A professor at Converse College, a private, liberal arts school in South Carolina, has refused to complete required diversity trainings, and he may be suspended or lose his job over it.
But Associate Professor of Politics Jeffrey Poelvoorde, who has taught at the college for 34 years, said it’s worth the fight. He recently missed the deadline to complete the trainings.
“I have tenure, but our faculty handbook allows the suspension or abolition of tenure for six reasons … including insubordination,” Poelvoorde told The College Fix. “I believe that’s what they’ll act on. They’ll consider this a formal [abrogation] of my contract by insubordination.”
Poelvoorde provided The College Fix with a series of correspondences that detail the controversy, including an open letter he wrote that spelled out his side of the story.
The open letter was addressed to the Converse College board of trustees, administration, faculty, staff, students and the rest of the college community, and also was published by the National Association of Scholars.
In it, he called the required training modules “at worst inoffensive and at best anodyne.” He added that the “administration must be either naive or disingenuous to deny that there is an ideological content and substructure to this material.”
The controversy arose after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Converse College President Krista Newkirk wrote to the community June 2: “It is our responsibility as Americans and members of this society to do better to uphold the fundamental principles of this great nation, and it is our responsibility as educators and scholars to help others understand these principles.”
On June 5, Newkirk issued another letter in which she detailed new proscriptions for students and staff. Among them were summer reading materials, a new committee on classroom diversity, and, most controversially, mandated diversity training.
The training consists of two modules: “Diversity and Inclusion” and “Managing Bias.”
A school-sponsored account with EVERFI, the company which produced the training, is required to view the modules, but the website’s overview describes that participants will:
Learn about key concepts related to identity, bias, power, privilege and oppression.
Understand the benefits of being part of a diverse community.
Develop skills related to ally behavior, self-care, and creating inclusive spaces.
According to Poelvoorde’s letter, “Our leaders profess that ‘Black Lives Matter.’ But is it ALL Black Lives or only SOME Black Lives that matter to them,” he asked. “Perhaps they are only concerned about the loss of the Black Lives that confirms their political narrative and supports their progressive ideology. Perhaps Black Lives…but not Black Livelihoods…matter to them.”
Poelvoorde argues college leaders are hypocritical when it comes to the topic of “diversity.”
“In my open letter, I referred to two kinds of open harassment, if you will,” Poelvoorde told The College Fix. “One, because I’m an Orthodox Jew, and two, because I’m a conservative.”
“The reason I mention that in my first letter is because those are aspects of diversity that evidently the college couldn’t care less about. The irony of firing their only Orthodox Jew in the name of diversity shouldn’t be lost on anybody.”
Meanwhile, one student took offense to Poelvoorde’s letter. She sent a response to President Newkirk and shared it with Poelvoorde. In it, she called his letter “damaging, racist, and not okay.”
The student, referred to as “Ms. Smith” by Poelvoorde, took issue in particular with his mention of the violent riots: “He mentions George Floyd and the terrible circumstances surrounding the death but not without discrediting his death by focusing more on other circumstances.”
She also responded to his criticism of the training mandates by equating them to professors assigning readings for a class.
“Assigning readings is not coercive, if it is every single professor on any campus, including Dr. Poelvoorde, has been guilty of coercion,” she wrote.
Poelvoorde issued a written response to the student’s claims and elaborated on his response in one of his videos posted to his YouTube channel.
“With all due respect, Ms. Smith, it was not I who ‘changed the subject’ from Mr. Floyd’s death and the racism that may have contributed to it, but, rather, the rioters, looters, vandals and murderers themselves who changed–and continue to change–the subject,” the professor argued in one of his videos.
Poelvoorde also pushed back against her analogy of professor reading assignments.
“The essential inequality between professor and student,” he wrote, “is essential to a liberal arts education; a professor assigning a reading respects the mind and integrity of the student.”
A college president is “an equal colleague amongst colleagues,” according to Poelvoorde.
Poelvoorde said the diversity training mandate “is, in effect, commanding [professors] not only what to watch but also what to think, given the content of this kind of material and its moral rather than its intellectual content.”
After the exchange, President Newkirk sent a public letter to the community.
“I am so sorry that you are facing so many difficult things right now and that one more challenging situation has been thrust upon you. I hear you. Please know that we are working on ways to make this better,” she wrote regarding Poelvoorde’s email.
She also declared that the training mandate stands, “and each and every employee and faculty member is expected to complete this training.”
The college also disputes the claim that the requirement discourages intellectual freedom.
“The mandated training does not restrict or infringe upon the academic freedom of faculty members. In no way does it restrict any faculty member’s freedom in research, the publication of research, classroom discussions, or the right of any faculty member to speak as a concerned citizen about societal issues,” spokesperson Holly Duncan told The College Fix via email.
Poelvoorde, however, is not backing down.
He sought legal counsel, and, on July 27, his lawyer, Samantha Harris, sent a letter to Newkirk.
“A critical component of the freedom of speech is the freedom from speech – that is, the right not to be compelled to make statements or take positions that violate the dictates of one’s conscience,” Harris wrote.
She cited the case of West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, in which the Supreme Court ruled that requiring students to salute the American flag was not legal, after a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to do so.
Newkirk responded to Harris in an August 3 letter.
She wrote that the first module, the diversity and inclusion training, “simply poses questions and asks for the participant’s best response. If the participant’s response does not align with the designated ‘best’ answer, the D&I training … does not assign the answer as ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ or require the participant to submit a different response.”
The second module on managing bias conveys only information and does not quiz the participant in any way, according to the letter.
Newkirk also offered an accommodation for Poelvoorde.
“Converse will allow Dr. Poelvoorde to complete this training with a Converse representative who will select an answer at random or as directed by Dr. Poelvoorde as he prefers,” she wrote.
Harris sent a final response to Newkirk. In it, she thanked the president for offering the accommodation, but she ultimately informed her that Poelvoorde would still decline to undergo the training.
Provost Jeffrey Barker also sent a notice to Poelvoorde on August 3, the initial deadline for faculty members to complete their training.
Barker extended the deadline to August 6, but he told Poelvoorde, “If you do not complete the sessions by that time, Converse will take appropriate corrective action, up to and including termination of your employment.”
That deadline has since passed, but Poelvoorde told The College Fix via email that he has not received any new notices.
“I believe they will notify me with a paper letter, which is typically how they [handle] confidential communications, such as our salary letters. I live in Charlotte and am checking here, but I have friends checking my campus mail at Converse in Spartanburg, SC,” he wrote.
Poelvoorde is no stranger to racism or bigotry. According to his open letter to the college, he has been accused of canceling classes and failing to submit grades on time due to his observance of Jewish holidays.
In 1986, when he first took his job as a professor at Converse, he said he received a spiteful letter from the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
“Just a short note to let you know we don’t like Jews. We don’t like to see you, hear you, eat with you, or have you to our homes,” the Klansmen wrote.
Poelvoorde, in his recent letter, weighed in on the discrimination he feels he has faced.
“Is there ‘systemic’ racism at Converse College? Is there ‘systemic’ anti-Semitism at Converse College?” Poelvoorde wrote. “For most of my thirty-four years at Converse, I have been its only Jew–certainly its only orthodox Jew.”
Editor’s note: This article has been amended to correct a quote.
College Fix journalism fellow Fiona Moriarty-McLaughlin contributed to this report.
IMAGE: YouTube screenshot