Is academic freedom only for liberal professors? That’s what a controversial professor of English at California State University at Northridge says, as he faces possible disciplinary action for allegedly retaliating against a student who opposed his stance on adoptions by gay couples.
“This isn’t even chilling to free speech, it’s made it so that I can’t relate to my students -- I can’t trust them,” said Robert Oscar Lopez, an associate professor at Northridge who was accused of discrimination and threatening the learning environment of a student with whom he’d clashed over social issues. “I don’t know where the snipers are. … I don’t want to say anything that could be interpreted in any unintended way.”
Lopez’s trouble began in 2012, upon the publication of his essay, “Growing Up With Two Moms: The Untold Children’s View,” by the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank. The piece details Lopez’s childhood with his bisexual mother and her female partner, and how he says it set him back in terms of not learning certain social norms.
“Even if my peers’ parents were divorced, and many of them were, they still grew up seeing male and female social models,” Lopez wrote. “My home life was not traditional nor conventional. I suffered because of it, in ways that are difficult for sociologists to index. Both nervous and yet blunt, I would later seem strange, even in the eyes of gay and bisexual adults who had little patience for someone like me.”
Lopez, who now identifies as bisexual, says peers thought he was gay for decades, and that, as a result, he spent time in the “gay underworld” at great personal cost. He also partially defends the work of Mark Regnerus, whose controversial study of the children of gay parents has now largely been discredited. (While individuals raised by gay and lesbian parents have a range of feelings about their families, scholars generally have said that there is no evidence that such children are more or less well adjusted than are the children of straight parents.)
“I cherish my mother’s memory, but I don’t mince words when talking about how hard it was to grow up in a gay household,” Lopez wrote. “Earlier studies examined children still living with their gay parents, so the kids were not at liberty to speak, governed as all children are by filial piety, guilt and fear of losing their allowances. For trying to speak honestly, I’ve been squelched, literally, for decades.”
Lopez said in an interview that the essay was a kind of public acknowledgment of his longstanding views on adoption by gay parents: that it treads on the rights of children in that they may be denied the right to know their biological parent and may be expected not to criticize their families.
The essay generated immediate backlash on blogs, with some calling it hate speech. Lopez kept writing, however, including on his own blog, English Manif, where he refers to himself as a children’s advocate. Much of the content has been deleted, but Lopez used to blog frequently about his opposition to gay marriage and adoption. Some of his archived posts go far beyond mainstream positions against gay marriage.
“The basic precepts of gay male politics in our times require that we, in order to satisfy the central aims of the ligbitist movement, liberate the innate homosexual attraction to pederasty, going all the way back to antiquity,” Lopez wrote in response to an antigay opinion piece in 2013, for example. “Therefore, this community is by its nature ill equipped to be tasked with mentoring, raising or tending to children in unsupervised, vulnerable conditions.”
That year, the gay rights group GLAAD put Lopez on its Commentator Accountability Project list. Lopez said it was a blacklisting of sorts, and that he was no longer welcome to speak at conferences in the U.S. and Canada as a result. So he traveled abroad and continued to write legal briefs for gay marriage cases. His activities landed him in the Human Rights Campaign’s 2014 “Exporters of Hate” report naming antigay activists.
Lopez said that while peers and students criticized him, and he became a “pariah” of sorts at Northridge, his academic freedom remained intact -- largely as a result of a former provost, whom Lopez described as a free speech purist. He also earned tenure in 2013, despite the tumult.
But that provost retired just as things on campus came to a head for Lopez. In fall 2014, Lopez offered students in all four of his courses -- those on American literature and the classics, respectively -- a choice between two assignments. The first was to answer 10 questions based on course readings. The second was prepare a presentation on the readings to share at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library during a conference Lopez was organizing on modern family issues. Lopez said he was surprised that most of his students wanted to attend the conference, but that some later said they wanted to attend because it was the perceived easier option.
He warned all attendees in advance that there would be talk about adoption generally at the conference, called Bonds That Matter. But he said he purposely organized the conference to avoid discussions of gay marriage or anything that students might feel was antigay. All participants were required to stay for the entire session, which featured talks on divorce, adoption and surrogacy, and how they affect children and, to a lesser extent, women. Speakers didn't necessarily take typical conservative positions on social issues. One speaker talked about the physical and psychological effects of surrogacy on repeat surrogate mothers, for example.
Asked how course content related to the conference, Lopez said the both assignments were a “thematic engagement” worth 20 percent of the students’ grades. The idea in both the written and the conference options was to relate class readings and discussions to modern-day issues in some way, an idea he outlined in the course syllabus.
Lopez said that one student in attendance raised the issue of sex and parenthood among gay couples with a speaker -- Alana Newman, who questions the effects of surrogacy and egg and sperm donations on children -- who had not planned on discussing it. Back in class, the student criticized the conference as antigay. Lopez said he told the student that if she felt uncomfortable with his teaching methods, she could finish the class remotely.
More than six months later, days after the student graduated, Lopez was informed by the university that the student had filed a complaint about him related to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prevents discrimination based on sex. The student accused Lopez of creating a “hostile learning environment on the basis of gender and sexual orientation,” according to correspondence from the university. Lopez said the student also said he retaliated against her by not recommending her for a merit award. Several other students informally complained about the event, according to correspondence from Susan Hua, Northridge’s Title IX coordinator.
Lopez initially objected to the timeline for the complaints, saying that the student had failed to file her grievance in a timely manner. But Hua said it was acceptable for a student to wait months or even to graduate before lodging a complaint.
An investigation ensued. Lopez said it took place largely without his participation, and that he still has yet to see explicit charges against him or to defend himself. He says nothing about the content of the conference was antigay -- although he admitted a pamphlet with antigay literature was stacked on a side table, and a flyer on being a “survivor of the sexual revolution” was circulated -- and that he never threatened the student with not getting an award. Lopez said there’s no record of any such discussion on the student’s archived course work or in emails, and she wasn’t even eligible, for various reasons, for any of the awards he would have nominated students for that year.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education appealed to Northridge on behalf of Lopez in August.
“FIRE is deeply concerned by the threat to academic freedom presented by [Northridge’s investigation] on the apparent basis of student complaints related to the content and viewpoints expressed in a conference the students themselves elected to attend in conjunction with a class assignment,” the organization said in a letter to President Dianne F. Harrison. “That the mere exposure of students to potentially controversial opinions can result in a professor’s investigation of such a serious charge is intolerably chilling to faculty expression and anathema to our deeply ingrained understanding of the university campus as a ‘marketplace of ideas.’”
FIRE requested that the university promptly and definitely close its investigation, “consistent with its moral and legal obligations as a public institution of higher education,” to no apparent avail.
In October, the university informed Lopez that while there was insufficient evidence that he’d discriminated against students on the basis of sex, there was sufficient evidence that he had “attempted to intimidate and prevent” students from disagreeing with him about the conference.
The October letter from Yi Li, provost, is the most detailed accounting of the charges against Lopez, and of the findings of the investigation. It says that the student complainant said Lopez misrepresented the conference by calling it a “women’s and children’s rights conference” and not disclosing the “bias” of the speakers. Students also claimed Lopez coerced them into attending the event because the other assignment option was too lengthy, and by expressing his strong preference that they attend the event, according to the letter. Students in different course sections all described similar events during the investigation.
California State’s academic freedom policy protects controversial content in the classroom, but notes that a professor should be careful not to introduce controversial subject matter which has “no relation to his subject.” The American Association of University Professors policy is similar. Ultimately, the university determined that while the relationship between Lopez's classroom content and that of the conference was tenuous at best, there was still enough of a possible link for the assignment to be covered by academic freedom. But it said that Lopez misrepresented the conference enough to students to possibly be in violation of unspecified professional conduct policies.
The university definitively determined that there was sufficient evidence to conclude, based on a preponderance of evidence standard, that Lopez had engaged in intimidation against students who complained about the conference by asking them via email and in person to seek to resolve their issues with him before making a formal complaint.
The primary complainant said Lopez said he would be “less inclined” to nominate her for an award over the conference controversy, and another student corroborated the account. Lopez denies it, saying the students must be conspiring, possibly with the help of outside groups.
Li concluded that he was consulting the Office of Human Resources to see out the most “appropriate action to address this violation.”
Lopez is still teaching, but he said he’s been told that the university seeks to pursue some kind of discipline against him. Li has declined to meet with him or offer other additional information, Lopez said.
Li said in an emailed statement that Northridge takes issue with the “accuracy of the allegations currently circulating relating to this investigation, but as this is a confidential personnel matter that involves confidential student information, we cannot discuss or disclose the details.”
Instead, Li shared what he called the university’s core principles. “We have a long history of welcoming a diversity of perspectives and championing free thought and discourse within our academic environment, while ensuring that this environment is free from discrimination, harassment and retaliation,” he said.
Lopez said that he feels not only in limbo but isolated on campus, since it’s hard to drum up sympathy for a conservative professor. And while his case has been covered by various conservative news outlets, he said, conservatives aren’t traditionally sympathetic to college professors -- especially tenured ones.
Relating his case to the current campus protests across the country and increasing concerns about professors’ rights, Lopez said it “puts to rest the notion that safe spaces, trigger warnings or other supposed diversity measures are compatible with academic freedom.”
Ultimately, he said, “the students, or whoever coached them, wanted to punish me for opposing gay adoption in my off-campus scholarly life. There is no way, with so much organized trolling, for the calls for safe space to allow for dissenters from orthodox positions on things like same-sex parenting.”
Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University who reviewed Lopez’s book, The Colorful Conservative, said it would be hard to comment on Lopez’s case directly, since there’s so much that isn’t known. For example, he said, were students coached to complain by outside groups who’ve opposed Lopez? Generally, however, Bauerlein agreed with Lopez’s claim that it can be isolating to be a conservative professor -- although he said he knows many liberal professors who are now fearful of saying the “wrong thing” in class for fear of angering their even more liberal students.
“Something is going on today on college campuses, where the most overt signs of aggression are coming from the denizens on campus, and it’s not the administration -- it’s the undergraduates,” he said. “These young people are being fooled through the general progressive position of educators today that the greatest sins are racism and sexism and homophobia.”
But that position has come home to roost, he said, in that “there has never been more timidity or fearfulness or uncertainly or anxiety of the ideological kind that I see today on college campuses.”
Asked if Lopez’s views amounted to something more than ultraconservatism or homophobia -- even hate speech, as some critics have alleged -- Bauerlein said the answer wasn’t to shut Lopez down but rather to engage him, especially since many of Lopez’s views are derived from his own experience. Bauerlein said he personally had never experienced Lopez, who is a professional acquaintance, to be hateful.
Bauerlein, who has previously defended the Regnerus study, said that outcomes of children of gay parents relative to their peers with straight parents -- while controversial and scientifically challenging to study -- are worthy of inquiry. In his view, however, he said, it ought to be studied empirically before it’s studied from an ethics perspective.
Philip Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park and author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality and Social Change, has been a vocal critic of the Regnerus study.
Cohen said that while he considered Lopez’s political views “repugnant,” they were free speech. Therefore, he said, boycotting Lopez’s classes or lectures, or picketing in opposition of his views -- in other words, generating more speech -- was preferable to seeking his termination.
“I’m against firing tenured professors because of their political views,” Cohen said, adding that while he couldn’t speak to the discrimination or retaliation charges for lack of knowledge, “I lean toward defending the rights of professors if the issue is the harmfulness of their views.”
Good teaching “requires being open to opposing views and making accommodations for students with different perspectives,” Cohen said. “If he's not letting students express their own views, then that's bad teaching and may be actionable. But we should remember that virulent opposition to gay rights is still mainstream. You shouldn't get fired as a tenured professor for agreeing with a sitting Supreme Court justice, as long as you practice your trade according to reasonable standards. We're still having this debate.”
Cohen noted with some surprise that he’s had no vigorous debate on gay marriage in his classes for years, even though he’s tried to encourage it. He guessed that was because students who oppose marriage equality don’t take his family sociology course, or that if they do, they don’t speak up for fear of being ostracized. Cohen said that’s all right, as long as they have the opportunity to speak.
Generally, he added, “Social change on marriage equality and gay and lesbian rights has been incredibly rapid, but is far from settled, and the rapid change has left many raw wounds. We should all be mindful of the sharp culture clash that persists.”
That means that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students on campus are “not yet as secure as they should be,” and that intolerance of more traditional views can be “pernicious,” as well, Cohen said. “The safety of a college campus should be in the right to learn and debate new ideas, and the right to protest and free expression.”