Michigan Law Hates Teh Gay Professor

December 19, 2007

The BM has been reduced to near incoherency of profanity in response to Uncertain Chad’s take on a denial-of-tenure case at U. Michigan Law School. [Update 12/21/07: DeanDad has a good take on this] In short the denied professor of law is suing because he feels that some of the voting members of the department may have voted against granting him tenure because of teh gay:

For example, one professor is a member of a church that will not admit gay people unless they promise to “reform their ways,” according to court documents. Yet the professor, according to depositions and statements provided by Hammer’s lawyer, denied knowing his church’s views on gay people, even though they are identifiable from links on the church’s Web site, and the professor teaches Sunday school there. In another case, a professor’s opposition to same-sex marriage is cited. Another faculty member wrote of gay people as a “pariah group.”

In discovery, Hammer’s lawyers asked these and other professors questions about hot-button social issues (not only on gay rights, but abortion in some cases) to document what Hammer considers to be a pattern of people with conservative social values misrepresenting their own views. (In all of these cases, the professors have said that they voted against Hammer because they didn’t think his scholarship rose to the necessary level of excellence and not because Hammer is gay, and the university backs these professors.)

There’s some interesting legal mumblety here having to do with a UMich faculty policy which seems to provide protection against discrimination against teh gay whereas Michigan state law provides no such protection. So it has been wrangled about in the courts for a few years. Chad, of Uncertain Principles, for some reasons has reservations:

This makes me really uncomfortable. I don’t have any sympathy for the anti-gay views attributed to these professors (which may or may not be accurate– the IHE article doesn’t give enough detail to say whether they’ve been quote-mined unfairly, and I don’t have the time to research it myself), but I don’t like this approach, either.

What Hammer is doing here seems to be claiming that since these people have conservative social views, they are automatially incapable of making any objective decision about the scholarship of someone who happens to be gay. At least, not when that decision happens to be negative– presumably, he’d be happy to take “Yes” votes from these same people.

That creeps me out. For academic institutions to function the way they’re supposed to, there needs to be a sort of presumption of professionalism, a base assumption that people will make a good-faith effort to put aside personal biases and make decisions on as objective a basis as possible. What Hammer is arguing is precisely the opposite– he’s arguing for a presumption of bias, that people will not be able to put aside whatever political beliefs they have when it comes time to make decisions.

In case one might think he didn’t consider all the ramifications, there’s additional in the comments:

that’s really the part that I object to– the presumption that because they’re members of conservative churches or have taken conservative political positions in the past, they must automatically be lying when they say they considered his scholarship objectively.

But I’m just not comfortable with the idea of this sort of fishing expedition to see why people “really” voted the way they did. At some point, you need to take people at their word that they’re acting like civilized human beings, or we sink into a Hobbesian state of nature.

Okay, here’s the newsflash for Chad. People are biased. Prior biased acts or statements are a good indicator of current belief. Bias in belief causes biased actions. This is why we have rules to counteract bias. In jury selection, peer review of papers and grants, hiring decisions and yes, tenure and promotions. Married to the candidate or otherwise related? You are presumed biased in most cases I can think of. Statements to the effect of “I hate that guy and always will”? Ditto. Getting paid off by the company you are supposed to be hiring to provide service to your company? Clear. Does anyone really debate this?

What Chad seems to be objecting to is the presumption that these particular individuals are biased in this particular evaluation. But this is the whole point of conflict rules. We are not really all that interested in deciding if this particular individual is actually biased in this particular decision. We recognize that in general, on average this will be the case and take steps accordingly to minimize the potential for bias.

There is a second point here which has to do with, I suppose, what the “reasonable person” of legal phraseology would conclude was sufficient evidence of bias. Chad clearly feels that teaching Sunday School at a church that openly professes anti-gay beliefs and teachings is not reasonable evidence that a person is biased against gays. Ditto calling gays a “pariah group”. On this I call bullshit.

BM tried to make an analogy to racial bigotry here in the comments and then started to lose it a bit. Still, it is a decent point. Take your favorite suspect class, whether it be racial minority, women, sexual orientation, national origin, political spectrum and imagine a few faculty who are known to hold “anti” positions. Not just suspected of the odd off-color joke but real, ready-for-discovery evidence. And really. Imagine that said bigot can just set this aside and make an uncontaminated judgment on a tenure decision? Please.

8 Responses to “Michigan Law Hates Teh Gay Professor”

  1. Neuro-conservative Says:

    1) All of your points about unavoidable bias are well and good, but you leave out another check-and-balance in the system: the fact that 30 people, with presumably variable biases, get to vote. Looking at the evidence, the guy had a less-than-perfect tenure case, and he lost a close vote at a top-10 school. When a 2/3 vote is required, a borderline publication record with notable strengths but also notable weaknesses can be pretty tough sledding.

    2) Note that this was Hammer’s second attempt at tenure at UMich; his first was deferred due to lack of publications.

    3) Take a look at the way Hammer gets hammered on statistics on pages 12-13 of Defendant’s Exhibit I. I don’t know about BikeMonkey, but I’m pretty sure that the DrugMonkey that I have come to know would never let Hammer’s loosey-goosey methodology just slide by.

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  2. drugmonkey Says:

    N-c: As with Sherley and Rob Knop for that matter, I have little interest in trying to judge the merits from afar. A couple reasons this is a stupid endeavor. First, if it isn’t my field, I don’t know squat about the tenure space. Neither do you or anyone else not in the field. Second, despite the papering over with faux objectivity, tenure decisions are highly subjective. You can see this in the exhibit you reference. The “evidence” is more opinion-of-peers than anything else. Related to this is my usual about advocates and detractors. Everyone is going to have some on both sides and they are not ever obligated to be consistent with respect to the objective evidence such as pub counts, “impact on the field” and “promise for the future”.

    So why discuss it? Because it makes general points about careers in academia and employment bias, interests of this blog. Not to mention, Chad is being an idiot with his take on this and it needs to be called out. Finally, it is interesting to get down to the general principles here. What is the difference between unacceptable bias and individual differences and how do we ensure good outcomes in the face of unavoidable (imo) bias?

    How do we strive to “professionalize” our own decision making? On this latter I’d prefer to hear admission followed by the reasons one maintains a semblance of fairness rather than a blanket protestation of “I’m not biased!”. Because a long list of psych studies shows the last to be a lie.

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  3. BM Says:

    Look, in case you missed the examples Chad uses for analogy, they were the evilution/ID and politically liberal/conservative axes. He’s pointedly ignoring the comment I made regarding racial biases. This tells us all we need to know which is that Chad groups “teh gay” in with ideology, not with genetic endowment. Free choice rather than natural imperative.

    It likely also has escaped your attention (you have to read for awhile or be a long-term reader) that Chad is an occasional voice of religio-defense in the wilderness that is the SciBorg atheist majority.

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  4. Bikemonkey Says:

    Nope, I’m not buying Dean Dad’s argument either. It is the same as Chad’s in essence. That the issue here is a presumption that someone is a bigot based on their memberships and affiliations. Look, if this were the situation in this case, things would be easily dismissed. “Yes he’s in the officially-antigay church but nobody’s ever heard him say a thing consistent with gay-bashing and in fact we have three independent witnesses to testify to his probity”. The fact that this is still wangling around in the courts suggests that the alleged “principle” at stake here is being faked up by Chad and Dean Dad and that there is in fact some more specific evidence.

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  5. spike Says:

    As a professor who has watched his (and several other) departments go through conniption fits with regards to hiring even one or two women faculty (heaven forbid!). Do not underestimate the petty prejudices of senior professors. Academics remains the one job where one can be blackballed by a few bigots. It is very common for professors to have insufficient publications during the first review, and its often a close call for the final decision so the old farts can do there ugly work with no fear of discovery. In contrast, in business one knows who screwed you. For that reason gays do reasonably in many large firms.

    Many humanities departments have gay faculty. Most science, Law and business departments do not, and those departments that do, the gay professors invariably came up through the system as closeted gays. A classic example was a colleague who got tenured and showed up at work the next day with pink hair, but it terrible to have to hide who you are until you are well past forty.

    MIT and other institutions have tackled the pervasive problem of discrimination in the tenure process with regard to women faculty. Unfortunately, gay faculty will have to continue to hide in the closet. The one field where gays seem to do just fine in pure mathematics, probably because all great pure mathematicians are truly strange.

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  6. drugmonkey Says:

    spike you raise the great point that it is always a judgment call. always arguments about which pubs or other contributions are equal to others. about subjective “importance” or “impact”. Which means that it is unbelievably easy to ding someone “on the merits” just because you don’t like them or to argue-up someone who misses apparent objective criteria on the basis of the “fabulous impact” of their papers, just because you do like them.

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  7. […] October 27, 2008 [ This entry is cross-posted from DrugMonkey on Scienceblogs.com ] Apologies for my regular readers. This one will be almost entirely political with very little connection to my usual topics, although personal bigotry sometimes comes up in tenure cases. […]

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  8. […] a University, a training program, etc, solves itself as a self-fulfilling prophesy. When women, gays, the poor and minorities inhabit specific roles in society, that makes them more imaginable to […]

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