Virginia Tech Drops Sexual Orientation from Nondiscrimination Policy
During a closed-door meeting, the governing body at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) voted unanimously to remove sexual orientation from the university's anti-discrimination policy.
On March 10, Virginia Tech's Board of Visitors (BOV), the university's governing board, made public its decision to align the school with the Virginia attorney general's office discrimination policy, overriding a 1995 move that included sexual orientation in Virginia Tech's discrimination laws.
By removing sexual orientation from its policy, the BOV has basically said the school can discriminate against admitting a student or hiring a member of its faculty if they are gay or lesbian. Further, without the law, gays and lesbians have been stripped of university protection or from taking legal action toward the school if a hate crime should occur against them.
The BOV also voted to remove race and gender as factors in the admissions process, sparking questions about the future of the school's already-stunted diversity. Virginia Tech's student body is currently 78 percent Caucasians, according to recent numbers put out by the school.
Last year, Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore suggested through a memo that all universities in Virginia move to merit-based admissions policies and also streamline their anti-discrimination policies with that of the state. Virginia's anti-discrimination laws do not protect people based on their sexual orientation.
While Tech moved to align its policies with the attorney general's office, most of the school's peer institutions in the state, including the University of Virginia, continue to guarantee protections for sexual orientation. In fact, 12 schools in Virginia and 383 schools around the country include sexual orientation in their anti-discrimination policies, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner condemned the school board's decision, saying his administration is the most progressive and diverse in the state's history.
"I am extremely concerned about the policies adopted earlier this week by Virginia Tech's Board of Visitors," the governor said on March 13. "I expect Virginia Tech's Board to revisit this decision later this year. At that time, I also expect the board to solicit comments from the university community, because these decisions are too important to be determined in isolation without public accountability."
The vote took place in a private meeting that was not open for debate, angering student groups. The school's Student Government Association has contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and is considering taking legal action against the BOV.
"In the past 12 years, the university's done a lot to support diversity," Sterling Daniel, president of the SGA, told the Collegiate Times, Virginia Tech's daily newspaper. "The BOV has chosen to take back those steps and take us back to the dark ages."
The Human Rights Campaign and Equality Virginia have also jumped in to show their support in getting sexual orientation put back into the anti-bias policy.
"It's unfortunate and a step backwards. There was no need for the university to [remove sexual orientation]," Kim I. Mills, HRC's education director, told the Gay.com/PlanetOut.com Network. "It sends a bad message to students, faculty and everyone in Virginia who's working so hard to change the laws in that state."
Many people familiar with the decision feel this move has set the university back not only from attracting top students and faculty and continuing to build diversity on campus, but from moving Virginia Tech into the top level of research schools in the country.
"The BOV is shooting Tech's future in the foot by rolling back existing protections that were designed to treat everyone equally," said Dyana Mason, executive director of Equality Virginia. "For a university that is striving to be one of the top research schools, this new policy may very well prevent them from joining that elite."
Edd Sewell, the non-voting faculty representative on the BOV, equated the change in policy to pre-World War II Germany when the government quietly started removing certain freedoms.
"I think we need to start reading the history of the 1930s," Sewell told the Collegiate Times. "[The BOV is] systematically deconstructing the freedoms, the civil rights of the people at this university."
On March 13, 400 students rallied against the BOV's decision in front of Burruss Hall, the office of the school president, before a large group entered the president's office demanding some sort of explanation. Outside in the crowd, some students showed support by wearing pink triangles, some held sings reading "Virginia is for Haters," and others called for complete reform of the school's policies.