Faculty Responsible for Campus Climate, Too! (NYU School of Law)

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[2/28/10 – This post has been selected as a semifinalist for being one of the Best of the 2009 Just Posts! Please check out the other nominees!]

Earlier this month, I wrote about Thio Li-ann, a law professor from the University of Singapore who had been invited to a visiting professorship at the NYU School of Law.  She has openly expressed her anti-gay views, advocating that same-sex behavior should not be decriminalized, and mocking the LGBT community with comments like anal sex is “like shoving a straw up your nose to drink.”

Well, it seems she has declined to come.

Last week, the Dean of the NYU School of Law published an open letter to the NY Times.  In it, he explains how the situation went down.

I am writing to let you know that Professor Li-ann Thio informed me today that she is canceling her Fall visit to NYU Law School as a Global Visiting Professor as a result of the controversy surrounding her views regarding homosexuality and gay rights. 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. The Law School will therefore cancel the course on Human Rights in Asia and the seminar on Constitutionalism in Asia, which she had been scheduled to teach.

At Inside Higher Ed, they obtained a copy of Thio’s resignation letter:

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.

I think this situation illuminates two important points about life on college campuses:

  1. Faculty are just as responsible for the campus climate as anyone else on campus.  They can contribute to it and detract from it.
  2. Faculty have a responsibility directly to their students.  Being a knowledgeable expert in a field is not enough; how a professor treats students and how a professor applies that expertise publicly counts too.

I think there is this myth in higher education that the faculty are just there to teach and do research while the student affairs staff “takes care” of everything else affecting the students.  Student affairs staff are there to provide all the cushy, comfortable stuff while the faculty are there to dispense the hard knowledge.  Why student affairs staff deserve more respect as educators is a post for a different day.  Faculty need to better understand that their presence has a bigger impact than publishing papers and handing out grades.

I’m quite proud of the students at NYU’s School of Law.  They made a bold statement.  They didn’t just say Thio’s beliefs offend us and we don’t want her here.  They went a step farther and said We choose not to learn from her.  They recognized that her words are hurtful and do not abide with the standards of inclusion at the foundation of their educational experience.  If I were to ever need a lawyer, I would now feel more comfortable hiring an NYU graduate because those students have demonstrated that they don’t just want to be lawyers; they care about justice.

I think this episode also speaks to the importance of lifelong learning.  Thio seemed to assert that the breadth of her knowledge was good enough, but the students said that it was not.  Even though this situation is not about religion (though we aren’t sure what exactly informs Thio’s beliefs about homosexuality), it relates to the point at the very core of this blog.  It’s not just enough to have views; a person needs to be able to defend those views.

Much like the conservative religious right in the United States, Thio tried to play the Victim card.  She claims that she’s the one hurt because people did not respect her belief.  Again, this confuses respecting the right to believe and respecting actual beliefs.  Her viewpoints and the way she expresses those viewpoints is not worthy of respect from the students at NYU.  That’s her problem, not theirs.  If she is not even willing to show up because she can’t be in a place and hold an unpopular (and disrespectful) point of view without crying foul, then I really wonder what she would even have to teach about human rights.  I’m no expert and certainly no scholar of law, but it would seem to me that she can’t even stand up for her own rights, or she cannot tell the difference between rights and privilege.

I hope other faculty in other fields really take some time to consider this situation.  Look at the effect that a faculty viewpoint had on the campus community before she even set foot on it.  How should faculty regard themselves in terms of how their students see them?  Are there some ways in which students should not see them (as in Thio’s case)?  Are there some ways in which students should see their professors more?  What can faculty do to enhance the learning environment in their classrooms?  In what ways can faculty support an inclusive campus climate beyond the classroom walls?

I think this situation ended the best way it could.  The school maintained its dignity by not rescinding the invitation, the students reacted in a positive way, and Thio was shown for who she really is.

I highly recommend you read the article on Inside Higher Ed.  It describes the situation quite well.

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