An associate professor of politics at Converse College in South Carolina says he’s facing possible termination for publicly refusing to complete newly mandated diversity and antibias training.
“My department chairman has informed me that the administration intends to dismiss me for insubordination and other reasons,” the professor, Jeffrey Poelvoorde, said via email. “I’m going to the mat on this one.”
Poelvoorde, who denied an interview request, citing his attorney’s guidance, said that Converse recently told employees to complete mandatory diversity and bias training, in response to the murder of George Floyd by police and other events.
Instead of watching the two training modules, Poelvoorde wrote an open letter to the college explaining his intention to defy the new requirement. He also expressed outrage that the college’s previous public statements condemning Floyd’s murder did not also condemn protests that turned violent. In particular, Poelvoorde mentioned David Dorn, the late Black retired police officer who was killed while providing security to a store in St. Louis in June.
“Our leaders profess that ‘Black Lives Matter,’” Poelvoorde wrote in his letter. “But is it ALL Black Lives or only SOME Black Lives that matter to them? Perhaps they are only concerned about the loss of the Black Lives that confirms their political narrative and supports their progressive ideology.”
Of the training mandate, Poelvoorde said this: “Am I and are my colleagues at Converse in need of additional training in order to overcome unconscious bias and prejudice? Perhaps.” The “quarrel,” he said, “is not so much with the content of the materials the administration would impose upon us but rather the coercive imposition itself.”
Explaining that he has long been Converse’s only Orthodox Jewish faculty member, Poelvoorde also said he’d faced criticism for canceling classes on religious holidays or observing the Sabbath. Comparing his experience of being a minority group member to some Black protesters’, Poelvoorde said, “I did not react with threats of hurling bricks through the college’s windows or torching its buildings or even employing legal action against it — a recourse available to me as an American that was not available to my Jewish predecessors.”
Instead, he said, “under my department chair’s ministrations, and because of the respect, even affection, I bore towards the parties involved, I let go of my anger and maintained my silence.”
Whatever happens going forward, he said, “I believe that I have done the proper and correct thing by refusing to comply with this coercive mandate and by sharing with you the reasons for my decision. I have tried to follow the example of my Jewish predecessors by meeting coercion with dignity and firmness.”
Poelvoorde has posted a reading of his letter and some additional commentary on YouTube. In it, he explains that Converse is currently a women’s college that will soon become coed and change its name to Converse University, with the introduction of some new graduate programs. And so the college’s nature is already in flux, he says. Poelvoorde also says he is a scholar of American ideas and a patriot who was once stopped for speeding because he was overtaken by the power of his own solo rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Converse president Krista Newkirk sent her own response to students about Poelvoorde’s letter. The memo says that the required training modules take “a very broad definition of diversity (gender, gender identity, religion, disability, ethnicity, etc.) and remind us that we need to be considerate and respectful of those in our community.”
While “I understand that no one likes receiving a mandate,” she said, “they are very seldom issued here at Converse.”
Newkirk further explained that Converse sent the modules to employees in March, as recommended training. Thirty-eight percent of employees watched them at the time but, given recent events, she said, “I thought it was important that we all complete this training that reinforces Converse’s core values. That mandate stands, and each and every employee and faculty member is expected to complete this training by August 3rd.”
As for freedom of speech, Newkirk said it’s not a violation of employees’ First Amendment rights to require training.
“All institutions require employees to go through professional development training, including public higher education institutions,” Newkirk said. Converse, meanwhile, “is a private, liberal arts institution where we value the opportunity to participate in the free and responsible exchange of ideas with the belief that through vigorous and civil debate, the best and most logical ideas will rise to the top.”
The right to freedom of speech is “balanced by our policy on discrimination,” Newkirk continued. “Converse does not tolerate discrimination based upon ‘race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation, disability, age, national or ethnic origin, veteran status, genetic information, or any other status protected by applicable federal, state, or local law.’”
Seemingly addressing Poelvoorde’s anecdotes about not reporting his own experiences with possible discrimination, Newkirk also said that “any students who have been advised that they should not talk about incidents of discrimination or harassment, but instead should simply be patient and wait for these issues to resolve themselves, let me set the record straight. That is not right, that contradicts our goal of teaching you to use your voice, and that is not what our policies say.”
Newkirk said that tenured faculty members — presumably including Poelvoorde — are “afforded certain rights, and actions involving personnel are confidential. Please know that this matter is being addressed within the confines of Converse’s policy and the law.”
In the meantime, she said, students concerned about being enrolled in a course in which they worry they may face discrimination should contact administrators.
Newkirk in her memo that she’d been contacted by students aggrieved by Poelvoorde’s letter. But Poelvoorde blames Newkirk for students who have subsequently called him a racist.
In further campus communications with colleagues, Poelvoorde shared part of an email he sent to an anonymous student who accused him of bias.
“You do not tell me what you think ‘racist’ means or how you detect that quality in my letter,” he wrote to the student. “One distressing aspect of our current political and academic discourse to me is how quickly we all resort to hurling epithets rather than seriously listening to each other. I’ll confess, my least favorite examples of this are ‘racist,’ ‘fascist’ and ‘insensitive.’ Such terms are not intended to refute an opponent but rather to silence him or her; they are the verbal equivalent of a brick tossed or a baseball bat swung.”
He added, “Were my arguments ‘racist’ because I am White and Jewish?”
Diversity Training, Academic Freedom and the First Amendment
Poelvoorde said in an email that the issues at play in his case “transcend my career and my position at the college” and are “vital to all of us as Americans and academics.”
Converse said in a statement that it has been “working diligently over the last few years to improve as a community that welcomes and values all people” and “recent cases of injustice that we have witnessed as a nation caused us to intensify these efforts.”
While Converse has offered a variety of training opportunities on diversity and unconscious bias for some time, it said, the college has noted “that typically the same people attended those sessions.”
In an “unusual decision,” Newkirk therefore this spring required all faculty and staff members to complete two online training courses on these topics, which together take 90 minutes.
The college declined any comment on Poelvoorde, saying that it “remains optimistic that all faculty and staff will complete this very reasonable and legitimate obligation by the applicable deadline for doing so.” Any situations “involving non-compliance are confidential personnel matters on which Converse will not issue any statements.”
The American Association of University Professors doesn’t have any standing policy regarding diversity training and whether it should be mandated. Hans-Joerg Tiede, a senior program officer at the association, said AAUP doesn’t distinguish between diversity training or any other kind of training, such as sexual harassment or lab safety, and generally holds that faculty bodies should be involved in saying what trainings are mandatory or not.
“The main question is how such a mandate is enforced,” Tiede said. “Our main concern would be that any major sanction be preceded by a hearing before a faculty body and that any minor sanction can be appealed to a grievance committee.”
Zach Greenberg, a program officer at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said colleges and universities should be mindful of their professors’ academic freedom and free speech rights in making such requirements. Yet mandatory diversity training in itself isn’t a violation of free speech rights.
“Educational institutions generally may not force faculty to conform to a political orthodoxy, or compel them to express political viewpoints, under the guise of diversity training,” Greenberg said. “Such programs must be conducted to ensure that professors remain free to research, teach and debate ideas without censorship or institutional or outside interference.”
Still, he said, “generally applicable diversity trainings that merely involve the passing of knowledge” onto all professors would be “unobjectionable” from a First Amendment perspective.