One would expect a university that prides itself on its accepting and friendly community would make it a priority to enforce its own non-discrimination policy. But when a gay Law professor filed suit against the University alleging that he had been discriminated against, the University took the position that it wasn’t obligated to uphold its policy — a position it only changed after an outcry from faculty. After more than five years of the University’s attempts to dismiss the lawsuit, a hearing was finally conducted Friday. But regardless of how this case is decided, the University must formulate its legal arguments more sensitively — and more openly — in the future.
Peter Hammer, who is now a law professor at Wayne State University, sued the University after being denied tenure at the University’s Law School in 2003. The University review board initially approved Hammer’s tenure in a 4-1 vote. But the Law School tenured faculty only voted 18-12 in favor of approving tenure, two votes less than the necessary two-thirds majority. Because of that Hammer was denied tenure. He claims he was the first male law school professor to be denied tenure in more than 40 years and that the decision was made that way because he is gay. Hammer is now waiting for the court to determine if this case will go to trial.
The manner in which the University first handled this issue was extremely troubling. In 2006, the University argued for the case to be thrown out on the basis that the University has no legal responsibility to uphold the non-discrimination policies outlined in its employee handbook. The University’s general counsel specified that the non-discrimination guidelines are only a “commitment,” that don’t necessarily have legal value.
The strategy, which was supposed to be private, was obviously absurd. And faculty and students called the University out for it. As a result, the University switched its strategy and instead argued that discrimination didn’t occur. Absorbing this criticism and changing its strategy was the right move for the University.
But students and faculty need some assurance that other legal decisions being made by the University are consistent with this university’s values. Such decisions should not be kept private, and should never violate the University’s commitment to uphold a policy of acceptance for all kinds of people. After all, the University should feel morally compelled to uphold its non-discrimination policy regardless of whether it’s legally binding. Moving forward, the University must rest its legal strategies on a sound commitment to non-discrimination instead of simply reverting to such a position to cover its back. And if legal strategies were not formulated behind closed doors, people would be able to put more faith in the University’s position.
It’s very unclear whether anti-gay prejudice played a role in Hammer’s denial of tenure. If it did, the University has a responsibility to do something about it. But in either case, the University’s position should always be open to the campus population and should consistently support policies of non-discrimination, whether the law says it has to or not.