approaches — complete with charges of civil-rights violations. What was the crux of the problem? One word: Diversity.
According to the memo sent by Engineering College Dean Timothy J. Greene, professors were to attend a series of “diversity” training workshops featuring a controversial film called Blue Eyed by Jane Elliott — a “diversity trainer” who told a group of people at a Department of Education seminar in 2000 that to vote for George W. Bush would be to vote for a racist.
To anthropology professor Charles Nuckolls and history professor David Beito, the series sounded like so much liberal hogwash — a partisan political presentation rife with racism and radical feminist ideology. It wasn’t the first time they’d seen something like that come down the pike: In 2001, UA offered another faculty “diversity training” course led by the Rev. Joseph Barndt, who says all whites — including himself — are “racists” who suffer from “false consciousness” about their “inherent racism” and unjust “white privilege.”
While Nuckolls and Beito — respectively the co-director and current president of the conservative, year-old Alabama Scholars Association (ASA) — didn’t have a problem with those ideas being aired on their campus, they did have a problem with them coming from faculty “trainers” in a mandatory seminar. Though UA President Andrew Sorenson would later say the workshops were never intended to be mandatory, that wasn’t the impression many professors got.
“A couple of my faculty and staff have complained to me about Tim Greene continually harassing them about the de facto mandatory diversity seminars he is holding,” an engineering-college chairman wrote to Sorenson. “I personally will not waste my time with these juvenile activities and I have told my colleagues that they can do whatever they want.”
And when the ASA looked into the matter, they didn’t believe the indoctrination would stop at the professorial level. “The intent of these diversity-workshop organizers is to make them mandatory for students, not just faculty and staff,” Nuckolls told Boundless. “So it’s to their best interest to realize that their civil liberties are being eroded just as rapidly as ours are. If we don’t act soon, we won’t have any civil liberties left.”
So the ASA complained, in the form of a letter to Alabama state legislators. “As a citizen of Alabama, you have a right to know how your tax dollars are spent,” they wrote. “If you do not want them spent to promote racial division, political indoctrination, and the abuse of children, then we ask that you stand up and be counted.”
Where e-mails to Sorenson had not gotten any response, this letter did. Three legislators contacted him to find out what was going on, and by Feb. 27, the Blue Eyed video was no longer part of the proposed seminar — which Sorenson was saying was not, and never had been, mandatory. But an e-mail dated March 13 from a supervisor in the College of Engineering, where the workshops were to be held, said there would be a new series of workshops led by Dean Greene — and that he “expects everyone to be there.”
By that time, the ASA was in the administration’s cross hairs. On March 22, law professor Wythe W. Holt, Jr., and education professor Jerry L. Rosiek, co-chairmen of the Faculty Senate’s Faculty Life Committee, told Beito they were investigating the ASA for contacting their state legislators “to attempt to lessen the legislative appropriation which the university receives.” In other words, the ASA members did not necessarily have protected free speech, and they may have done something wrong by petitioning the government for redress of grievances.
That drew the attention of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which had gotten involved in the case by early April. “Alabama, you say, has a right and the power to cultivate a campus ‘congenial to diversity,’ ” FIRE co-director Harvey Silverglate wrote in a letter to Holt. “Yet by asserting the right and power to hold mandatory sensitivity training to promote this philosophical and indeed political point of view, you make the campus decidedly unsafe for those who disagree with your prevailing point of view. “Thus seen, your campus’ official ‘policy’ is not so much a personal belief of some, nor even a policy or goal of the institution, but rather an orthodoxy to which others are expected to make obeisance even in their utterances. One must adhere to the orthodoxy even to the extent of refraining from petitioning the government for redress of grievances — said grievance being mandatory sessions seeking to enforce adherence to the orthodoxy.”
After FIRE announced its involvement and a United Press International reporter wrote an article about the situation April 8, the Faculty Senate backed off. “The person masterminding this McCarthyite investigation is now saying that it’s been abandoned and we’ve been exonerated,” Nuckolls told Boundless in mid-April. “But the offense is in saying the investigation could have taken place in the first place, so we continue to demand a formal retraction of the investigation and a statement on the part of those participating that this was an illegal action on their part.”
Notwithstanding the fact that the university had backed off, Nuckolls said, “We don’t intend to let go of this issue.” Wythe Holt did not return phone calls from Boundless seeking comment, but told UPI reporter Lou Marano that he has used the Blue Eyed video in his own classes and finds it “very instructive.” He also said he thinks the ASA members “are worried it will hurt them in their advancement, that they won’t get raises, if they’re charged with bigotry or violation of some university policy concerning diversity or multiculturalism. . . . Why else would they make so much out of it?”
What about free speech? Marano asked him. “What about it?” Holt replied.
Meanwhile, Nuckolls said the ASA, which is the official state affiliate of the National Association of Scholars, will be holding a membership drive for students in the near future. It’s just a matter of time, he said, before the kinds of issues faced by UA members for leaning into the prevailing winds of campus liberalism will begin to affect the students as well. “This is the equivalent of a medieval university,” he said. “A thousand years ago, you could be tried for heresy for challenging orthodox [religious] thought. Now, if you challenge diversity training or affirmative action, they call you a bigot and tell you to shut up. We’re taking a big chance here, but we see this as a duty — not just to this university, but to the concept of a university.
“It just amazes us all the time that faculty don’t rise up and fight on these issues. You’d think free speech is something they would unite over, but even tenured faculty with nothing to lose — even when they realize their basic rights are in danger — they do and say nothing.”