Human Sexuality class cancellation prompts 70 academics to send letter to Schapiro

Patrick Svitek

A letter imploring Northwestern administrators to restore Human Sexuality next academic year signed by 70 academic professionals was delivered to University President Morton Schapiro on Thursday afternoon.

A copy of the letter, which includes signee affiliations ranging from Harvard Medical School to the San Francisco-based Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, was also sent to The Daily by one of its two drafters, Emory University psychology Prof. Kim Wallen. The letter’s other author, “Human Sexuality” textbook author Simon LeVay, vowed earlier this week he would organize dissent against NU’s decision not to offer Prof. John Michael Bailey’s popular Human Sexuality course during the 2011-12 school year.

“We urge you to reconsider your decision and to reinstate this class, for the sake not only of Prof. Bailey and the students who wish to take the class, but also as an acknowledgment that Human Sexuality is a worthy and important facet of the educational experience at Northwestern,” the letter concludes.

Wallen said the class’s dismissal strikes him as a “case where there’s been overreaching” – especially because the final verdict to scrub the course bypassed departmental input. He also noted the “whole procedure seems inappropriate” from the standpoint of psychology professors outside the NU community.

“There’s great concern about academic freedom, and I know that’s a difficult issue,” Wallen said. “This case seems pretty clear cut.”

And 69 other college-level educators and sexuality experts apparently agree, according to the letter’s signature list. Wallen said he gathered signees via Bailey’s SEXNET email list Wednesday night.

Two server members explicitly refused to lend their support to the petition, he added.

But pro-Bailey sentiment definitely outweighed academics’ reservations about indirectly endorsing Bailey’s February sex toy demonstration that drew national media attention, LeVay said Thursday. The letter specifies that included signees “do not take a position” on the appropriateness of that controversial incident.

“The emails are still coming in,” LeVay said. “Feelings run pretty strong about this.”

He added the primary grievance of the letter is that canceling a sexuality course is a form of “disrespecting the subject,” or denigrating its academic credibility. The letter notes “nothing could be farther from the truth” than characterizing Human Sexuality as a dispensable topic.

It also acknowledges that such judgments are tough calls for any university – sensitive decisions that, if reversed, LeVay thinks could open the floodgates in the other direction.

“I hope he would reconsider the decision and change his mind,” he said in reference to receiving a response from Schapiro. “If he changes his mind – which I hope he will – he’ll face another barrage, this time from the other side.”

University spokesman Al Cubbage said he had no comment on the letter when contacted Thursday afternoon.

[email protected]