Leadership

Engineering Group Takes Heat Over Anti-Gay Letter

By / Sep 24, 2013 (iStock/Thinkstock)

After a letter denouncing homosexuality appeared in its magazine, the American Society for Engineering Education found its own leadership publicly criticizing the piece’s publication.

The challenges in fostering diversity in organizations are never easy, and sometimes, views aren’t shared across the board by members.

The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) is learning this the hard way, after the publication of an anti-gay letter in Prism, its official magazine, drew criticism from members—as well as a mixed reaction from its own leadership. More details:

The controversy: In the controversial letter to the editor published in the September issue, Wayne Helmer, a professor at Arkansas Tech University, questioned whether all types of diversity should be supported and encouraged in the engineering world. In particular, he criticized homosexuality on religious grounds. “We would do well to teach the truth about the homosexual/lesbian/bisexual/transgender lifestyle,” Helmer wrote, according to a reprint of the letter posted by blogger and Drexel University professor Amy E. Slayton. “These dear people caught up in this destructive way of life need true help and true hope and not encouragement or approval of a detrimental, negative lifestyle. They deserve better than that. This is not God’s plan for their lives.” The letter prompted an outcry from LGBT and progressive websites as well as from educators like Slayton, who argued its publication highlights a lack of vigor in fighting for diversity in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

A public rebuke: In a press release that will appear in the October issue of Prism, three members of ASEE’s leadership—President Kenneth F. Galloway, President-Elect Nicholas J. Altiero, and Immediate Past President Walter W. Buchanan—denounced both the letter and the association’s decision to publish it. Helmer’s “specious mischaracterization of homosexuality is unsupported by any reputable literature,” they wrote. “Prof. Helmer is entitled to his religious beliefs. However, Prism is not an appropriate place for him to air his judgment of others based on those beliefs.” They asked the publication’s editor and publisher “to review with us policies used in deciding the appropriateness of this letter and work to ensure that Prism will not in the future consider such contributions.”

A defense: In an email to InsideHigherEd, ASEE Executive Director Norman L. Fortenberry defended the decision to publish the letter, saying it was based on several considerations, including that Helmer’s view was likely not unique and that the letter’s publication would foster discussion on the issue. But Fortenberry noted that the group should have added an editor’s note “observing that the views expressed were those of the author’s alone, noting that among other things, the ASEE Statement on Diversity calls for equality of opportunity, ‘regardless of gender, age, race, ethnic background, disability, sexual orientation, or national origin,’ and further noting that Professor Helmer’s views would appear to be at variance with this statement.”

Fortenberry conceded that most members who had contacted the organization about the letter felt it should not have been published.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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