Editorial: University must not limit Bailey’s academic freedom

Since The Daily published a story Wednesday about an optional after-class sex toy demonstration in psychology Prof. John Michael Bailey’s Human Sexuality course, a media firestorm has descended upon Northwestern. On Thursday, the University announced it is launching an investigation into the incident, and President Morton Schapiro said Bailey exhibited “extremely poor judgment” in choosing to show the demonstration.

The Daily does not feel the need to comment on whether or not the administration should be defending Bailey’s work in the media. Right or not, Schapiro was completely within his right to issue a critical statement and the University has every right to launch an investigation into Bailey’s demonstration.

But that is where its authority over the class must end. NU should not be allowed to dictate what Bailey or any University professor teach in their classrooms. Once an established member of the faculty, professors must be able to control what they do in academic settings. Judgment calls about what’s educational and appropriate for students fall solely within the discretion of professors, not of students, parents or administrators.

Many students and alumni seem to be expressing widely varying opinions about whether the demonstration had an legitimate educational purpose or whether Bailey erred in approving the demonstration. The Daily, again, will not engage in that debate. What’s important here is that Bailey felt it was educational (because it advanced his students’ understanding of sexual diversity, a central theme of the course), and he made a legitimate case.

Beyond that, he should have the academic freedom to determine what he teaches on his syllabus. One of the best parts of any university is its ability expose students to new perspectives and force them to push their limits. For that dynamic to work, NU professors must have the power to exercise academic freedom and teach even the most controversial viewpoints in their research fields. Personal morals shouldn’t affect the decisions professors make within the classroom. NU is a private research institution, and students have the option of taking a wide variety of classes. In this case, they also were warned of the nature of the demonstration and had repeated opportunities to leave the room if they chose.

Even if Schapiro and the rest of the administration believe Bailey erred in judgment with the sex toy demonstration, they should not take action against the professor. The University can publicly criticize Bailey and even warn students against taking Human Sex if they are sensitive to the explicit nature of the after-class speakers. But to allow the University to limit the material Bailey teaches in his own classroom sets a dangerous precedent of administrative control.

If NU censured Bailey or prevented him from repeating the demonstration in future Human Sexuality classes, it would possibly deter qualified professors and students from coming to this institution. While most professors aren’t planning to stage live sex shows during their classes, the idea that a university administration can monitor what professors teach in the classroom may be enough to deter some professors from working at NU. Faculty aside, some prospective students would also refuse to attend a university where professors were restricted in what they are allowed to teach.

That hypothetical outcome, not potential harm to students who freely chose to attend the demonstration, presents the worst possible repercussions of this incident.

Full disclosure: Two members of The Daily’s editorial board are current students in Human Sexuality.