Gallaudet University Diversity Officer compromised her own ability to perform
October 11th, 2012
As fellow Box Turtle Jim Burroway discussed, the Chief Diversity Officer of Gallaudet University, Dr. Angela McCaskill, has been placed on paid suspension as a result of signing an anti-gay marriage petition. Jim believes that the suspension is unwarranted and that she should not be fired (a position shared by the campaigns both for and against Maryland’s Question 6).
I, however, think that suspension may have been the University’s wisest choice. It’s probably not the choice that plays best into our campaign to win equality in Maryland, but I think it may be the choice that best serves the interest of the university and its students.
I respect Dr. McCaskill’s right to her political views. I defend her right to religious beliefs. And I support her right to participate in the political process.
But Dr. McCaskill’s rights are not the only ones that should be considered. Her employer too has the right to expect an employee to perform their job, and the LGBT students who attend (a group that the media seems incapable to find) have the right to have an advocate who advocates for them.
While political position is generally not a prerequisite for holding most jobs – and, indeed, may not necessarily determine whether a person can perform well in any job – there are some jobs in which perception and public advocacy do impact a person’s ability. In situations in which interaction with others requires some level of acceptance and clear communication, a perceived position which threatens or confuses those with whom an employee interacts can make it difficult or impossible to complete their tasks.
For example, a Dean of Theology at a church-affiliated university may be an atheist and still be able to teach religion and administer coursework without difficulty. But if she were to publicly identify as such and advocate for the cessation of all religion it would so complicate matters with her staff and alienate students that it would impact her ability to perform and would probably severely compromise the school’s ability to continue operations.
Similarly a Chicano Studies professor may believe that immigration law should be fully implemented and that all those in the country who did not follow the legally established steps should be deported immediately, and still be able to teach history and theory associated with that study. But were he to advocate for such positions in op-eds, he would find his classroom empty or devolved to chaos, a situation that the school would be both entitled and wise to address.
This is not to say that an atheist could not introduce difficult questions or a Chicano studies professor could not discuss the nature of law or challenge presumptions. Indeed, they should do so even if they are the most ardent orthodox Christian or a strong advocate for open borders. But the challenge should be part of a shared experience and should always keep the needs of their students in mind. It should never be easily perceived as “you are out there in public hurting me”. Their employer deserves better.
And, unfortunately, that is what has happened in this case. McCaskill’s job is to deal with matters that impact students who are not part of the majority, including gay students. She is paid to do that job.
And this is a doubly difficult job in that all of Gallaudet’s students are hearing-challenged and start from an outsider’s perspective. Being unable to hear in our culture is a significant disadvantage in that so much of our culture is driven by audio cues, nuance, and subtle shading of sound. A written sentence (e.g “I love Mitt Romney”) can have the opposite meaning when the spoken sentence is produced with aurally detected snark or sarcasm or irony. And ASL is not a word-for-word direct translation, it is a distinct language; a reality that presents further challenges to feeling a full part of society.
Complicating matters is that often non-hearing people feel more welcomed within the gay community (or, at least, that is what I’ve been told). Gay events often have signers and there is, by my observation, more general awareness that not everyone is exactly the same. So something that is perceived as hostile to gay people is likely to be felt as “personal” for many more students than just those who are gay.
This isn’t to say that McCaskill cannot support gay students with skill and charm. But her job is not limited to ensuring scholastic equality, it also entails addressing the specific concerns and needs of minority students. And feeling equal is unquestionably a specific need of gay students.
So the question is not just whether she can support the LGBT students at Gallaudet. It may be that gay students cannot be supported by her. She may come bearing the message that deaf and hard-of-hearing LGBT students are welcomed and valued, but those students may be unable to receive that message, it being drowned out by the perception of “this woman thinks I’m inferior and unworthy and wants to take away my rights”.
Jim notes that he has not seen so much as a hint that her job performance has been in any way diminished before or since signing the petition. I disagree.
While the time before her advocacy against equality became known may not reflect any job diminishment, clearly the time after that act became known has impacted her job. If a single gay student is feeling unwanted and unwelcome and betrayed, then she has accomplished the opposite of what she is employed to do. And clearly some are.
This may be a situation that can be resolved. McCaskill may be able to clarify that she acted rashly and without thinking. She may be able to regain trust. And, as she has a good history and is seen as having been an ally, I suspect that this is something that can be and will be repaired.
But she is specifically tasked with the job of making minority students feel welcomed and included and that she is their advocate. But as currently some are instead feeling alienated and confused, she simply is not performing her job. Gay students are heart broken and angry.
And until such time as those students can again feel that McCaskill, as a representative of Gallaudet, does see them as valued and welcome and included and equal and that she will advocate for their specific needs, then she should not be the one to do perform those tasks. And until Gallaudet can appraise the situation and determine that trust can be regained, they are wise to suspend those specific duties.
I think it is in the best interest of Gallaudet – and gay students, and Dr. McCaskill – that she relinquish diversity duties until after the election and things cool off and that her path forward be determined at that time. If marriage equality passes she will have an excellent pathway to putting this behind her. If not, it may be more difficult to regain the trust of gay students who will feel that society has chosen yet another realm in which to reject, deny, and alienate them and may be less ready to trust someone who played a part in making that happen.