Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Must not criticize homosexuality at an American university

Thio Li-ann won't be coming to New York University this fall after all. Thio, a professor at the National University of Singapore and a politician in her home country as well, was to have taught a course on human rights law as part of an NYU program that brings scholars from around the world to teach at the law school. But in recent weeks, as students and others have circulated information about her anti-gay statements, some have questioned whether it was appropriate for NYU to hire someone with limited views of human rights to teach the subject. But NYU has defended the hire on academic freedom grounds, and Thio indicated that she was looking forward to debating the issues while teaching on the campus.

Not anymore. While NYU has not changed its position, its law dean issued a statement in which he announced that Thio has decided not to come to NYU. "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," wrote Dean Richard L. Revesz.

In response to a request for comment on the situation, Thio sent Inside Higher Ed her resignation letter to NYU. "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."

Thio praised NYU for standing by the job offer, and blamed the critics for making it difficult for her to accept. "I understand that you, too, have been under great pressure to rescind the invitation. I appreciate the commitment NYU has shown towards the principle of academic freedom in resisting this pressure; to yield to politicking would be deleterious to the academic enterprise. Today's heresy can become tomorrow's orthodoxy and vice versa," she wrote to the dean. "Despite this, it has become clear that the fraught atmosphere of hostility towards me is inimical to an effective teaching and learning environment. As you know, the ireful campaign against me has negatively affected class enrollment, a sad commentary on this present noisome state of affairs."

In his statement, Dean Revesz answered one of the questions many have been asking when he said that NYU was unaware of Thio's anti-gay statements when she was hired. But he went on to say that the university makes a practice of not looking for such statements (even her critics say Thio has made no effort to hide her views), and that they wouldn't have changed the hiring decision.

"Of course, an electronic search of her public statements would have produced the text of [an anti-gay speech much cited by critics]," he wrote. "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."

The text of the speech becomes important, her critics have said, because it shows her not just to be someone who doesn't endorse gay rights, but someone who espouses views that in some cases have been widely repudiated by scholars (that people can change sexual orientation if they want) and that run counter to what most human rights groups consider basic human rights (she argues for criminalizing sex between people of the same sex). In addition, she has repeatedly mocked gay people, saying for example that anal sex is "like shoving a straw up your nose to drink," and rejected arguments based on a diversity of sexual orientations by saying that "diversity is not license for perversity."

In some disputes over hiring controversial faculty members who are viewed as bigoted, student groups have demanded that individuals be dismissed or not hired in the first place. In this case, however, NYU OUTlaw, the gay student group that spread word of Thio's views, didn't demand that she be kept off campus. The group's board adopted a statement saying that the best way "to fight Dr. Thio's offensive views not by silencing her but by engaging in a respectful and productive dialogue about the boundaries of human rights. This fall, we plan to hold events to explore issues of academic freedom, LGBT rights, and human rights in Asia, and we look forward to Dr. Thio’s participation in the discussion."

Others, however, have called for NYU to withdraw the invitation to Thio. Hundreds have signed an online petition that says she shouldn't be at NYU. "To harbor Dr. Thio under the banner of 'academic freedom' is disingenuous, untenable and unacceptable. The full dignity of LGBT persons is beyond debate and the criminalization of private sexual conduct between consenting same-sex adults is a tool of oppression. While Dr. Thio believes that 'diversity is not a license for perversity,' we believe that academic freedom is not a license for bigotry," says the text of the petition.

In his statement, Revesz wrote that the situation changed for Thio as the controversy continued. E-mail exchanges between NYU students and Thio offended those on both sides of the debate, he wrote.

"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," he wrote. "She considers some of these messages to be offensive. In turn, she replied to them in a manner that many members of our community -- myself included -- consider offensive and hurtful.... 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."

Revesz also rejected the idea that a scholar "opposed to the recognition of certain important human rights" should be disqualified from teaching a course on human rights: "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."


A young Australian woman who likes correct grammar

Poor grammar is still unprestigious but finding people with good grammar is becoming harder as it is no longer taught in the schools

It was a Monday morning; he was frothing milk as we chatted idly about the drunken antics of our respective weekends. All the usual stuff - the people we knew in common, the places we had almost run into each other, the quality of the cocktail jugs at various Sydney locations. He might have been carefully watching the temperature gauge rise on that little jug of milk, but we both knew where the real heat was. Just as I was about to casually invite him to a rock gig he dropped a clanger.

‘Yeah I like World Bar. Dave and me were there last Thursday.’ Instinctively, impulsively, STUPIDLY I fired back. “You mean Dave and I were there.” Because nothing says “we should go out” like a grammar check.

He looked at me like I was a three week old sausage roll he’d found wedged into the tread of his shoe, mumbled a ‘“yeah, whatever” and went back to making the coffee. Silently.

It’s a look I get often. As a grammar Nazi I am the irritating friend who corrects Facebook posts from “there” to “their.” The one who has to hold back facial spasms whenever someone says “youse.” I am something of a rarity amongst my peers – a 22 year old who adores a well constructed sentence.

As a card carrying member of Gen Y, I am a product of an education system that is more focussed on alliteration and assonance than the basics of adverbs and adjectives. Somewhere during my schooling (all done at state public schools) we jumped from learning the alphabet, to examining the themes of novels and plays. The participles and pronouns – in truth the finer points of basic grammar - were lost by the wayside.

Now this isn’t to say I had a poor English education. Far from it. I had some wonderful and enthusiastic teachers during my years at school. I learned to love and appreciate good literature, I learned to debate and discuss in my essays and by the end I achieved some very good results in my HSC. To put it bluntly I fulfilled everything that the NSW English curriculum required of me. But where was the grammar? That basic stepping stone schooling that older generations had to go through.

I asked my mother about what her English education was like and she told me all about “parsing,” - basically pulling apart sentences. Examining their structure. Learning exactly what adverbs, verbs, nouns and pronouns were. Getting drilled and tested on it day in, day out. Sure it’s boring, but so is algebra – and at least it’s a sure bet you’ll need to use grammar later in life. I’m struggling to remember the last time I had to work out the value of ‘x,’ but I’m always unsure whether it’s meant to be ‘learned’ or ‘learnt.’ Why are we not still taught grammar like this at school?

What’s scary is that in my first year of a journalism degree at University, my lecturer handed out a basic grammar and punctuation test. Unsurprisingly, the entire class performed dismally. We couldn’t conjugate if our lives depended on it.

And what’s scarier is that to a certain degree they do. Name me an employer who is going to hire a young graduate doesn’t know the difference between ‘it’s’ and ‘its.’ In these times of growing unemployment and job un-security it could be the difference between getting an interview, or having a resume tossed into the reject pile.

I believe it’s time that grammar was brought back into schools, and I believe it should be done quickly – before we start having generations of English teachers who themselves don’t know the difference between a verb and an adverb.

And as for me? I changed coffee spots. The barista might have been hot but I’m hoping there’s someone out there for me that can use prepositions properly as they proposition me.


British university education for the wealthy only?

That seems to be where Britain is heading -- despite repeated claims that they want more working class kids at university. Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing?

STUDENTS face tuition fees of £7,000 a year by 2013 under plans being developed by both Labour and the Conservatives. Both parties are studying an overhaul of the system under which top universities would be allowed to lift fees above the current legal limit of £3,225, while many former polytechnics would offer no-frills degrees for free.

The proposal was handed by John Denham, the former universities secretary, to Lord Mandelson, the business, innovation and skills secretary, who has taken over responsibility for higher education. Vice-chancellors say a £7,000 maximum fee is the “consensus” figure — the minimum to rescue university finances without being so high as to be politically unacceptable.

There is a legal obligation on the government to consider the future of the current fee system, which was introduced in 2006, after its first three years of operation. Mandelson is due to launch the review this autumn. It is thought highly unlikely it will be finished before the next election, which must be held by next June.

Both Labour and the Conservatives are anxious to avoid fees becoming an issue with voters. Labour blamed its loss of marginal seats in university towns at the 2005 election on its recent legislation for the previous increase in fees.

One vice-chancellor said: “A simple rise in the cap to £7,000 could be put through soon after this election and it would have the advantage of letting the government cut the amount it puts into universities.”

It has emerged, however, that Mandelson is also studying options that go far beyond simply deciding whether fees can be increased. Denham’s idea calls for a wholesale restructuring of higher education. Some post-1992 universities and further education colleges could offer free, government-funded “walk to study” degrees, often in vocational subjects, to local students living at home. Elite research institutions, meanwhile, would be allowed to charge far higher fees than at present, with students paying for future earning power.

Denham did not put a figure on fees in his scenario, but experts who worked closely with him said it could eventually mean a ceiling of £15,000, including a £2,000 “levy” to fund bursaries for poorer students.

David Willetts, the shadow universities secretary, has also studied Denham’s plan. He said the Conservatives would not decide their policy in advance of the review, and cautioned: “Just putting up fees has a series of problems. Charging more at the bottom of the recession will be tough, and universities would have to show any extra fees were going to help the quality of education — a challenge to which I don’t think they have yet risen.”

Supporters of an increase believe university funding has become an emergency. Cuts of 5%-20% in government funding for higher education are expected whoever wins the next election, despite increasing numbers of students.

Seven universities, including London Metropolitan and Thames Valley, are on a secret official list of institutions at risk of financial failure, a total expected to reach as high as 30 next year.

Paul Wellings, vice-chancellor of Lancaster and incoming chairman of the 1994 Group of research institutions, warned of a “valley of death” over the next few years until fees could be raised, with universities forced into severe cutbacks.

Another source said political considerations were bound to hamper the funding review. “Mandelson is nowhere near knowing how he wants to fund universities,” he said. “This is not a government that believes it will actually be making decisions, but it is thinking about how to box the Tories in.”

He added: “A few months ago I would have thought it inconceivable for any change to come in before 2013. Now I see the possibility of George Osborne [the shadow chancellor] putting it into a ‘days of misery’ package after the election. It would technically be possible to bring in change for 2011.”

A condition of freeing universities to charge higher fees is likely to be that better-off students are charged a levy on fees to subsidise bursaries for those on lower incomes. Further cross-subsidy could be provided by money from overseas students and alumni.

Luke Johnson, the Channel 4 chairman and entrepreneur who is a member of Oxford’s fundraising committee, said: “It is inevitable there will be higher fees and more independence, but it has to go hand in hand with much more for bursaries. There is a disproportionate number of private school undergraduates at Oxford and it is by no means ideal.”

Alan Ryan, retiring warden of New College, Oxford, said his college was drawing up bursary plans to ensure no family on an income of less than £35,000 would be worse off if fees were raised from their current level.

Birmingham University, meanwhile, is one of those planning in the long term to offer “needs-blind” admission, in which bursaries for poor students are provided mainly from a levy on better-off students.

Last week Alan Milburn, the former cabinet minister, wrote in a report commissioned by Gordon Brown that such an arrangement could promote social mobility by drawing more people from poorer families into university.

Tomorrow, in a speech to Universities UK, an association of vice-chancellors, Mandelson is expected to take up Milburn’s theme and warn that institutions need to step up efforts to bring in more students from poor backgrounds through their admission and bursary policies.

Some universities are already making preparations for an increase. Exeter is understood to be one of several preparing an aggressive strategy of charging fees of at least £7,000. It will also offer generous bursaries in addition to non-means-tested awards — including sports and academic scholarships — to lure the best students regardless of income.

The result will be far higher debts for those whose studies are not covered by bursaries. Recent research by Universities UK has found that raising fees to £7,000 would bring average debts of £32,400, compared with the current £20,000.


No comments: