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LGBTQ groups dissent against Scalia’s presence at commencement; decision ‘disrespectful’ RPA, Greek Spectrum oppose RPI honorand


“We are a diverse community comprising a broad array of talents and perspectives. Even as we celebrate this diversity, we are united in pursuit of a common goal: greater prominence as a top-tier world-class technological research university with global reach and global impact.” – The Rensselaer Plan, Section 2: Fundamentals

The following represents the opinion of the executive committees and membership of the Rensselaer Pride Alliance and Greek Spectrum, and this statement will serve as these organizations’ formal position on and in opposition to the decision to award Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia an honorary degree at Commencement this May.

A Very Diverse Community

“Today’s ideas will reach maturity and today’s students will be called to lead in a world that is increasingly diverse. The Rensselaer community must be just as diverse, and the Institute must commit to leadership in bringing diversity to science and technology.” – The Rensselaer Plan, Section 7.2: A Very Diverse Community

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is a world class university that prides itself on pushing the boundaries of innovation in science and technology. One of the current goals of the Institute, as stated multiple times in The Rensselaer Plan, is to foster greater diversity on campus and in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. This goal is admirable for many reasons, most notably because the differing experiences and thought processes of a diverse group of researchers can lead to insights and innovations that would otherwise not be possible.

Despite this stated goal, Rensselaer has not readily achieved a welcoming and diverse campus environment. The ratio of men to women in the student body is among the highest in the country, there are very few racial and ethnic minority students on campus, most students come from similar economic backgrounds, and numerous gender and sexual minority students feel unsupported by the administration and pressured to remain closeted on campus. Many of these problems are based in perception; for many women, people of color, low-income students, or LGBTQ students, Rensselaer is not seen to be a welcoming place.

Many groups and initiatives on campus, including the Pride Alliance and Greek Spectrum, have worked hard to change this image of our campus as unwelcoming to women and minority students. RPA has met with members of the administration as recently as last month to discuss the ways in which our campus can be a safer and more inclusive space for gender and sexual minority students. During these—and all—interactions with Institute administrators, we have been constantly reassured that Rensselaer values diversity and will be taking steps to improve the status of gender and sexual minority students on campus.

It is for this reason that the Rensselaer Pride Alliance and Greek Spectrum were surprised and disappointed to hear of the decision to honor at Commencement this year. Scalia is not a scientist, an engineer, or an innovator, and he certainly does not represent the spirit of diversity that the Institute claims to embrace.

Taking Sides in the Culture War

“It is clear from this that the Court has taken sides in the culture war, departing from its role of assuring, as neutral observer, that the democratic rules of engagement are observed. Many Americans do not want persons who openly engage in homosexual conduct as partners in their business, as scoutmasters for their children, as teachers in their children’s schools, or as boarders in their home. They view this as protecting themselves and their families from a lifestyle that they believe to be immoral and destructive. The Court views it as ‘discrimination’ which it is the function of our judgments to deter. So imbued is the Court with the law profession’s anti-anti-homosexual culture, that it is seemingly unaware that the attitudes of that culture are not obviously ‘mainstream’; that in most States what the Court calls ‘discrimination’ against those who engage in homosexual acts is perfectly legal …”

The above quote is taken from the dissent, written by Scalia, in the case of Lawrence v. Texas. Decided in 2003, this case overturned a Texas law criminalizing sodomy, and essentially served to legalize same-sex sexual activity between consenting adults in all 50 States. As is evident in this quote, Scalia felt that ruling against discrimination based on sexual orientation was absurd, stating that “a governing majority’s belief that certain sexual behavior is ‘immoral and unacceptable’ constitutes a rational basis for regulation …” Which is to say that, if a majority of the public believes something or someone is immoral or unacceptable, it should be perfectly legal to discriminate against them, even if they are doing no harm to themselves or others. This same logic has been used by others in the past to uphold discrimination against people of color, women, immigrants, and numerous other groups.

There are those who will argue that this is a political matter, and that our opposition to publicly honoring Scalia is a matter of politics that does not belong in a discussion of academic honors. We would like to state, clearly and unequivocally, that this is not the case. Our opposition to the Institute’s decision to grant an honorary degree to Scalia is, in fact, incredibly personal. As lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and allied members of the Rensselaer community, we find this decision to be deeply disrespectful and dismissive on a personal level.

In the case of Romer v. Evans, the Court ruled that an amendment to the Colorado State Constitution which would have prohibited the inclusion of sexual orientation in anti-discrimination laws was unconstitutional. In his dissent, Scalia stated that “one could consider certain conduct reprehensible—murder, for example … or cruelty to animals—and could exhibit even ‘animus’ toward such conduct. Surely that is the only sort of ‘animus’ at issue here: moral disapproval of homosexual conduct …” and argued that discrimination based on this type of “moral disapproval” is perfectly reasonable and should not be outlawed. The knowledge that Rensselaer has decided to honor a man who believes that being gay is comparable to murder, and that it should be legal to discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people in the areas of employment and housing, is incredibly insulting to members of gender and sexual minorities and their allies on campus.

In Summary

The beliefs of Scalia appear to be directly opposed to the goals and values of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as stated in The Rensselaer Plan as well as in the slogan, “Why not change the world?” Although this statement has focused on issues relating to sexual orientation, we believe that there is evidence indicating that Scalia routinely fails to acknowledge the ways in which marginalization is upheld and replicated within our society, and that many of his rulings regarding the rights of women and people of color to equal protections under the law reflect this. We feel that the decision to honor a man who has repeatedly expressed his belief that gender and sexual minorities should not be legally protected from discrimination, and who has no strong ties to science, technology, or engineering, is incredibly damaging and harmful to the reputation of the Institute, as well as to individual members of the Rensselaer community.

We ask that members of the student body, faculty, and staff of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute stand with us in publicly opposing the decision to honor Scalia at Commencement. We further ask that the President and Cabinet of the Institute recognize the ways in which this decision tarnishes the reputation of the Institute and reconsider the choice to honor Scalia with a degree this May.

The Rensselaer Pride Alliance

and The Executive Committee of Greek Spectrum