Statement from Dean Richard L. Revesz of the NYU School of Law

The New York Times

The following is a statement to the press from the dean of New York University’s law school, Richard L. Revesz.

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.

This issue has been delicate and challenging since it brings into tension certain important principles and convictions that normally coexist in harmony and define our institutional identity.

NYU is fully committed to the principle of academic freedom and intellectual diversity. The Hauser Global Law School Program– under the auspices of which Professor Thio was invited as a visitor for one semester–grew out of our early recognition that the practice of law has escaped the bounds of any particular jurisdiction, and that legal education must take account of the intertwined nature of legal systems. At heart, the program seeks to expose our community to legal scholars who come from and have been shaped by their experiences in different countries, regions, and cultures. Needless to say, the value of the program would be seriously diminished if the visiting scholars all thought of difficult legal issues—including issues of sexual moraility–in the same way. We can learn from these visitors, and–we hope–they can learn from us.

Whatever their areas of expertise or views, the appointments of global visiting professors are decided on their record of distinguished scholarship and teaching and their ability to contribute to intellectual exchange within our community. So, while many in our community, including me, sharply disagree with, or are offended by, Professor Thio’s 2007 remarks to the Singaporean Parliament, it is important to bear in mind that she was appointed as a visiting professor based on her published scholarship, not on views she expressed as a legislator.

We are also proud that NYU and the School of Law extended partner benefits to gay couples long before New York law mandated such benefits, that in 1978 NYU Law School became the first law school in the United States to deny access to its career services to employers that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, and that in 1990 the Association of American Law Schools required accredited law schools in the U.S. to follow our practice. We also were leaders in the suit by the Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights (FAIR) to challenge the Solomon Amendment.

Over the last month, many members of our community have shared with me their views on the appointment. I am very grateful for the many thoughtful messages that I received and would like to take this opportunity to give you my personal perspectives on the major questions that have arisen by responding to some recurring questions I have received.

At the time that the faculty voted on Professor Thio’s appointment, was it aware of the speech she made to the Singapore Parliament on October 23, 2007, forcefully arguing against the decriminalization of consensual sexual acts between men?

At the time that Global Appointments Committee met in December 2007 to recommend that the faculty vote a visiting appointment to Professor Thio based on her teaching and scholarship, none of its members were aware of the speech. That recommendation was considered by the tenured and tenure-track faculty at its meeting of January 30, 2008. I was not aware of her speech at that time and don’t believe that any of my colleagues were aware of it either.

Of course, an electronic search of her public statements would have produced the text of the speech. 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.

After becoming aware of the speech to Parliament, did NYU Law School ask Professor Thio to withdraw?

It did not.

If the faculty had been aware of the speech, should her opposition to the decriminalization of consensual sexual acts between men have played a role in the decision as to whether to invite Professor to visit?

Professor Thio’s position in that speech is inimical to a strongly held institutional stance that the Law School has taken, over more than two decades, in favor of ending discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation — a position that I am proud to have been able to further strengthen over the period of my deanship. Nonetheless, the fact that Professor Thio is opposed to our institutional position should not have played any role in the evaluation of her merits to be a visiting professor. Leading academic institutions benefit greatly from a diversity of perspectives, not from hiring only people who share the same views.

Should the nature of the arguments in her speech to the Singaporean Parliament have led to the revocation of her offer?

Once the faculty extends an offer to a professor, whether a visiting offer, a tenure-track offer, or a tenured offer, it does not continue to evaluate the strength of the individual’s work to determine whether subsequent work suggests that the offer be withdrawn. So, even if the faculty had met to evaluate the strength of Professor Thio’s arguments in support of her statement to the Singapore Parliament (which it did not do), and even if it had decided that the manner in which she defended her position called into question the committee’s earlier conclusion regarding her strength as a scholar (which it also did not do), the offer should not have been rescinded. (Of course, such an evaluation would have been relevant to whether a subsequent offer should be extended.)

Under what circumstances would the Law School determine that a faculty member’s views give rise to an atmosphere that is inimical to classroom learning?

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. She considers some of these messages to be offensive. In turn, she replied to them in a manner that many member of our community—myself included—consider offensive and hurtful. These exchanges have been circulated on various blogs. 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.

Should an academic opposed to the recognition of certain important human rights be allowed to teach a human rights course?

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.

Undoubtedly, the issues raised by Professor Thio’s appointment are among the most difficult faced by academic communities. What are the limits of academic freedom? How should an institution with a proud tradition—as is the case of NYU Law School’s support of the LGBT community– interact with those who disagree strongly with such a tradition? I don’t expect that my answers to the questions raised by our community will be persuasive to everyone. And I want to stress that they are my personal views, not the consensus view of any decisionmaking body at the Law School. But situations such as these, despite the unfortunate pain that they inflict, also serve as learning experiences. I am sorry about the considerable discomfort many members of our community have felt during the last few weeks as these issues were discussed, and I appreciate the thoughtful messages I’ve received from students, alumni and others as the debate unfolded.

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