How to make your gay students uncomfortable

Professor Louise Richardson, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, is quoted as giving the following awkward if well-intentioned defence of free speech on campus:

I’ve had many conversations with students who say they don’t feel comfortable because their professor has expressed views against homosexuality. (… ) And I say, ‘I’m sorry, but my job isn’t to make you feel comfortable. Education is not about being comfortable. I’m interested in making you uncomfortable. If you don’t like his views, you challenge them, engage with them, and figure how a smart person can have views like that.

In later qualification, Professor Richardson explained that she wasn’t talking about ‘many’ conversations here at Oxford.  I believe that.   I also believe Professor Richardson knows her legal obligations under the UK Equality Act to ensure the university is a comfortable place for its LGBT communities to do what we are all here to do: to teach, to research and to learn.  In any case, most of what needs to be said to remind her of that obligation, as well as her obligation to defend academic integrity from incompetence and quackery, has already been said.

Except, I think, for two points.

First, how does it come to be that any university teacher is expressing ‘views against homosexuality’ in a class?  I’m baffled. Maybe it was a seminar on human sexuality, moral philosophy, or human rights law.  But what if it was on quantum mechanics, modal logic, or numerical analysis? Maybe a university policy on sex discrimination or free speech was under discussion.  But what if it was merely that the rainbow flag was flying, and that gave the professor a homosexual panic attack? These distinctions matter.

I expect my gay law students to be willing as anyone to test the view that sexual orientation should be a prohibited ground of discrimination, or to be able to assess arguments about same-sex marriage. I do not expect them to have to put up with the casual homophobia of everyday life, with irrelevant or biased comments or examples, or with the stench created by some professor’s religious incontinence.

Second, where debate about homosexuality is relevant, it does not fall only on students to tackle false, ill-informed, or unsympathetic views on the part of teachers. And it certainly does not fall mainly on gay students to do so. It falls on all of us, starting with the Vice-Chancellor.

In my own fields, there are only two or three faculty whose homophobia intrudes in their work. Their disapproval of homosexuality is usually gracious, emollient, and even, in its twisted way, ‘reasoned’. I am less troubled by them than I am by pusillanimous  colleagues, tenured liberal faculty who regard such views as outrageous or pathetic, but who never dare put pen to paper, or even a hand in the air, to join in the argument and, in that properly academic way, help make their gay students more comfortable.

As Professor Richardson says, ‘If you don’t like his views, you challenge them, engage with them’.  But she should also have said, to her colleagues as well as to her students, ‘and this means you.’

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