Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Chapman developments: letters, protests, and interviews, oh my!

You'll remember that a little over a week ago I talked about a Bert Chapman, a Purdue Professor who blamed homosexuals spreading AIDS for our bad economy, amongst other ignorant and hateful drivel. There have been a lot of developments at Purdue since then, but sadly I've been a bit behind in the coverage because I've been busy (you know, classes, grad school, PZ Myers coming - those minor things). Here's a quick run down of what's been going on:

1. Lots of letters have been written about the incident to our local student newspaper, the Exponent. The first wave of letters called Chapman out, the next wave said we were trying to censor him, and the third wave demonstrated how little people understand sarcasm, and the most recent letter from many Purdue librarians (not Chapman) note they support equal rights. The Exponent itself also weighed in, and I pretty much agree with them (free speech is free speech, we can criticize him all we want, but we shouldn't be calling for him to be fired).

2. Today there was a protest in the Stewart Center, outside the library where Chapman works. I was unable to stop by because I had class all day, but another Purdue student wrote a good review of what happened.

3. A reporter from the IndyStar newspaper emailed me, saying he read my blog post on the matter (woo!) and wanted to interview me. I said sure, and did a little phone interview about the whole incident. Of course right after I hung up, I thought of all the things I wanted to say - oh well! If it gets covered, I'll let all of you know.


  1. I've been following this pretty closely...I'm glad that so many people at Purdue are getting engaged. When X had their little incident similar to this (Dr. Dossa attended Mahmoud of Iran's no Holocaust conference in 2006-07), everyone was just pissed at him.

  2. "free speech is free speech, we can criticize him all we want, but we shouldn't be calling for him to be fired"

    I disagree with the underlying implication.. free speech does not absolve one of responsibility for the content of said speech. I do think that there should be plenty of leeway, especially in a public educational institution, to hold contreversial ideas. Hence, in this particular case, because his job (and his tenure?) entitle him to it, he is allowed to hold all of his views. But I disagree that his "free speech" right somehow automatically gives him a privilege to not be fired.

    To illustrate the point:
    A professor in biology who public denounces evolution and supports creationism should not expect the privelege of not being fired. If somehow, he/she managed to do effective research and correctly educate students due to a herculean feat of mental acrobatics, then and only then is he or she allowed to keep their job. In all other cases, they should be fired without remorse.

  3. Well, the fact is that he's a librarian. His views on homosexuals can't seriously affect his ability to do his job. It actually floored me when some letters called for his termination; I certainly found his views as abhorrent as these people, but I simply can't imagine firing him unless he was trying to convince people to be anti-gay with him (or persecuting perceived homosexuals) while he was on the job.

    If nothing else, it's a matter of pragmatism. I'm well aware that, because I'm an atheist, there are scads of people who would, if they knew, want me fired from my job because my atheism is morally abhorrent to them. Chapman's anti-gay opinions are morally abhorrent to me (though I'm not drawing an equivalence between atheism and homophobia; obviously I think the people morally abhorred by me are wrong, but the point remains we're both in states of moral abhorrence), but so long as he does't act on them in his professional capacity (like the hypothetical professor in your example), he can think whatever he wants in private, and say it as much as he wants off the clock.

  4. That's true, self; free speech doesn't remove your responsibility for what you say, it only permits you to say it. However, this was a not a biology professor teaching creationism (or refusing to teach evolution); it was a librarian talking about personal views unrelated to his profession. While I vehemently disagree with him, I don't think what he did was grounds for dismissal from the university.

  5. Akusai, while in principle I agree that Chapman's "views on homosexuals can't seriously affect his ability to do his job", and while I agree that he can say whatever he wants off the clock (and, for that matter, he can believe whatever he wants all the time), it's how he made his case that is the problem. Chapman claims that his "case" is composed of facts when in fact it's nothing more than a collection of opinions. His intellectual dishonesty, as well as his unwillingness to consider reasonable criticisms of his position, do raise serious doubts about his professionalism.
    As a bibliographer it's part of his job to select materials for the library. What sort of materials is he selecting if he's so blinded by his own personal beliefs?
    As a librarian it's also his job to assist patrons with research. Is he willing to direct patrons to information that contradicts his personal beliefs? And what if openly gay patrons come to him for assistance? Does he put aside his beliefs and treat them in the same professional way that he treats other patrons?
    Maybe he really does take his job seriously enough that he treats all patrons equally and looks for the best materials whether they fit his ideology or not. Given the attitude of his blog post, though, I think it's fair to ask whether he really does.

  6. Christopher:

    If there was documented evidence that his views led him to act inappropriately on the job, then I think that would be a legitimate cause for concern, and you could take the matter up with the university.

    Criticizing him and calling for his termination based on an imagined transgression is absolutely not appropriate. That's how witch hunts get started.

    I find his attitudes offensive and his arguments weak. I think they should be countered with stronger logic, better evidence, and greater compassion. That's what free speech is for, and it's why we should not try to suppress his speech, curtail his rights, or punish him for expressing his personal views outside of the workplace.

  7. There's an article in today's J&C, as well. Not quite as favorable or as in-depth as the Indy Star article, which is not surprising. *shrug*

    Its unfortunate that gays at Purdue have such thin skin (myself included). The only thing that bugs me more than conservatives that don't understand free speech is liberals that don't understand free speech. Good move on the AIDS education, though.

    I think the upside of all of this is that word gets out that there is a gay community at Purdue (*quelle surprise*). And as far as I've seen, no LGBT groups have come out and said something incredibly stupid (I can't confirm this, since I wasn't at the table listening to Jessi).

  8. Hilary, I apologize for not being clearer, but I agree with you completely. I didn't call for his termination. I merely meant to say that it's fair to ask whether the attitudes he expressed reflect his attitude toward library patrons. It's possible that he's entirely professional.
    It should be noted that his bio on his blog begins "I am a Purdue University librarian..." So he does make a clear connection between his privately expressed thoughts and his job.

  9. Yep... I agree with all of the above. If he, as a librarian, still performs his job -- doesn't discriminate against patrons, doesn't attempt to censor books etc.-- then I see no problems with him still holding onto his job. In fact, this would, if anything, provide a good opportunity for people to talk about these important and contreversial topics. The worst sideeffect for the professor would be some scornful looks and a couple lost or fractured friendships, which is a fair price to pay for expressing and defending his opinion.

  10. Let's be clear, though, that he did more than express and defend an opinion. He's insisted that his opinion is a fact even though one of his major premises--that only homosexuals get AIDS, therefore AIDS research is a waste of money--is incorrect.
    If he really feels that this is a fact and patrons come to him seeking research assistance on the subject of, say, the politics of AIDS research, how is his belief in something that's completely contrary to the facts going to influence the assistance he provides?

  11. "A professor in biology who public denounces evolution and supports creationism should not expect the privelege of not being fired."

    The university has absolutely no authority or ability to fire a a tenured professor for expressing views such as this. Not only should they "expect the priviledge of not being fired," but the instution should expect to lose the lawsuit if they tried it.

    Speaking as a professor who does not agree with anything that Chapman has said (I am actually a "friend" member of a GL professional organization (which means I paid my dues)), the right of academic freedom is one to be cherished and is absolute, which means that faculty are allowed to espouse views that are contrary to their colleagues and institution, EVEN IF EVERYONE THINKS THEY ARE IGNORANT.

    That does not protect them from criticism from said colleagues or even the administration, but there cannot be any professional consequences, and especially not even a threat of being fired.

    It is the same protection invoked by and given to PZ Myers.

    If the biology department tenures someone who ends up teaching creationism in their course, the only recourse is to put that instructor in courses that do not have any evolution sections. They can't fire him or her.

    This is not my opinion. This is university policy, and the tradition of academic freedom. No university would dream of blatently violating it, because it is the cornerstone of intellectual discourse.

  12. Pablo: Fair enough... I always thought tenure was weird and never really supported it. Even for reasons other than the one I mentioned. There is a great amount of politics amongst tenured profs (summarized succinctly as dick-waving) at my alma mater where the non-tenured profs get caught in the cross fire. I understand academic freedom when it comes to personal opinion (and hence, not relevant to a job and a classroom). I never understood the blanket permission to preach whatever bullshit one could dream up (holocaust denying history profs. come to mind).

    I guess the only way to deal with a creationist biology prof would be the inevitable black-balling he would receive from all of his external funders and his (hopefully) abyssmal peer and student reviews. That would pretty much guarantee a sideways promotion to a useless career-ending position. I prefer industry myself (despite all its flaws). If you are an anarchist engineer, nobody gives a shit. If you are an engineer who doesn't believe in math, you should expect to starve (or learn to operate a grill).

  13. hey brian, what was that comment supposed to mean? and for the record the protest is not QSU's, it's an outside organization. I had forbidden the executive board from commenting on the issue in order to cool heads down, and have just lifted it.

    QSU is not calling for his job, we recognize his right to free speech and are thus using our right to free speech to demonstrate that his views are not the views of purdue university. however, that is only if it has been limited to his blog... if he has brought it to his job then that is another issue entirely.