Ethics, law, fairness and common sense are locked in a complex battle in this story, which comes out of Gallaudet University, the famous Washington D.C. school for the deaf.
Dr. Angela McCaskill, Gallaudet’s chief diversity officer, has been put on administrative leave and may face dismissal because the school learned that she had signed a petition opposing Maryland’s same-sex marriage law. McCaskill apparently signed the petition at her church after her preacher spoke against gay marriage. A measure is on the Maryland ballot that could overturn the recently-passed state law approving same-sex marriage.
Does she have an absolute right to sign a petition in favor or opposing any political or social policy? Yes. Is this a petition something a university official in charge of promoting diversity is wise to sign? No. Is a university whose diversity officer chooses to sign such a petition behaving fairly and responsibly to decide that it should have someone else in that position?
And that’s your weekend Ethics Alarms Quiz:
Is it fair and responsible for a university to fire its diversity chief because she signed a petition opposing gay marriage?
My answer is this: Absolutely.
Gallaudet is not a state institution, so the First Amendment almost certainly doesn’t bar her firing. Local law might: apparently Washington, D.C. has a provision making it a crime for any person to “by threat or intimidation, interfere with, or attempts to interfere with, the right of any qualified registered elector to sign or not to sign any initiative, referendum, or recall petition, or to vote for or against, or to abstain from voting on any initiative, referendum, or recall measure.”
None of that applies to the ethical analysis, however. Even though I am sure that Dr. McCaskill would insist that her faith-based conviction that marriage should be an institution for opposite gender couples only has nothing to do with her commitment to campus diversity, there is no way that she can maintain the trust of her constituency and stake-holders, which includes gay and transgendered students, having signed a petition that they will see as discriminatory. As Teddi Fishman, director of the International Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University, told NBC in a carefully worded statement.
“If a person is responsible for ensuring equal opportunities for students regardless of their gender or sexual orientation and that person goes on record as being opposed to equal opportunities for people based on their gender and sexual orientation, it certainly appears that there is some incongruity.”
“Some incongruity”…uh, yes, I’d say so. While McCaskill has a right to her opinions, she does not have a right to serve in a position where her responsibilities appear to be contradictory to her publicly stated beliefs. This creates an appearance of a conflict of interest, and a situation that is not conducive to trust. She was the first deaf African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. from Gallaudet, and has worked in various capacities there for 23 years. She should certainly not be fired for this lapse in judgment, given her connections to the institution. She should not and cannot continue as diversity chief, however.
Facts: NBC News
Graphic: Citizen Warrior