On November 16, 2021, Old Dominion University (ODU) placed Allyn Walker, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology, on administrative leave following public pressure and threats directed at Walker in response to their scholarship. Walker eventually announced in a joint statement with ODU that they would resign from their position upon completion of their contract in May 2022 and would remain on leave until then.
Walker’s research, and in particular, their book, A Long Dark Shadow: Minor-Attracted People and Their Pursuit of Dignity, focuses on individuals who are attracted to minors – referred to by Walker as minor-attracted people, or MAPs. Walker argues that there is a moral distinction between non-offending MAPs and sexual predators that act on their attraction to minors, and explores measures that can be taken to prevent the sexual abuse of children.
In an interview posted to YouTube on November 8, Walker spoke with the Prostasia Foundation, an organization focused on protecting children from sexual abuse. During the interview, they discussed their work and advocated for the use of the “MAP” label over the term “pedophile.” According to Inside Higher Ed, the interview quickly sparked public controversy within and beyond ODU, with critics claiming that Walker was “taking a weak stance against pedophilia or even endorsing it.” Students and others launched several petitions demanding that the university dismiss or discipline Walker. Speaking with Inside Higher Ed, Skye Stephens, an associate professor of psychology in Canada who also studies prevention of child sexual abuse, stated that Walker’s work and terminology are consistent with that of other experts in the field. Numerous threats were also made against Walker and the campus community; some of the threats against Walker referenced their trans identity. ODU announced on November 16 that it had placed Walker on administrative leave, citing concerns for Walker’s safety and unspecified claims that the controversy “disrupted the campus and community environment” and “interfer[ed] with the institution’s mission of teaching and learning.”
On November 24, ODU and Walker released a joint statement announcing Walker’s resignation. In the statement, Walker thanked the university for monitoring the threats against them and for giving them the opportunity to do their research. They also stated that their work was dedicated to preventing child sexual abuse and had been “mischaracterized by some in the media and online, partly because of [their] trans identity.” Meanwhile, the university’s president, Brian Hemphill, stated that the resignation was the best path forward for the safety of everyone on campus and described Old Dominion University as a “caring, inclusive, and supportive community, one that respects academic freedom and remains willing to discuss controversial ideas in an atmosphere free of intimidation or violence.”
However, some ODU faculty and external groups and experts argue that ODU did not do enough to protect Walker or to emphasize the value of and right to pursue academic work on sensitive and controversial material. In a public statement, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education stated that ODU “capitulated to the loudest, angriest voices and gave hecklers a veto over what faculty can research, publish, or say.”
Scholars at Risk is concerned by external pressure, harassment, and threats directed at a scholar for their responsible exercise of academic freedom, as well as an order to place them on administrative leave, followed by their resignation. While higher education officials should take steps to ensure the safety and security of faculty, they must refrain from taking actions that restrict or retaliate against the responsible exercise of academic freedom and ensure that their actions are consistent with international standards relating to academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and other core higher education values. Restricting a scholar’s teaching responsibilities in response to external pressures over academic activity, even when purported to ensure their safety, may violate that scholar’s academic freedom and may have the appearance of legitimizing those who apply pressure, undermining everyone’s right to academic freedom. Higher education officials should publicly defend academic freedom and institutional autonomy. Faculty, students, and civil society members likewise should respect academic freedom, including by refraining from harassment, threats, and other coercive actions intended to chill and/or punish academic expression. University administrative or disciplinary actions that retaliate — or give the appearance of retaliation — against scholars’ academic activity, especially when in response to external pressure, undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.