Philosophers Against Bias

Following years of debate, association will flag jobs that aren't open to gay scholars. Are Christian colleges being given a "scarlet letter"? Is there a loophole?
November 23, 2009

Many academic associations have policies barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Many of those same associations have job listing services that are used, in some cases, by religious institutions that require all hires to hold certain beliefs or follow certain rules, in some cases barring sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman.

The American Philosophical Association has for several years been debating whether allowing such institutions to use its jobs services undercuts the group's anti-bias rules and effectively hurts its members who are gay; some philosophers have suggested that the association ban job notices from colleges that discriminate against gay people.

While the association has now rejected that move, it has decided on a new procedure that will flag all ads from employers that either volunteer that they discriminate or are determined to do so.

The new policy is being hailed by some philosophers as an important demonstration of the association's commitment to equity. But there may be a loophole in the policy -- and an association of Christian colleges is questioning the fairness of the new procedure.

Under the new system, the association's rules against bias will be posted on the page where colleges can add a job notice. When placing the notice, colleges will be asked to indicate whether their policies are consistent with the association's bans on various types of discrimination, including discrimination based on sexual orientation. Any colleges that does not indicate that it complies with the statement will be flagged for not doing so, so potential applicants will be aware of the issue. Further, the association will investigate any complaints about whether colleges that haven't been flagged are violating the policy, and if they are found in violation, they will also be flagged.

While the policy notes that the association does not consider it a violation of its anti-bias rules for some religious colleges to consider religious affiliation in hiring decisions, there is no exception made to the policy for religious colleges to violate other association rules (such as those barring discrimination based on sexual orientation).

Further, the association's policy has now been made explicit that bans on people who engage in sex with a member of the same sex are considered discrimination. In the past, some advocates for religious colleges have said that these institutions don't discriminate against gay people, but only those who engage in gay sex. The new policy of the association says that when conduct is "integrally connected" to a status, such as gay sex being related to being gay, that conduct can't be banned without discriminating against the people who are a member of the relevant group.

Alastair Norcross, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder and one of the leaders of the movement for the policy change, said that the inclusion of the language about conduct was crucial, so that colleges couldn't claim not to discriminate against gay people by saying that they welcomed them if they were celibate.

Norcross said that the new system would have been undercut with anything that would let colleges "say that there is a difference between the act and the orientation."

He said that doing so would be the equivalent of letting colleges "say that we'll hire men or women, but we require all of our employees to pee while standing up." That might not be technically gender bias, in that a woman could still be hired, but it would be de facto bias, just as it would be for a college to say that it would hire gay people who promised never to have sex outside heterosexual marriage.

The APA has not officially announced its new policy, but Norcross -- who was briefed on it because of his role in encouraging the change -- posted details about it on the blog Leiter Reports. Via e-mail to Inside Higher Ed, Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher at Princeton University who is chair of the APA, said that the account posted by Norcross was accurate, but he said that the vote was "a reflection of the all-things-considered judgment of the members of the board," not "an endorsement of any particular arguments raised in the discussion."

Further, he noted that the association already flags institutions that have been censured either by the APA or the American Association of University Professors, so that this new rule just "adds to the information already available for job candidates about issues of this general kind."

Some view the shift as more than just adding some more information.

Paul R. Corts, president of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, said that he found the new policy "concerning because the APA is acknowledging that faith-based institutions are legally permitted to seek like-minded faculty consistent with their mission, but the APA is choosing to ostracize those campuses anyway."

He added that Christian colleges are "part of a long history of welcomed diversity -- acknowledged as a great strength -- in the American higher education system. We are disappointed that the APA doesn’t respect diversity but rather seeks to force all institutions to conform to a single mold of the APA’s choosing. To brand some campuses with a type of scarlet letter seems to be the antithesis of diversity."

Corts also noted that Christian colleges don't hide their views. "CCCU campuses are searching for scholars and faculty that want to teach and serve at a faith-based institution," he said. "When our institutions identify their faith-based mission requirements in position announcements, this is an affirmative process of finding faculty who embrace the mission and does not force any candidate to change their views."

At least one member of the APA board who voted for the measure said that he is "an extreme conservative in matters pertaining to what a religious institution can require of its faculty members," and that he came to the view that the measure was "pretty harmless." Peter van Inwagen, a University of Notre Dame philosopher, said that he wasn't bothered by flagging ads.

"What many of the secular progressives on the board wanted done -- and this was not done -- was to vote to exclude departments that refused to sign the anti-bias statement," he said.

The philosophy association is also explicitly affirming the right of religious colleges to require employees to sign a statement of faith, he said and he wouldn't have voted for the policy without being assured that such a statement could say something along the lines of: "All erotic physical contact between two persons of the same sex is a grave sin and contrary to the will of God."

Norcross, the professor who helped lead the movement to get the policy changed, said that the minute a college went beyond such a statement -- and excluded those whose actions were inconsistent with the statement on erotic contact -- that college would be violating the standards and could be flagged.

He characterized van Inwagen's theory as "a weird loophole," but acknowledged that it could in fact exist under the policy. But Norcross said he saw the loophole having minimal impact. "Most institutions that care enough to make you sign a statement of faith and conduct want to make you promise not to do those things," he said, and that promise would violate the association's rules.

Norcross also stressed his view that the policy was a key advance. "We had for 20 years this statement" about not discriminating against gay scholars, but the association did nothing to express its disagreement with colleges that didn't follow the policy, he said.

While Norcross said he had mixed feelings about allowing colleges that discriminate to use any of the association's jobs services, he said he saw the new policy as a step forward. Some had worried that if the association completely excluded colleges that discriminate, a dual job hunt would be required of job candidates, who would have to consider positions through the association and through some other body that might be formed around colleges wanting to bar gay faculty members.

The movement to change the association's policies was first set off by a petition created by Charles Hermes, who teaches philosophy at the University of Texas at Arlington. That petition, signed by nearly 1,500 philosophers, called for the association to either bar discriminatory colleges from using the job services or to institute a flagging system. (The petition was prompted by philosophers finding job listings from colleges that, citing their religious views, barred gay faculty members.)

Norcross said that "if anybody should be sensitive to these issues, it should be philosophers." Arguments defending bias against gay people "are specious and philosophers should be opposed to specious arguments."


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