Inside Higher Ed has a story about the ongoing controversy over Thio Li-ann of the National University of Singapore, who will be teaching International Human Rights at NYU as a visitor this Fall. As IHE report, she is an "outspoken opponent of gay rights. Thio has argued repeatedly and graphically that her country should continue to criminalize gay sexual acts."
Cary Nelson, national president of the American Association of University Professors, said that he would not advise NYU to rescind the invitation to Thio to teach there. But he said that it would be legitimate to raise questions about whether she should be teaching human rights.
"Academic freedom protects you from retaliation for your extramural remarks, but it does not protect you from being prohibited from teaching in an area where you are not professionally competent, and there are doubts on whether she has the competency in human rights," Nelson said. He said that there is in fact an "international consensus, save a few countries like Iran" that gay people should not be treated as criminals.
What a bizarre and disturbing comment to come from the AAUP president, whose professional obligation is to be a spokesperson for academic freedom! He's suggesting that if a professor disagrees with the "international consensus" on a particular narrow issue within a much broader field, that professor should be deemed incompetent to teach in that field.
By this logic, just for example, a professor who has that Israeli settlements in the West Bank are legal under international (such as the late Yale Law School professor Eugene Rostow) law would not be permitted to teach international law; a professor who doubts that human activities are playing a significant role in global climate change would not be permitted to teach international environmental law, among other things; and a professor who disagrees with various national constitutions and international conventions guaranteeing "positive rights" (to shelter, food, jobs, etc.) could be deemed on that basis incompetent to teach a range of related subjects. This principle would extend beyond international law. Perhaps feminist professors who think that all heterosexual sex amounts to rape should be banned from teaching classes on gender-related issues, given that this is strongly contrary to international consensus. And all this regardless, apparently, of how these issues are treated in the classroom, including whether the professor acknowledges that his positions are a minority in the field, or, for that matter, whether the professor discusses his own positions in class at all, or just teaches the current status of the debate and the law.
Most likely, what Nelson is really thinking is that Thio is a bigot, but since he can't come out and say that bigots shouldn't be allowed to teach (because the next thing you know, the logic will be extended to Communists and other left-wing radicals), he instead pretends that the argument is over Thio's "competency." But surely it can't be the case that only people who agree with the current "international consensus" on one particular issue in the human rights field are competent to teach about human rights law (she is not, after all, being hired as an advocate for modern human rights law).
I think it much more honest and appropriate to keep the debate honest: is the fact that someone thinks that homosexual acts are immoral and perverse, and should be illegal (at least in her home country) sufficient grounds to disinvite her (or not invite her to begin with) to teach in her subject area, assuming she otherwise has the relevant expertise?* (Note, however, that most critics of NYU's decision to invite Thio are not requesting that the invitation be revoked).
UPDATE: I should have including more of Nelson's remarks, which make his views sound even worse:
Nelson also said that in a tenure decision, he would judge a candidate — however offensive his or her views on unrelated subjects — only on a question of whether the person's scholarship and teaching in his or her discipline met appropriate standards. But in a hiring decision (whether for a visiting or permanent position), he said, it is appropriate to consider other factors, and the reality is that it's impossible to know what professors are really thinking when they vote one way or another. Professors can appropriately ask prior to appointments, he said, whether hiring someone whose views on certain subjects are "poisonous" could limit "the department's ability to do its business."Next up: The AAUP defends loyalty oaths, and, in a retrospective on its fight to protect radical leftists with "poisonous" pro-Soviet views in the 1950s admits, "we were just kidding."
*To be clear, I haven't investigated Thio's background, and therefore have no opinion on whether she seems otherwise qualified to teach human rights law. To the extent folks want to argue that her work is weak and she shouldn't have been invited on those grounds, that's an entirely different point.
FURTHER UPDATE: Let me reiterate that I don't know anything about Thio, and have no opinion on whether she is in fact someone who, putting aside her views on gay rights, should be teaching human rights law at NYU.
And I think that her critics are correct to point out that NYU would never hire someone with analogous views about African Americans or other historically unpopular minorities, no matter how competent they were in their subject matter, and these critics can reasonably argue that NYU should treat gays with equal respect without taking a position on academic freedom more generally.
But Mr. Stanley didn't claim that Thio lacks relevant expertise or qualifications or smarts in general to teach human rights law, but that Thio's views on the legality of homosexual sex in Singapore are contrary to a purported international consensus, and therefore she may lack competence, which is nonsense. Let's say a prominent professor of human rights law in the U.S. suddenly announced that he thought gay sex should be criminalized, but his class changed not a whit from his previous classes. On what basis would we suddenly challenge his competence in the subject area?
And the AAUP, dedicated as it is institutionally to academic freedom and the right of professors with unpopular or outrageous views to be free from mistreatment, simply can't properly make the second argument, that because, e.g., racists are poorly treated, people who oppose gay rights should also be poorly treated. One can't imagine, for example, the AAUP arguing that because as a practical matter a known Nazi would never get hired by NYU, that NYU should not hire known Communist, or because few universities would hire known Al Qaeda sympathizers, they should also refuse hire someone who has written nice things about the Irish Republican Army, or the PLO, or Che Guevera, etc.
But Stanley actually made a much worse argument, that universities can properly exclude any ideas deemed sufficiently poisonous to interfere with departmental activities. In other words, universities should, on principle, allow a hecklers' veto. This position undermines the longstanding AAUP position over the decades that pacifists, or Communists, or anti-War protestors, or critics of the U.S. post-9/11, should not be mistreated in any way because of their political views, no matter how great the public outcry, and no matter how unpopular their perspective. E.g., after 9/11:
In recognizing that now is not the first time that our institutions have been tested by the demands of national security, the committee reaffirms the position taken during World War II by the Association's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure:
"Academic freedom is one facet of intellectual freedom; other aspects of that larger concept—freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion—are among the avowed objects for which this war is being fought. It would be folly to draw a boundary line across the area of freedom."Let's say Bill Ayers was suddenly up for an appointment in his field at NYU for which he was duly qualified. Does anyone believe that the AAUP position would be, or should be, that his views are so "poisonous" that NYU should decline to consider him for that position?