It’s time to teach them Academic Freedom 101

Students should know better than to oppose the appointment of professors they disagree with. Uniformity of opinion only breeds complacency.

Wendy Kaminer
columnist

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Another day, another casualty in a conflict pitting equality and demographic diversity against free speech and diversity of opinion.

‘A Singapore law professor who was to teach a human rights course at New York University Law School this Fall has withdrawn after students protested what they called her anti-gay views’, the New York Times reported recently. The anger at Dr Thio Li-ann’s appointment as a visiting professor was understandable: according to a petition protesting it, she had opposed repeal of a Singaporean law criminalising homosexual conduct and ‘supported the imposition of a $15,000 fine on a free-access Singaporean television channel for presenting a gay couple and their child as a family unit’ (1). (If the latter claim is accurate, it surely undermines Dr Thio’s credibility as a ‘victim of censorship’.)

The trouble is that the petition opposing Dr Thio imagined her appointment as a violation of NYU’s ‘own policy of non-discrimination’. In other words, gay students (and members of other historically disadvantaged groups) are said to suffer actual discrimination when the administration hires faculty members who argue against anti-discrimination laws. This confusion of speech and action – of allowing advocacy of discrimination and actually engaging in it – is common in academia, where academic freedom is too often limited to the freedom to advance prevailing ideals of equality.

The refusal of law students even to hear opposing views, reflecting opposing moral codes, is particularly worrisome. I wouldn’t want one of these future lawyers ever advocating for me. They’re unlikely to learn how to argue effectively if they limit their law school debates to matters about which only presumptively reasonable people disagree. Uniformity of opinion breeds complacency, close-mindedness, and a tendency to mistake attitudes for arguments.

I offer no opinion about the wisdom of Dr Thio’s original appointment. Law school dean Richard Revesz was rightly commended for standing by it; and in responding to her withdrawal, he issued a nuanced explanation of academic freedom. ‘Professor Thio’s position (in support of criminalising homosexual conduct) is inimical to a strongly held institutional stance that the Law School has taken, over more than two decades, in favour of ending discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation’, Revesz observed. ‘Nonetheless, the fact that Professor Thio is opposed to our institutional position should not have played any role in the evaluation of her merits to be a visiting professor. Leading academic institutions benefit greatly from a diversity of perspectives, not from hiring only people who share the same views.’ (2)

What’s relevant to a hiring decision, the dean suggested, is not a professor’s views on controversial issues but her ability to defend her views, with ‘analytic cogency and methodological integrity’ (3).

Unfortunately, Professor Thio declined the opportunity to demonstrate her powers of argument and analysis when she declined to assume her visiting professorship, in the face of student protests. As one NYU law student pointed out to me, if some students are guilty of not wanting to engage an ideological opponent, then so is Thio. In withdrawing from NYU, Thio explained that ‘she was disappointed by what she called the atmosphere of hostility by some members of our community towards her views and by the low enrollments in her classes’, Dean Revesz noted, adding that Thio reacted with a hostility of her own:

‘In the last few weeks, a number of members of our community wrote to Professor Thio indicating their objection to her appointment as a visiting professor. She considers some of these messages to be offensive. In turn, she replied to them in a manner that many members of our community – myself included – consider offensive and hurtful.’

Professor Thio’s reactions to the protests raised additional questions about the ‘unwelcoming atmosphere’ some students might find in her classroom. Still, the dean stood by her appointment: ‘(I)t would be an extraordinary measure, almost never taken by universities in the United States, to cancel a course on the basis of email exchanges between a faculty member and members of the student body. To do so would eviscerate the concept of academic freedom and chill student-faculty debate.’

Naturally Dean Revesz expressed the hope that this little debacle would serve as a ‘learning experience’ (at least he didn’t call it a teachable moment); and it did make clear the limits imposed on academic freedom by a culture of grievance. Both sides in a controversy like this – the students who condemn a professor’s mere appointment as discriminatory and a professor who complains of a hostile environment created by student protests – present themselves as victims of the other’s intolerance; no one should be surprised if they prefer exchanging grievances to engaging in debate.

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist. Her latest book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) An edited version of this article was published on The Atlantic.

Read on:

Letter from America

(1) Petition in Opposition to Dr. Thio Li-Ann Teaching a Course on Human Rights at New York University School of Law

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