Anti-Gay Scholar Rejects NYU

July 24, 2009

Thio Li-ann won't be coming to New York University this fall after all.

Thio, a professor at the National University of Singapore and a politician in her home country as well, was to have taught a course on human rights law as part of an NYU program that brings scholars from around the world to teach at the law school. But in recent weeks, as students and others have circulated information about her anti-gay statements, some have questioned whether it was appropriate for NYU to hire someone with limited views of human rights to teach the subject. But NYU has defended the hire on academic freedom grounds, and Thio indicated that she was looking forward to debating the issues while teaching on the campus.

Not anymore. While NYU has not changed its position, its law dean issued a statement in which he announced that Thio has decided not to come to NYU. "She 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," wrote Dean Richard L. Revesz.

In response to a request for comment on the situation, Thio sent Inside Higher Ed her resignation letter to NYU. "As an Asian woman whose legal training has spanned the finest institutions in both East and West, I believe I would have something of value to offer your students. However, the conditions no longer exist to proceed with the visit, given the animus fueled by irresponsible misrepresentation/distortions and/or concerted invective from certain parties. Friends and colleagues have also expressed serious concerns about my safety and well-being."

Thio praised NYU for standing by the job offer, and blamed the critics for making it difficult for her to accept. "I understand that you, too, have been under great pressure to rescind the invitation. I appreciate the commitment NYU has shown towards the principle of academic freedom in resisting this pressure; to yield to politicking would be deleterious to the academic enterprise. Today's heresy can become tomorrow's orthodoxy and vice versa," she wrote to the dean. "Despite this, it has become clear that the fraught atmosphere of hostility towards me is inimical to an effective teaching and learning environment. As you know, the ireful campaign against me has negatively affected class enrollment, a sad commentary on this present noisome state of affairs."

In his statement, Dean Revesz answered one of the questions many have been asking when he said that NYU was unaware of Thio's anti-gay statements when she was hired. But he went on to say that the university makes a practice of not looking for such statements (even her critics say Thio has made no effort to hide her views), and that they wouldn't have changed the hiring decision.

"Of course, an electronic search of her public statements would have produced the text of [an anti-gay speech much cited by critics]," he wrote. "We did not conduct such a search in considering this appointment, and we have not conducted such searches in considering other appointments: We limit our inquiry to the review of academic publications and works in progress, teaching evaluations, and reputation for collegiality. That is the general norm at academic institutions."

The text of the speech becomes important, her critics have said, because it shows her not just to be someone who doesn't endorse gay rights, but someone who espouses views that in some cases have been widely repudiated by scholars (that people can change sexual orientation if they want) and that run counter to what most human rights groups consider basic human rights (she argues for criminalizing sex between people of the same sex). In addition, she has repeatedly mocked gay people, saying for example that anal sex is "like shoving a straw up your nose to drink," and rejected arguments based on a diversity of sexual orientations by saying that "diversity is not license for perversity."

In some disputes over hiring controversial faculty members who are viewed as bigoted, student groups have demanded that individuals be dismissed or not hired in the first place. In this case, however, NYU OUTlaw, the gay student group that spread word of Thio's views, didn't demand that she be kept off campus. The group's board adopted a statement saying that the best way "to fight Dr. Thio's offensive views not by silencing her but by engaging in a respectful and productive dialogue about the boundaries of human rights. This fall, we plan to hold events to explore issues of academic freedom, LGBT rights, and human rights in Asia, and we look forward to Dr. Thio’s participation in the discussion."

Others, however, have called for NYU to withdraw the invitation to Thio. Hundreds have signed an online petition that says she shouldn't be at NYU. "To harbor Dr. Thio under the banner of 'academic freedom' is disingenuous, untenable and unacceptable. The full dignity of LGBT persons is beyond debate and the criminalization of private sexual conduct between consenting same-sex adults is a tool of oppression. While Dr. Thio believes that 'diversity is not a license for perversity,' we believe that academic freedom is not a license for bigotry," says the text of the petition.

In his statement, Revesz wrote that the situation changed for Thio as the controversy continued. E-mail exchanges between NYU students and Thio offended those on both sides of the debate, he wrote.

"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," he wrote. "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.... Members of our community have questioned whether Professor Thio's statements create an unwelcoming atmosphere, one in which students in her classes would have been unable to participate effectively in the learning experience. Determination of where that point is on the continuum of free speech is a difficult, case-by-case judgment based upon context, history of the relationship, and many other factors. But it would be an extraordinary measure, almost never taken by universities in the United States, to cancel a course on the basis of e-mail 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."

Revesz also rejected the idea that a scholar "opposed to the recognition of certain important human rights" should be disqualified from teaching a course on human rights: "An academic's views on a substantive issue should be irrelevant to his or her suitability to teach a course in a particular area as long as the opposing views are treated fairly in the classroom: A proponent or opponent of the death penalty can be equally qualified to lead a seminar on capital punishment, for example. The contrary position would be a serious affront to academic freedom, would lead to endless political litmus tests, and would greatly impoverish academic institutions, which gain so much from the robust discussion of controversial legal issues."

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