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The Times doesn't make clear where Williams's statement was originally made, and that matters (the text appears on the department's website).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.