By all accounts, Gerald Hannon is a very good teacher. His freelance- writing class at Toronto's Ryerson Polytechnic University is popular and his classroom methods are highly regarded by students and colleagues. He is an acknowledged craftsman with a gift for inspiring others.
His private life is another matter. Outside the classroom, Mr. Hannon has argued (in this newspaper, among other places) that consenting sexual intercourse between adults and minors can be acceptable. He has also supplemented his professorial income by selling sexual favours to other men through newspaper advertisements.
In recent weeks, Mr. Hannon's personal life has crashed headlong into his academic career. Or, rather, it has been driven, since there is no substantial connection between the two. His nocturnal activities and social opinions do not figure in his teaching, except as passing examples in wide-ranging discussions of "controversy in journalism." There is nothing unlawful about either his avocation ("escort" prostitution is legal in Canada) or the expression of his opinions (which is protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms). He has not contravened the terms of his contract with Ryerson. His students do not find him offensive. He is not teaching children.
Why, then, are some people calling for his dismissal?
On one hand, Mr. Hannon's opponents warn that young minds will be poisoned by exposure to a man who holds such broadly unacceptable views. Most university students will beg to differ: extreme opinions are a vital ingredient in the rich diet of higher education, and Mr. Hannon has little chance of shocking a young adult on a campus only metres away from the Yonge Street sex strip. He is not a James Keegstra, offering his bizarre opinions as the only version of the truth to unsuspecting children. He is not teaching his opinions. He is not teaching children.
This must be a humiliating time for postsecondary students, who have recently been imbued with a crystalline fragility. Twenty years ago, some people feared that undergraduates were harbouring dangerous opinions and ideologies. Ten years ago, some began to worry that students might be exposed to the unacceptable opinions of others, that codes should be written to keep professors from saying the wrong things. Now the inversion is complete: students should not be exposed to people who hold unacceptable opinions, lest their aura rub off.
This brings us to the deeper, more serious charge: that Mr. Hannon is an offensive man who should not be rewarded with a position in public life. The merit of his teaching, in other words, has been rendered void by the incendiary blush of his character. It is the same reasoning used by Canadian school boards, as recently as a decade ago, to justify the firing of teachers who were (or who had married) divorcees. One's private life becomes the gauge of one's public accomplishments. If this is our standard, then perhaps we ought to seek out those academics who have purchased the services of Mr. Hannon and his escort-service peers - a far larger group to hound out of the classroom.
Mr. Hannon is a man of ethics - not everybody's ethics, but consistent ethics nonetheless - and sees no reason to hide his private identity. If his detractors are successful, hiding will be the only option left for those with controversial views.