The NAS & Keeton: Opposition to Preferences Must Be Consistent

NAS president
Peter Wood has defended the organization’s handling
of the Jennifer Keeton case, which I have criticized on both legal and, more recently, policy grounds. Though I strongly sympathize
with the general ideals of NAS, the organization’s off-base position on Keeton,
which Wood’s essay reaffirms, has ended its heretofore consistent–and
commendable–resistance to on-campus preferences.

In the Keeton
case, the NAS wanted the 11th Circuit to order a public university’s
Counseling Department to approve a student who said that she would, as a counselor,
recommend treatment (“conversion therapy” for gays and lesbians) that the
American Psychological Association has deemed unsuccessful and sometimes harmful. Moreover, court
rulings suggested that the student based her promised course of action not on
evidence, or data, or peer-reviewed studies, but on her religious
beliefs–hardly an appropriate academic standard at a non-religious college.
This line of argument would require such troubling outcomes as a School of Education having to certify radical Black
Muslim students who cited only their religious beliefs to say they’d teach

Wood’s essay
rationalizes Keeton’s demand for what the 11th circuit panel termed
preferential, not equal, treatment
(that the American Counseling Association’s ethical standards not apply to her)
by portraying Keeton as a victim of campus political correctness.  The NAS president writes that Keeton “should have the right to hold and express
her views on homosexuality without having to give up her educational and career
I agree, and previously described as “chilling”
the Augusta State faculty’s proposed remediation
plan, which included recommendations such as Keeton attending a gay pride
parade, an activity that could have no conceivable bearing on her performance
as a counselor.

Given the purpose
of a Counseling program (to train students to become effective counselors), Keeton’s
remediation plan should have focused not on her anti-gay beliefs but on the
troubling issues directly related to her prospective career–her promise to
recommend conversion therapy for her clients and her claim that she shouldn’t
be bound by ACA ethical standards.
Appropriate remediation assignments might have included reading peer-reviewed
studies on the shortcomings of conversion therapy, or exploring why the ACA requires
counselors not to impose their personal religious beliefs on their clients, or
examining the career of George Rekers, a “conversion therapy” pioneer exposed by CNN as a fraud whose
star “patient” ultimately committed suicide.

If the Keeton
lawsuit (and the NAS support of it) had focused on the appropriateness of the
remediation plan, the effort would have been intellectually defensible. But the
NAS position, as reflected in Wood’s essay, extends well beyond urging that Keeton “have the right to hold and express her views on homosexuality
without having to give up her educational and career aspirations.”

Ignoring APA’s 2009 review of conversion therapy studies–not
to mention the 2011 CNN exposé of Rekers–Wood writes that
that “Keeton posed no threat to . . . potential clients.” Even though Wood
cites no data, studies, or other evidence challenging the 2009 APA review of
conversion therapy, he accuses the ACA of engaging in “
an attempt to foreclose discussion on a matter
that remains intellectually and morally unsettled
.” He describes Augusta State’s
arguments as a “doctrinal position” that the university seeks to “impose” on
its students–as if ensuring that future counselors won’t cite only their
religious beliefs to recommend treatments that peer-reviewed studies show might
harm potential clients is a controversial “doctrine” that represents an assault
on “intellectual diversity.”

I’m not aware of any legal or academic doctrine that could
justify compelling an institution of higher learning to certify a student as a
counselor, or a teacher, or a doctor if the student proclaimed, citing only her
religious beliefs as evidence, that she would subject her clients, or students,
or patients to a practice that peer-reviewed studies indicated could harm them.
While Wood describes the 11th
circuit’s ruling as “only a way-station in Keeton’s search for legal relief,”
there was nothing in the detailed holdings of either the district court or the
circuit court panel to suggest that either venue will be sympathetic to Keeton
in the future.

To date, this
case has bequeathed a troubling legacy for both higher education and the NAS. For
the academy, Keeton’s legal defeat has extended well beyond the small number of
students who want to pursue conversion therapy. As Wood correctly points out,
the three-judge panel’s “decision
opens the door for colleges and universities to de-select students holding any
beliefs that happen to be in disfavor with the factions that dominate the
increasingly ideological academic and professional associations.” A fear that
it might produce such a ruling is one reason why the Keeton case was so
dubious, from the beginning, on tactical grounds.

For the NAS, even
the 11th circuit (whose skepticism toward gay rights appeared when
it upheld Florida’s
law prohibiting gay and lesbian citizens from adopting children) has
acknowledged that the organization has demanded “preferential, not equal, treatment” on the basis of a
student’s religious beliefs. That finding will make it more difficult for NAS
to do the hard but necessary work of standing up to groups like the AAC&U
or ACE when they demand “preferential,
not equal, treatment”
on the basis of a student’s race or ethnicity.
Sacrificing the organization’s previously consistent opposition to campus
preferences in support of a conversion-therapy advocate’s quixotic attempt to bypass
ethical guidelines strikes me as a very, very high price for NAS to pay.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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