The Hartford Courant reports:
A colorful University of Connecticut law professor has been asked to take a leave of absence for showing a film clip of a thong-clad woman dancing suggestively and for also raising provocative questions about slavery during a class.
The situation pits academic freedom against efforts to foster an inclusive, welcoming campus.
Robert L. Birmingham, known as a provocative lecturer and iconoclastic thinker, agreed to leave for the rest of the semester after he showed a clip from a film called "Really, Really Pimpin' in Da South" during class on Sept. 21, said law school Dean Jeremy Paul.
The film features an interview with a pimp who was convicted in a court case called U.S. v. Pipkins that the class was studying in Birmingham's "Remedies" course. At the end of the tape, the camera switches from the pimp to "scantily clad women in a sexually suggestive pose," Paul said. At that point, Birmingham pressed the button to freeze the film, upsetting some students.
Later that day, students in Birmingham's class on the Nuremberg trials asked to see the same film. Birmingham obliged and stopped the film at the same point again, Paul said.
Before showing the film clip in the "Remedies" class, Birmingham reportedly posed the question of whether African Americans had it better as slaves in the U.S. than their counterparts in West Africa, Paul said. Others in the class offered a slightly different version of the issue, claiming that Birmingham asked whether the descendants of slaves today are better off than their contemporaries in West Africa.
After word about the film ballooned into a campuswide issue, Paul said he sensed that the Hartford-based school needed a cooling-off period. So he asked Birmingham to consider taking the leave and asked him to apologize to the class. Paul then held a forum Sept. 24 for students to air their views and to ask questions. Paul said he was investigating the incident further....
Professors should teach effectively, and in ways that avoid needlessly alienating students; and administrations should have some latitude to make sure of this. Professors' freedom in the classroom, it seems to me, can't be the same as their freedom in their scholarship or in their public commentary. Among other things, for instance, an administration should be free to insist that a professor teach a particular subject matter, avoid needlessly personally insulting individual students, avoid bringing up personal political views that are unrelated to the class subject matter, and the like.
Yet the typical way of dealing with this should generally be through friendly advice from the administration. (Such advice might be proper even where prohibition is not; for instance, it might be proper to advise teachers that bringing in some particular controversial material might be unduly distracting and thus pedagogically ineffective, even if the administration shouldn't prohibit such material.) In some situations, some requirements going forward might be proper, though they should be as clear and narrow as possible. It's possible, depending on the factual circumstances, that some such reaction by the school might be proper in this case.
But a half-semester-long leave of absence over these two incidents strikes me as a vast overreaction. It sends a message to teachers that they had best avoid any controversial material, or any material in which some slight slip might raise hackles. It sends a message to students that the way to deal with offensive speech is by administrative punishment and not by disagreement and remonstrance. And it encourages a culture of complaint and outrage, rather than of discussion and negotiation.
Finally, I realize that the university wants to make sure that the teacher remains effective for this class, and might be worried that he's alienated students to the point that this isn't so. But such alienation is not some fixed constraint that's outside the university's power. My sense is that when universities take the view that an apology is enough (and here the professor did seem willing to apologize) and explain that sometimes these missteps happen, most students will be, and should be, willing to accept this and to continue learning from the professor.
Thanks to Prof. Jim Hu for the pointer.