Anti-Abortion Philosophy Lecturer Fired


Stéphane Mercier, the visiting assistant professor of philosophy at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium whose courses were suspended recently because of a lecture he gave in which he argued against a right to abortion, has been fired.

According to The Tablet, Mercier “received a letter from the university advising him of his dismissal without giving any reason.”

When the course suspension was announced, one source told me:

The central issue is not whether an instructor should be allowed to teach specific views about abortion. Rather, it is about whether Mercier did so in an appropriate manner. For example: were opposing views presented with a modicum of charity, was the instructor trying to indoctrinate rather than educate, and did the content fit with the course description?

Whether the dismissal was owed to a negative answer to these questions or some other factor is not yet public knowledge.

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Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

“… were opposing views presented with a modicum of charity, was the instructor trying to indoctrinate rather than educate, and did the content fit with the course description?…”

Ok. I’ll take these criteria as stipulated. I’m willing to accept that schools can define for themselves what are acceptable criteria for an appropriate pedagogic practice. Now, it should be a simple matter of presenting evidence and arguments demonstrating that the instructor failed to meet these criteria. If the case is not completely clear, the school should be able to at least produce justifications for their judgements (regardless of whether anyone agrees with them or not).

This is one thing that irritated me about the fact that Peter Singer was put on that so-called “watch list”. The site has clear criteria for what would constitute a professor we need to “watch out for”. But when you look at the sources they provide to sustain the opinion that he is in violation of those criteria, it’s clearly obvious he’s not.

They claim the professors on that list are there because they are “professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom”. But the news story they cite (from ‘campus reform’) simply describes Singer’s work on the subject of ethics. It does not cite instances of of classroom discrimination, or of the use of his position of authority to intimidate or propagandise his students (unlike, for example, the recent case of Ms. Click). Therefore, the “watch list” is merely taking up a position of political opposition to the substantive content of his positions, which is a very different question (one I might even be inclined to agree with).

Likewise, if Université Catholique de Louvain cannot produce evidence (or at least an argument) showing Prof Mercier violating their own stated standard of pedagogical practice, then I have no choice but to assume they are merely taking a political position in opposition to the content of Mercier’s lectures, and firing him on those grounds.Report

Tim Hsiao
4 years ago

Mercier has explicitly denied that he was trying to indoctrinate his student. I don’t know what the university found, but even if he was trying to “indoctrinate” them, *firing* him for that reason is ludicrous. So long as he’s giving arguments and not launching into emotional tirades, I don’t see anything deserving of termination. Are we going to start firing people for being narrow-minded?

There’s also a double standard lurking here, since presumably this kind of thing happens much more with those on the left than those on the right, and universities don’t seem to bat an eye when, say, an instructor teaches only one side of an issue (or when a textbook only contains readings of one ideological orientation for a certain issue, such as the textbook that I happen to be teaching from right now).Report

French philosopher
French philosopher
Reply to  Tim Hsiao
4 years ago

A “narrow-minded” teacher can’t really be a good teacher. Good riddance. He was fired because his lecture was highly offensive. There are thousand of ways to teach about abortion without being offensive toward women, gay or other populations. If he needs to be offensive and narrow-minded to teach about that, he’s just a terrible teacher and the university has every right to fire him. He was supposed to teach a few classes and screwed up and students complained and that’s on him. UCL has every right to protect their students.Report

Oliver Traldi
Oliver Traldi
Reply to  French philosopher
4 years ago

“Protect”?Report

Greg Gauthier
Reply to  Tim Hsiao
4 years ago

The prohibition against “indoctrination” is an interesting one. It will be interesting to see how they (a) define it as against merely arguing a position, and (b) show how Mercier violated this prohibition. What differentiates indoctrination from mere sophistry, or even propagandizing? One possible distinction is that the former is a situation in which the indoctrinated are vulnerable in some way (unable to defend themselves). Perhaps there was a threat of material harm (course grades, or graduations, or essay marks or something). Unless the university explains this, there’s just no way to know.Report

UKLawStudent
UKLawStudent
4 years ago

Except that this justification is contradicted by the initial statements they made (see previous thread on this topic) and them explicitly saying that the University agreed with the law legalising abortion.

If it had just been a failure to teach both sides then those statements would not have been made and the University’s stance on the law would be irrelevant.

It would also be interesting to know whether they have fired anyone else for “failing to teach both sides”Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

I have no doubt that the school would have likewise fired an instructor who indoctrinated his or her students with the view that conservative approaches to sexual ethics are repressive and dangerous. Or with the view that America’s use of atomic weapons was deeply wrong. Or with the view that free speech ought to be held sacrosanct.

What’s that you say? Instructors present one-sided presentations of those subjects all the time? I’m sure that their dismissals are just being delayed by red tape.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
4 years ago

Let’s describe the situation abstractly:

– a university teacher lectures on a controversial topic
– they are suspended from teaching following complaints
– some – contested – accounts of the teaching indicate that it was one-sided and didn’t do a proper academic job of showcasing the different possible positions
– the university’s original statements on the matter show a worrying disregard for academic freedom, e.g. through the implication that if something is legal, no-one should argue against it.
– shortly thereafter, the university teacher is summarily dismissed, without any due-process attempt to consider whether their conduct had an academic-freedom protection.

It’s possible to fill in unknown information in such a sketch that would make this defensible conduct for the university (the university’s original statement could have been ill-judged but they could have carried out a confidential assessment that found evidence that the teacher’s behavior was violent or harassing). But I think prima facie this sort of template ought to make us really worried about the academic-freedom issues. And I say that as a pretty absolutist supporter of legal abortion.Report

docfe
docfe
4 years ago

So, only those teachers who espouse certain views are acceptable? Fire all guns on all sides is sort of the philosophical way of doing things. Socrates suffered for doing so. Where did the idea that advocating a view (not demanding students take it, of course) become non-philosophical? As a very liberal person I am getting tired of this “state our party line or you’re out” philosophy. The key is whether he taught methods for evaluating or “forced” one view and only one view. Come on, folks, grow up and air every view, but require none.Report