ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Multiculturalism Meets Hostile Environment

August 11, 2005 by ACTA

Virginia Tech presently faces a fascinating dilemma. Having contracted with King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia to deliver a six-week-long development seminar to 60 Saudi faculty members, Virginia Tech administrators decided to offer the seminar in sex-segregated sessions to honor Saudi pedagogical practice. A Tech spokesperson outlined the reasoning thus: "This is the way they teach their courses over there, and this is the way they wish their courses to be taught over here." In other words, a combination of multicultural sensitivity and a commitment to customer service underwrites the decision to segregate the workshop by sex. For the past month, the visiting Saudi students have been taking single-sex courses on distance learning, web design, and English.

But there are problems with this. John Rosenberg notes that the question of sex-segregated courses has already been decisively addressed in Virginia: "Not so long ago the Commonwealth of Virginia got in a bit of trouble for segregating its male and female military cadets into separate programs, one at the Virginia Military Institute (for males only) and one subsidized at the private Mary Baldwin College (for females). The Supreme Court finally integrated VMI." One wonders whether--and upon what terms-- Virginia Tech's segregated Saudi course would stand up to a similar challenge. One also wonders how, in the face of that ruling, Virginia Tech justified its decision to accept $246,000 in exchange for designing and implementing such a program. Perhaps Virginia Tech understands itself as a private contractor in this instance--despite the fact that it is a public university--and reasons that on that basis its decision to run the courses is legally unproblematic.

But there is another problem, too. On Tuesday, a Virginia Tech professor filed a complaint with the school's equal opportunity office claiming that the decision to offer sex-segregated classes to the visiting Saudis creates a hostile environment for women. So far, the university's response has been to equivocate. One the one hand, it acknowledges that single-sex classes are out of line with university policy. On the other, it says it has to honor its contract with the Saudis. Provost Mark McNamee issued an apology Tuesday, stating that the classes would continue to be held as planned, but that the university would be more aware the next time it negotiates a contract of this sort.

Virginia Tech's Office of Equal Opportunity is investigating the complaint.

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