Sunday, March 09, 2014

Don't sell out your colleagues. Even the assholes.

Yesterday's Times carried a story about Michigan's defense of its same-sex marriage ban, and particularly its use of scholarship arguing that children raised in same-sex households are disadvantaged. According to the article, Michigan's use of the child-welfare argument is unusual: most states have abandoned that approach, since most research now indicates that children raised in same-sex households fare about the same as those raised in heterosexual ones. Even more unusual is the response of the department that houses one dissenting researcher. Basically, it's rushed to disown him:

On the same day that Mark Regnerus, the most prominent of the state's witnesses, started his testimony, his own department of sociology at the University of Texas issued a highly unusual and stinging disclaimer:

"Dr. Regnerus's opinions are his own," wrote Christine L. Williams, the department chairwoman. "They do not reflect the views of the sociology department of the University of Texas at Austin. Nor do they reflect the views of the American Sociological Association, which takes the position that the conclusions he draws from his study of gay parenting are fundamentally flawed."

Confronted on the witness stand with that statement, Dr. Regnerus called it "regrettable" and said, "I guess they have been getting negative press probably about my appearance here."

I'm not a lawyer, but this strikes me as a weak move. Wouldn't it be better for the plaintiff's lawyers to cite the American Sociological Association itself? Or itemize the specific methodological flaws in Regnerus's work? Or present the studies that have come to contradictory conclusions? I mean, is the department chair an actual expert in this area? Who cares what she says?

Now, I support same-sex marriage and I'm skeptical of any work that suggests children are harmed by it. But since I'm not a sociologist, I'm not going to go around making public statements about the work of someone trained in that field. But you know what else I'm not going to do? I'm also not going to go around making public statements about the merits of the work done by my colleagues who are twentieth-century Americanists, or Victorianists, or medievalists. If I'm a department chair or on a P&T committee, sure: I have to make judgements about my colleagues' work from time to time, and to do so I have to rely largely on what other specialists say about it. But whatever I come think about their work, I'm not going to trash it in a public forum.

The Times doesn't make clear where Williams's statement was originally made, and that matters (the text appears on the department's website). But as presented in the article, this seems like a terrible precedent for academic departments, one as likely to be used against people who are on the cutting edge of research as those mounting a rear-guard action.

By all means: if your colleague's work strikes you as flawed or objectionable, and a reporter asks you about it, go ahead and point out that faculty pursue their own research interests, work independently, and that no one "speaks" for the department as a whole. But collegiality and confidentiality would both seem to demand you not go further than that.


nicoleandmaggie said...

Perhaps this is a difference between humanities and social sciences. If I think someone's work is wrong or unsound, it doesn't matter if that person is a colleague or on the other side of the world. We tend to think there are objective measures for some of these policy recommendations. If the preponderance of evidence says one thing, then why on earth would I keep my mouth shut just because one of my colleagues has blinders on?

Especially since the folks with blinders on tend to be (on average) sexist racist jackholes. (And perhaps in sociology you can add homophobic to that. In my discipline we don't study sexuality much.)

As to narrow expertise, there's plenty of things that you can have only a graduate textbook knowledge of and still be able to comment on the crazies in the field. Hell, I've even read enough of the children of same-sex couples literature to know where that evidence lies. It's not the same as being a Medievalist trying to comment on Victorian literature-- anybody with the same base training can read and understand what's been done and evaluate how good the evidence is.

Plus, I'd rather throw a homophobic colleague who does ideological research and then gets paid to expert witness about it under a bus than the children he's harming.

Historiann said...

I'm with N&M. The history comparison I can think of is having a colleague who is a Lost Causer, or a Holocaust denier. I would think it irresponsible for his tenure home NOT to point out that his views are his own, and that they don't reflect either the views of his colleagues or of his professional association. This also calls to mind that psychologist douchehat from UNM who wrote that nasty tweet about overweight applicants to the grad program. Why shouldn't the department distance themselves as fast as possible from toxic bullcrap like that?

Besides, isn't this basically a version of what some universities have said about faculty with social media accounts & presences? "Dr. So-and-So's views do not reflect the views of the University of Despair, and he speaks only for himself."

Steven Pierce said...

This sounds good in principle, but it's not compelling in practice. Would you expect a history department to stand behind a Holocaust denier? A scientific racist? I have no idea whether the psychology department at Western Ontario condemned Philippe Rushton's claims that IQ and penis size were inversely correlated and racially specific (blacks were well endowed, Asians smart, and whites the happy medium). If I'd been a member of that department, I would have felt better for a collective disavowal.

I'm not a sociologist either, but the flaws of Regnerus's study are pretty obvious. All but two of his "same-sex households" were families in which one of the biological parents had a same-sex relationship. Those unstable families were contrasted with a group of stable opposite-sex couples. Only two stable same-sex families were included in the sample. He was absolutely convincing in demonstrating that family instability leads to bad outcomes. He demonstrated nothing about same-sex child-rearing.

The study was politicized and intellectually bankrupt. It also has real-world consequences. The Michigan trial is ultimately about the basic equality of a minority group. Regnerus is using the prestige he enjoys as a tenured professor at UT to political ends, and on the basis of an unprofessional piece of work. If I were his colleague, I'd be concerned that my department was being used bolster such pernicious nonsense. If I were his chair, I'd be worried about recruitment--LGBT and anti-homophobic student and faculty candidates might be reluctant to come to UT if they thought the department was of a piece with Regnerus.

Academic freedom and collegiality are important, but I think you've made the case sound easier than it actually is.

Flavia said...


Yes, you may be right that there are some disciplinary differences I'm not registering--and as I say, I don't fully understand the context for the chair's statement.

But to me there's a difference between (what seems like) gratuitous weighing in on someone else's work and being asked to give a professional assessment of it. If someone asks me my professional opinion on someone else's work in literary studies, I can give it, at least within limits (even when it's work in Victorian or medieval lit, I can tell when someone's methods are radically unsound, though I might not be up on all the latest issues and debates). But I don't understand why any departmental colleague--as opposed to a researcher who has conducted his or her own studies of the material--was asked to weigh in at all (or felt it appropriate to volunteer), and it seems especially egregious to me that the chair should do so.

I share your concern about the real-world effects of work like Regnerus's. But I think that when a chair is speaking as chair, s/he has a different kind of obligation than when s/he is speaking as a scholar.

Flavia said...

Steven and Historiann:

Well, maybe I'm in the minority here! But I think that distancing, in the sense of emphasizing that so-and-so's views are his own, is perfectly fine. However, it's the discipline itself, and specialists in the field, that should be the ones to compellingly refute bad scholarship with good scholarship. (Which seems like it's happened or is happening in this case.)

But I don't think the discipline's responsibilities are the same as the employer's. The department's ethical (and legal) obligations strike me as different.

And from a purely practical, self-interested standpoint, as a chair I wouldn't want to give a possibly problematic, possibly grandstanding employee any cause to claim discrimination or present himself as a martyr.

Historiann said...

"as a chair I wouldn't want to give a possibly problematic, possibly grandstanding employee any cause to claim discrimination or present himself as a martyr."

Maybe. But who would take his self-pitying point of view seriously? Whiners gotta whine, and haterz is gonna hate. It's important to keep some daylight between you, especially if you're on the side both of professional consensus and moral rectitude.

I can almost guarantee you that this is not Regnerus's first opportunity to feel sorry for himself & marginalized by his colleagues. His testimony is perhaps the result of a kind of self-reinforcing victimology in which he's the brave truth-teller and all his university and professional colleagues mere toadies to the fashionable consensus.

And p.s. you still have something on your forehead.

Miss Self-Important said...

It's odd to compare Regnerus among sociologists to Holocaust deniers among historians, as though the kind of conclusions drawn from longitudinal survey data are identical in kind with those available through historical record. How best to raise children seems to be a quite different question than whether the Holocaust occurred. Would any circumspect social scientist really assert that the results of her longitudinal study are as unfalsifiable as the occurrence of a world-historical event corroborated by thousands of independent witnesses and mounds of documentation?

Anonymous said...

I was just popping in to say I liked this and appreciated it's principled stand regarding tolerance. Then I read the comments.

Anonymous said...

its. sorry.

Flavia said...


Yes, agreed.

Servetus said...

While I think the uproar over Regnerus' research has a lot to do with lousy research design and poor refereeing and conflict of interest, I think this *statement* has a lot to do with it being *that* department on *that* campus.

Flavia said...


Yes. Obviously, I'm not defending Regnerus's research, which sounds at least highly flawed and possibly deliberately tendentious. And I can imagine lots of sympathetic reasons for the chair's statement (pressure from upper administration; fear about losing prospective grad students; bad collegial behavior on *Regnerus's* part; etc.). But I don't think they override the larger principle here.

What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Servetus said...

All I can say is -- the political pressures that are brought to bear on people who work on that campus are absolutely incomprehensible to those who haven't worked there. You can wake up any morning and discover that your primary vote was printed on the third page of the local newspaper or your name has been mentioned on the floor of the legislature as an example of some sin that you're not even allowed to speak about in the legislature yourself because as public employee, you can't testify there with reference to your own job circumstances. Non-insiders don't get it. Principle, and how and whether it should be followed, looks radically different from there. I'm not defending them tout court because I don't know all the details, but IMO this is really a "until you've walked a mile in their shoes" issue.

Flavia said...


Ah, got it. I thought you were speaking more generally (e.g., about being a liberal academic/academic department in a conservative state). Thanks. And I don't pretend to know the details myself.

Withywindle said...

Regnerius' work seemed reasonable to me. However, I direct you first to his website:

And specifically to his reply to his critics:

His work is available for your direct inspection.

I would generally endorse Flavia, much though there are various scoundrels on the Left who I wish some academic organization or other could summon up the will to condemn. (And I am happy to note that the arguments against Regnerus precisely echo those for ejecting Communists from the academy some decades ago. It's so nice to find methodological consensus across the partisan divides.) I would say that what is most necessary is a discrimination between a political objection and a professional objection--and that since there is a great temptation to let the former influence your reading of the latter, one should be particularly scrupulous and self-doubting before making any such objection.

For any principle, there is always an exception; one must use one's judgment, I suppose. I would rather have department heads, and disciplinary organization heads, with Flavia's temperament and instincts, whatever their political commitments. I prefer those who hesitate before tossing matches at the heretics on the bonfire.

Doctor Cleveland said...

I think it's easier to see where Flavia is coming from when you remember where the title of this blog comes from:

"What advantage is it to be a man over it is to be a boy at school, if we have only scapt the ferular, to come under the fescu of an Imprimatur? if serious and elaborat writings, as if they were no more then the theam of a Grammar lad under his Pedagogue must not be utter'd without the cursory eyes of a temporizing and extemporizing licencer."

That's from Milton's tract Areopagitica, which opposes the idea of civil authorities licensing speech. Milton's point is not that no speech is bad; his point is that bad speech must be defeated in the public forum, rather than being barred from it.

Like Flavia, and unlike Withywindle, I find Regnerus's work unsound and his agenda repulsive. The question is not whether or not his speech is good. I concur that it is not. The question is what to do about bad speech.

Milton asks "so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licencing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falshood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the wors, in a free and open encounter?"

I believe Regnerus to be a bad scholar. And therefore I believe that he will lose the field. But, like Miss Self-Important, I recognize the fundamental difference between even a terrible and tendentious scholar, whose work is biased an inaccurate, and a person who refuses to accept the reality of basic evidence, such as a holocaust denier. It is the difference between being a bad scientist and being a magician or shaman.

What I share with Flavia is a distrust in the use of what is fundamentally a political or administrative authority, a department chairpersonship, in an intellectual dispute. A department chair is not a peer reviewer; that office is a form of civil authority.

And the general public, especially, is already too willing to subordinate intellectual to civil authority, to believe that a department chair or dean has veto power over academic speech. We should not be encouraging that misunderstanding, no matter what the cause. The case is not about one particular instance of untruth, but about protecting the conditions for continuing to seek truth.

Jonathan said...

I quote from a Detroit newspaper

"The most damning criticism centers on Regnerus’ admission that he deliberately structured his study to compare children whose parents had a same-sex relationship with those who grew up in opposite-sex households undisturbed by separation or divorce.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the case in which U.S. Supreme Court justices struck down a federal law barring recognition, the America Sociological Association charged that Regnerus had stacked the deck by comparing children of intact opposite-sex families with children whose families were distinguished mainly by their instability. In many cases, the association noted, those identified as children of gay or lesbian parents had never even lived with that parent."

So it seems to me like I wouldn't want my department to be associated in the press with that kind of research, or my discipline to be associated with that kind of research. The department chair just noted that his research is his alone, and doesn't represent either the department or the best practices of the discipline.

Withywindle said...

This is where I should start assembling links to mount a heavily footnoted and persuasive case defending Regnerus against the hanging jury. But it hardly seems worth the bother--this all seems like it should be a sideshow. That is, if you think homosexuality is a sin, or that marriage is by definition between a man and a woman, it shouldn't make any difference how well gay couples raise children. Likewise, if you believe gays have a right to marry, it shouldn't matter how badly they raise their children. I could put it in the form of a question: is there anyone reading this blog who, currently favoring gay marriage, would reverse their stance if they were absolutely convinced by Social Science TM that children of gay couples had worse life outcomes? I suppose if people chorus out "Yes!", then I will have to modify my beliefs, but I just don't see why the social science arena should matter. I suppose it does, because people do spend so much time justifying themselves with Science and Social Science. I guess there must be people out there who change their opinions based on data, or who like to be on the side of whatever claims Scientific Authoriteh--not (apparently) including the partisans who seize so happily on the Data that supports their prior beliefs. But I guess this not knowing anybody of that nature; I can't recollect ever talking with anyone who changed his mind about gay marriage Because Social Science.

Flavia said...


Thanks for this additional detail--it's useful to know that the data in the study were apparently deliberately selected to skew the results.

Maybe we're all (or maybe I am, alone!) just quibbling about the precise wording of the statement or the contexts in which such statements are appropriate. But I feel that some kinds of distancing are perfectly acceptable, while others are more dubious.


You're right that arguments about child-rearing are somewhat peripheral to the moral case for or against gay marriage, but there's not exactly an equivalence there. If children raised in same-sex couples could be proven to be worse off, that would hurt the pro-gay-marriage case--but the reverse is not true. The presumption is that children raised in heterosexual households are normal, so the burden of proof is on gay households. Or as someone in the Times article notes, straight couples who wish to marry are not subject to any test about their fitness to raise children.

Withywindle said...

Flavia: Ah, you make me go back to the judicial case, rather than to the proprieties of flaming one's colleague. As I read it, this is not a case where a long-established marriage argument is being attacked at last. Rather, this is the state grasping at a last and weak straw to prevent its law from being overturned by a judge. Now, I take this as part of the last stages of the victory of the multipronged assault by the judiciary on legislative autonomy and individual liberty. First you disallow legislation aimed at a moral outcome, by stipulating that it must have some "rational" end--e.g., secular, thisworldly end. This I take to be a gross abuse by the judiciary, which should at most have a say on rational means, not ends--and even that power is subject to abuse. Then, when you have disallowed (among other things) what is the only central justification (virtue) for any law regarding marriage, send it to the realm of rational justification, which has been the realm of social science, that other land of judicial overreach for the last century or so. The abuse following this academic (I think I will expand on my blog) is a natural result of the politicization of academia which follows upon such a regime, which subordinates law to social science. The desperate flailing of the state, and the improper abuse of a colleague, are side-effects of a judicial philosophy that corrodes liberty not only directly but also by these unintended corollaries.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

My position is that it is fine for departmental colleagues to opine publicly as individuals on someone's work. But it is troubling for departments or institutions to take public positions.

Flavia said...


I'm not going to engage with your argument, partly because neither of us is going to change the other's mind, but chiefly because I'm not actually interested in Regnerus.

But since most people on this thread (and elsewhere on the internet) want to talk about the specifics of his work, I've had to make EVEN MORE CLEAR that I'm not an apologist for either his methodology or his political agenda.

What this post is actually about is what the obligations of a colleague, department chair, or administrator are when she honestly believes that a tenured faculty member's research is methodologically flawed (and perhaps in ways that advance a political agenda she finds abhorrent)--but who, unlike a Holocaust denier or a "creation scientist," is basically operating within his discipline and whose methodology can therefore be critiqued within the discipline. Regnerus is in the news, so I went with that example. But as you note in your first comment, lefty profs also come under similar fire, if not from their departments then from administrators or trustees or state legislators--who then put pressure on the college or department to disavow his or her work.

Regardless of the politics involved, I believe that the principle is the same, and so are the ethical obligations of the department chair.


Yes, I'd support that distinction.

Withywindle said...

As said before, I do support you on the central subject of the post. And since your post and follow-up comments helped me clarify something in my mind on the other subject, I'm happy about that, with disputatio hardly necessary.

I am occasionally (!) argumentative, but I don't aim to be so in your comments section. (Though doubtless I fail from time to time.)

Historiann said...

"Judge Friedman didn’t fall for any of it. 'The Court finds Regnerus’s testimony entirely unbelievable and not worthy of serious consideration,' he wrote in what must be one of the most stinging and decisive repudiations of an expert witness in memory. He cited evidence that the conservative research was 'hastily concocted at the behest of a third-party funder' which clearly expressed its wish for skewed results."

From the U.S. district court's opinion on the Michigan case released yesterday (

I'd say that fairly puts Regnerus in the category of Holocaust deniers or minimizers and Lost Causers. The problem with Regnerus wasn't that he's an a-hole (something about which I have no opinion). It's that he was just wrong wrong wrongity wrong and that he lent his professional credentials to bolster a literally incredible point of view. That's something for which I believe his colleagues and Chair are justified in distancing themselves from him.