On academic responsibility

Guest essay by Liew Kai Khiun

In May 2013, Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson caused a storm by attributing the limitations of the premises of the theories of the prominent economist John M. Keynes to his sexuality where:

Speaking at the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, Calif., in front of a group of more than 500 financial advisors and investors, Ferguson responded to a question about Keynes’ famous philosophy of self-interest versus the economic philosophy of Edmund Burke, who believed there was a social contract among the living, as well as the dead. Ferguson asked the audience how many children Keynes had. He explained that Keynes had none because he was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of “poetry” rather than procreated. The audience went quiet at the remark. Some attendees later said they found the remarks offensive.[i]

Although he offered what he considered a short “unqualified and immediate apology” a week later, Professor Ferguson followed up with a disproportionately lengthier defense of his own “gay friendly” academic track record and lashes out the “self-appointed speech police”. [ii] Western academic institutions are witnessing such incidents with increasing frequency as they have to juggle the debate between academic freedom and alleged homophobic statements by academics. In the process, petitions and counter-petitions have been raised, disciplinary actions meted out and guidelines enacted. Underlying the debates in especially American campuses have been the interpretations of the “campus  speech codes” that seeks to facilitate the respectful and civil communication of ideas across the university environment.  Adding another layer of complexity to the speech code is the management of expressions by academics and students in the social media as to whether such “extra-mural utterances” online would adversely affect their “fitness in continuing service”. [iii]

In the same way, the controversies surrounding the negative remarks of Associate Professor Syed Muhd Khairuddin Aljunied on “liberal lesbianism” on his Facebook has raised questions about the parameters and limits of the elusive term “academic freedom” Within the multicultural social fabric as well as the politically dominant party-state, academic freedom is held with greater importance in Singapore. Faculty staff would have to take into consideration the nuances of the republic’s socio-political contours in either delivering lectures or conducting research. Particularly contentious subjects would include not just politics, but also the social markers of class, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexuality whereby one can be potentially implicated in interfering with national affairs or social harmony. As an academic trained in the areas defined broadly as Humanities and Social Sciences, I would like to take this opportunity to frame the argument from the angle of “rights” and “freedom” to that of “responsibility” and “accountability”,a framing that buttresses the basis of professional authority and scholarly prerogative in contemporary academic cultures. Responsibility here would be framed along the faculty’s roles in three intimately linked areas of research, teaching and social participation, or “extra mural utterances”.

In the empirically-based clinical and behavioral sciences, no breakthroughs and discoveries would be considered legitimate if the procedures and processes are found to be flawed and unethical. Right from the start, academics have to get their research plans cleared by an ethics committee known commonly as the Institutional Research Board (IRB) that ensures the transparency of the project and integrity of the research methodologies. Such checks and balances were found necessary in holding academics and researchers accountable after the Nuremberg War Crime Trials that revealed the horrendous human experimentations by using Jewish inmates in concentration camps, As spelt out in the Belmont Report of 18 April 1979,  three basic ethical principles of “respect for person, beneficence, and justice.[iv]

As stated in the Belmont Report,

Injustice may appear in the selection of subjects, even if individual subjects are selected fairly by  investigators and treated fairly in the course of research. Thus injustice arises from social, racial,  sexual and cultural biases institutionalized in society. Thus, even if individual researchers are  treating their research subjects fairly, and even if IRBs are taking care to assure that subjects are selected fairly within a particular institution, unjust social patterns may nevertheless appear in the overall distribution of the burdens and benefits of research.[v]

This includes the declaration of impartiality of the research from any conflicts of interests, protection of potentially vulnerable subjects, particularly children, animals and other socially and culturally marginalized communities. Hence, with the increasing trends of including academic ethicists in research teams, scholars would have to convince the boards that their studies would ensure both the safety and more dignity of their subjects. Effectively, this means that only after going through such exhaustive experimentations and procedural and review gauntlets will academics concerned be given the “academic freedom” to present their research in these particular fields. In order words, it would be unlikely for the IRB committee to allow a male Muslim academic with openly unsympathetic sentiments towards LGBT communities to conduct research on proposals like “Queer Muslim teenagers and the impact of liberal lesbianism on mainstream heterosexual Muslim Families”. In this case, it would be irresponsible if the academic should speak on this topic as part of his expert opinion.

The Humanities and the Arts present a more intangible but no less rigorous challenge to the making of academic authority and the privileges (freedoms) attached to it. Academics in this field may not necessarily need to put their research through a formal IRB, but their writings are also subject to the same scrutiny from peer reviewers before they can be published in academic books, journals and conference proceedings. Creative works and commentaries would have to reflect distinctive aesthetic qualities, exhaustive research and critical thinking in order to be given its due recognition. Usually, the publications are the result of years of research, but also of continuous conversations and dialogues with both the scholarly communities and the larger public.

Thus, if I had wanted to generate a more meaningful scholarly debate on Islam, sexuality and gender, I would have to survey the scholarship and review the related academic materials written about this topic. I would have appreciated from these readings the fluidity and dynamics of not just the religious texts, but the intricacies between the intimate subjectivities of characters and their paradoxes between the all-loving and timeless divine against more constrained social and cultural interpretations of the text.  From there, I would try to create and capture the network of scholars doing research in this area in a series of roundtables, workshops and conferences. Such gatherings should bring together not just a broad spectrum of scholars from the traditional fields of Theology and History, but also from the niche areas of Queer and Gender Studies.

These conferences can also serve as neutral and secular backgrounds in engaging both LGBT and mainstream religious communities leading to a measured and critical dialogue that seeks mutually respectable understanding of diverse positions.  In more than a decade in academia in the humanities, I have seen many of such academic seminars, roundtables and conferences organized within campuses on what would be considered sensitive topics like sexuality, and I can claim that academics do have the scholarly license to discuss these issues on sexuality without fearing direct repercussions on their jobs.

In the area of teaching, which encompasses the degree of autonomy needed for the daily conduct of lectures, tutorials, student seminars and project, the academic freedom becomes important if faculty desires to push epistemological boundaries and intellectual frontiers. Beyond scoring in examinations and awarding skillsets, a university education is also about the processes in the acquisition and framing of knowledge that can be a critically charged negotiation of values and principles. Here, academic responsibility becomes critical in making pedagogical presentations in a disinterested and objective manner exploring arguments and phenomenon from different perspectives while refraining from making valued-judgments and prejudices.  On the part of the students, they should be ideally be ready for a more open and pluralistic scholarly environment.

Yet, at the same time, like in research, at both an institutional and personal level, it is imperative for the privilege of academia to be debated and even checked. In the area of the clinical sciences, as the awareness of animal welfare and rights become more salient in laboratory tests,  the more progressive universities are not only finding alternatives to using live animals, but are also creating processes for students to object to such tests on conscientious grounds without fear of repercussions, as defined by Humane Research, Australia along the following lines:

Conscientious Objection allows all students the chance to enjoy science and express their enthusiasm for biology and other science subject’s, whatever their ethical beliefs. It permits students to choose study methods that do not involve the harming or killing of animals. Student choice allows all students – regardless of ethical or religious beliefs – access to a high-quality education by offering alternatives to animal experiments with which they may disagree.[vi]

For the humanities and the social sciences, how is conscientious objection defined? I would like to peg the amorphous notions of conscience along the ethics framework laid out by the IRB discussed earlier on. Hence, in the case of Professor Aljunied, some have argued that the student petitioners have been disrespectful to the don. But, from the perspective of conscientious objection, the students and subsequently the faculty colleagues have not only exercised their rights, but carried the academic responsibility in the spirit of the IRB in protecting the dignity and safety of vulnerable social minorities. While Professor Khairuddin may not teach courses in gender and sexuality, it is his duty to ensure that his students who differ from his politics should not feel prejudiced against in taking his courses and having their assignments moderated by him.

In this respect, unfortunately, from both the perspectives of research and teaching, I do not think that Professor Aljunied’s Facebook post reflected such scholarly responsibility and rigour to deserve the privilege of “academic freedom”. On the contrary, coming from the background of the critical humanities and Postcolonial Studies, the don should be acutely aware of the historical, epistemic and linguistic legacy of violence when deploying dehumanizing words like “diseases”, “wayward” and “cancer” to describe and classify a vulnerable social minority. Rather than an informed remark and insight, the tone of the don’s Facebook post on “liberal lesbian” seems more like a rallying call to the faithful.  Although he has claimed to have removed these words, there is little indication that he is appreciative and remorseful of the enormity of the original statement. Even if he comes from the field of Malay Studies – that would include Islam as a significant component – given the circumstances, the professor’sdisturbing comments reveal no academic grounding on this matter on Islam and sexuality.

pic_201403_09On the final question on “extramural utterance” while it is not clear whether Professor Adjunied  had posted on a personal or professional capacity in the original controversial Facebook post on liberal lesbianism on 20 February 2014, in his subsequent “clarification” on this matter on 5 March 2014, he identifies himself instead as “his position as a Muslim” whose views on the LGBT community are in line with those of PEGRAS (the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association).[vii]  Professor Adjunied goes on to quote  Paragraph 5 of the Media Statement by PERGAS on 11 February 2014 on its response to the Health Promotion Board’s (HPB) FAQ on sexuality,

According to the higher objectives of Islamic Law, the family unit serves to bring in new generation and preserve the existence of humankind. For that reason, Islam gives attention in establishing a family only through the legal marriage of a man and woman. Any form of extra-marital or same-sex relations are hence prohibited in Islam.[viii]

However, his quotation did not extend to paragraph 6 that states:

Notwithstanding the above, Pergas would also like to emphasize that in no  way the ‘Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender’ or LGBT should be ostracised by the society. In line with the teachings of Islam which promote love and mercy, we must avoid rejecting them as individuals and should treat them with love and compassion.[ix]

This paragraph is critical, as in no ways does it share the expressions of the words of “cancer”, “disease” and “wayward” that Professor Aljunied has first posted and hence, it is important to delink the don’s statement with that of the religious association as separate entities. As such, rather than that of a secular or religious scholar,  Professor Aljunied should be speaking on the capacity of a layman as Mr Aljunied, subjected like other residents to the same public and legal scrutiny.

In contrast to ethnicity and religion, the government’s official stance against alternative sexuality as enshrined in Section 377A seems to have been interpreted as a green light for expressing homophobic statements. Hence, as a scholar and a citizen, I am encouraged by National University of Singapore’s affirmation of the need for a more diverse multicultural learning environment that is based on mutual respect and tolerance and I am heartened by the fact that it has openly counselled the Professor Aljunied for his Facebook posting.

Nonetheless, I have to reiterate that this episode should not lead one to construe academic freedom includes legal and social immunity. If ordinary people have to pay such a high price for their rants in the social media recently, why would a significantly more learned scholar be judged according to a lesser standard?  In fact, rather than expecting to be shielded by “academic freedom”, a truly committed public intellectual would be prepared to be in the first in the line of fire.

This episode should not justify the right of academics to speak as they wish without regard of the consequences. Rather, it should underscore the significance in their professional and public roles in the production, appropriation and transmission of knowledge. As scholars, we have to be careful in not allowing our training to slip into dehumanizing weapons against others in the name of protecting what we see as our own kind. On the contrary, even if it may seem fruitless, our responsibility should come in making efforts to critically, but humbly humanize a constantly embattled common humanity.


[i] Tom Kostigen (2013). Harvard Professor Trashes Keynes For Homosexuality. Financial Advisor, 3 May.    http://www.fa-mag.com/news/harvard-professor-gay-bashes-keynes-14173.html (Accessed: 10 March 2014).

[ii]Niall Ferguson (2013). “An open letter to the Harvard Community”, 7 May.  http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2013/5/7/Ferguson-Apology-Keynes/ (Accessed: 10 March 2014).

[iii] American Association of University Professors. “Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications” http://www.aaup.org/report/academic-freedom-and-electronic-communications (Accessed: 10 March 2014).

[iv] The Belmont Report. Office of the Secretary Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. 18 April 1979. http://www.nus.edu.sg/irb/Articles/Belmont%20Report.pdf (Accessed: 10 March 2014).

[v] Ibid. p. 9 of 10.

[vi] Humane Research, Australia. “Conscientious objection” http://www.humaneresearch.org.au/help/conscientious-objection (Accessed 10 March 2014)

[vii] Syed Muhd Khairuddin Aljunied (2014). “Some Clarifications…” 5 March. https://www.facebook.com/syed.m.aljunied.7?fref=ts (Accessed: 10 March 2014).

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] PERGAS (2014). Media Statement: PERGAS response to HBP FAQ on sexuality.” 11 February 2014. http://v1.pergas.org.sg/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Media-Statement-Pergas-response-to-HPB-FAQ-on-Sexuality.pdf  (Accessed: 10 March 2014).

6 Responses to “On academic responsibility”

  1. 1 Monica 11 March 2014 at 09:56

    Has it occurred to you that the PAP has given him the blessing for his utterance? He is just reiterating the government’s stance on the issue.

  2. 2 yuen 11 March 2014 at 10:30

    whether homosexuality is a “sickness” is not a scientific or medical issue; it is an opinion, often influenced by religious beliefs; even when the person expressing the opinion is a scientist or professor, it remains a personal opinion

    whether homosexuality can be reversed by chemical, physical or psychological processes is currently unknown, but that -is- a scientific question that can be studied, though whether governments ought to fund such studies is open to debate; I am sure there are rich donors willing to fund them however

  3. 3 guansin 11 March 2014 at 11:04

    The second last para says it best. Many so-called Muslim scholars or, worse, ulamas like to hide from their critics by labelling the latter as “oppressive liberals” out to take away their freedom of speech or their religious belief, without looking at what they have done in those areas in the first place.

  4. 4 Richard Lee 11 March 2014 at 11:20

    Aljunied’s utterances need to be considered on 3 fronts.

    Firstly, is it Hate Speech? The answer is obviously, “Yes, it is Hate Speech.”

    Our Lord Jesus defines a Christian unambiguously in John 13:34-35 and points out that no one should have any difficulty in discerning the same. The absence of Hate Speech is a big part of this.

    I would be very surprised if the Prophet Mohammed hasn’t laid down a similar definition for his followers

    Secondly, should someone in authority be uttering Hate Speech under any circumstance? Here, Aljunied is in the same boat as Khong, Lim & Baey. All deserved to be pilloried for their offensive statements.

    Thirdly, should academics with such bigoted, biased, discriminatory and offensive views be in a position to affect the livelihoods of their students … who may not share their religious & lifestyle views?

    Here, perhaps NUS hasn’t taken sufficient action. Aljunied is unrepentant. What is there to ensure he doesn’t take out his hate on students whom he suspects of being Lesbian or Gay?

    • 5 Duh 12 March 2014 at 18:01

      Seriously, it’s NUS – every academic knows about the quality of intellectual discourse there. No one in academia actually takes those silly university rankings seriously – only NUS likes to trumpet these useless and meaningless statistics. The statistics are there to use as a form of advertising to attract the uninformed masses for student enrollments.

      NUS has always been (like so many other institutions and organisations in Singapore) under the control of the govt (or more specifically, the PAP). It’s management style is like Singapore’s – top-down and despotic with an oligarchy that has little accountability except to the PAP/MOE. Depts such as Political Science, Philosophy, Law, and Psychology are particularly watched and monitored. One doesn’t need to be a genius to figure out why. All despotic and oppressive regimes have historically been afraid of intellectuals – bcos intellectuals tend to highlight to the masses of their violated civil liberties and oppression. History is filled with these examples (from Emperor Qin in China to Hitler in Germany).

      This is why many well known researchers left NUS after staying for 1-2 years (Google to see the well known cases and there are more that were unreported) – creative and good academics do not work well in intellectually oppressive environments. This is why Harvard academics were so against the NUS-Harvard university collaboration project. (Did you notice that once Aljunied made those statements – not a SINGLE academic from NUS dared to protest explicitly against his comments? See how fearful NUS academics are? The students had more courage. How sad.)

      One should always take any NUS academic’s statements with a very large pinch of salt or simply ignore them.

  5. 6 SSM 14 March 2014 at 09:30

    This is an excellent exposition on “academic freedom”. Thumbs up!

    On a related note, YB, readers may be interested in this news report. I cannot find ST coverage of this. Vague and no names mentioned but it should be quite clear which “recent Incident” Yacoob Ibrahim was referring to. This seems to be the “official last word” on the Khairuddin incident.

    See http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/muis-to-launch-new/1028752.html.

    There is also a video version.

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