Regnerus must accept responsibility

Travis Knoll

A UT professor’s study questioning the academic consensus that children raised by gay parents are as healthy as those raised by straight parents has become part of the news coverage of gay rights cases pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. The American Independent, a progressive news organization, ran a story on March 10 questioning sociology professor Mark Regnerus’ assertion that his study, which found that children raised by same-sex couples fare worse than those raised in traditional families, was not influenced by his largest funder, the conservative think tank The Witherspoon Foundation. The Independent alleges in the story that William Bradford Wilcox, then-director of Witherspoon’s Program on Family, Marriage and Democracy, helped with data analysis and suggested venues for publication. The Independent further alleges that emails show Regnerus’ funders expressed their desire for the study to be released before the Supreme Court decided on the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the questions raised in the case pending before it. According to emails obtained by the Independent, Regnerus himself asked Wilcox to clarify the funders’ expectations for their “optimal timeline” and “hopes for what emerges from the project.” Although the American Independent’s news report is not the final word, it raises serious questions about Regnerus’ intentions and straightforwardness.

That Regnerus, with his academic pedigree, would produce such a slapdash study is troubling. More dangerous, however, is his nonchalant attitude toward the misuse of his study by conservative groups. The study has been cited as evidence against same-sex marriage in various federal courts and in United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry, the two gay marriage cases pending before the Supreme Court. When he spoke with me, Regnerus said he does not concern himself with the legal value of his study, does not follow legal proceedings and does not know how the study would be used in legal arguments about adoption. This comes despite the study’s original warning that it “cannot broach the question of causation” and Regnerus’ own admission that the study does not analyze “parenting practices.” His hand-washing, while expedient, is disingenuous and betrays the academic prestige granted to him by UT.

Academics have a certain responsibility. In his 1967 essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”, MIT linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky writes, “Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions.” In exchange for this responsibility, intellectuals are afforded a degree of protection, of immunity from political attacks and, as Chomsky writes, “the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth … behind a veil of distortion.” Regnerus himself has admitted the benefits of this protection. In responding to my questions about his study, he wrote in November, “I’m grateful that UT has been a place wherein I could study this subject. It has not been easy, of course, but how else can scholars do this apart from the protection of institutions? Academic freedom is a pretty big deal.”

Although I agree that academics should be afforded some institutional protection, Regnerus undermines his own legitimacy and that of the University as a whole when he is not fully transparent about Witherspoon’s involvement and when he remains silent as his study is misused at the highest levels of our government. I do not expect that Regnerus will retract his study entirely, but to sit by while others deliberately misconstrue one’s work is unacceptable.

To clear up any questions about his intentions, Regnerus should change course and speak out publicly against the use of his study in legal arguments. He does not need to support gay marriage or parenting. But he should care enough about his credibility to request that his study be removed from future legal debates. If Regnerus does not take responsibility for his study and its effects, he will have deserved much of the backlash he has received.

Knoll is a Latin American Studies senior from Dallas.