Singaporean Scholar, a Foe of Gay Rights, Cancels Plans to Teach at NYU

July 23, 2009

A law professor from Singapore has canceled plans to teach at New York University this fall following an uproar on the campus over her statements in opposition to homosexuality.

Thio Li-ann, a professor at the National University of Singapore and a member of that country's Parliament, had been scheduled to come to NYU's law school as a visiting professor and teach a course on human rights in Asia and a seminar on constitutionalism there. Students and graduates began protesting her appointment, however, after it was learned that she has strongly opposed the repeal of a law criminalizing sex between men, had supported her government's imposition of a fine on a Singaporean television station for depicting a gay couple and their child as a family unit, and had denounced homosexuality in several statements that many people found deeply offensive.

More than 740 people have signed an online petition saying that, by hiring her, the law school was "acting in opposition to its own policy of nondiscrimination and undermining its commitment to advancing human rights worldwide."

In a written statement released last night and published online by The New York Times, the law school's dean, Richard L. Revesz, said Ms. Thio informed him yesterday that she was canceling her plans. "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," the dean's statement said.

Mr. Revesz's statement also said the law school was unaware of Ms. Thio's controversial remarks about homosexuality when it picked her for the visiting-scholar position because, as is "the general norm at academic institutions," NYU had not searched online for records of her speeches and instead limited its consideration of her qualifications to a "review of academic publications and works in progress, teaching evaluations, and reputation for collegiality."

But even if the law school had known Ms. Thio's views on homosexuality contradicted its institutional position, that would not have precluded it from appointing her because such institutions "benefit greatly from a diversity of perspectives, not from hiring only people who share the same views." And although Ms. Thio had made remarks that Mr. Revesz regarded as "offensive and hurtful" in her e-mail exchanges with NYU students opposed to her appointment, the law school had resisted calls to cancel her course in response to such statements because "to do so would eviscerate the concept of academic freedom and chill student-faculty debate," the dean's statement said.

The online petition called Mr. Revesz's defense of Ms. Thio's appointment on academic-freedom grounds "disingenuous, untenable, and unacceptable," saying "academic freedom is not a license for bigotry."