Northwestern University Sex-Toy Incident is Protected Under Academic Freedom

Psychology Professor John Michael Bailey of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois on February 21, 2011 in his Human Sexuality course chose to present an optional class in which a woman was brought to orgasm by a motorised stimulant sex toy. The course topic is human sexuality. Its course objective or at least one of them is: It “will treat human sexuality as a subject for scientific inquiry.” The following points strongly suggest to me that the professor was well within his rights and that his actions fall clearly within the American Association of University Professors 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

1) The participants in the sex act were consenting adults and not students of the class. Faith Kroll and her fiance Jim Marcus volunteered for this “live sexual demonstration” in which Ms Kroll was naked as Mr Marcus activated the device. Other reports described him as her “boyfriend.” The participants were not coerced into this act or in any way threatened by the professor with any form of retaliation for refusal to participate. The participants to reiterate were not members of Dr Bailey’s class; that is a seminal point in countering any complaint of coercion or sexual harassment.

2) The demonstration was clearly related to the course material. It did not constitute controversial extraneous instruction unrelated to the class. AAUP encourages controversy in teaching but does caution against controversial pedagogy that is consistently unrelated to the course as defined in either a catalogue or a syllabus. Whether the action itself was of heuristic value for the educational mission of the class is not for the public or administration to determine. Professors have the right to determine content and pedagogy. It appears that the professor was exercising unusual but not unreasonable judgment in the specific area of advancing student knowledge related to course material.

3) The sexual orgiastic display was not a required component of the course. The incident was scheduled after the regularly scheduled class ended and students at Northwestern were free to exercise a decision to leave or stay. They were not ordered to ditch their next class if they were required to attend one. Students were not given extra credit for attending this event that would clearly have been discriminatory against those students who chose not to attend. No student was, therefore, morally compromised or academically compelled to witness an incident that may have been construed as provocative and inappropriate to some.

4) The American Association of University Professors 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure states, “the scholar has professional functions to perform in which the appointing authorities have neither competency nor moral right to intervene.” It is important that academic freedom be preserved in this incident. Any sanctions, any punishment or any retaliation against Professor Bailey would in my opinion, as vice president of the Illinois Conference of the American Association of University Professors and chair of its Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, merit investigation. While I do not speak for any organisation and do not claim to possess all of the facts of Professor Bailey’s optional after-class event,  I strongly defend his rights to teach his own course in his own name and determine whether this type of sexual demonstration advances the pursuit of truth in a course on sexual identity. Whether it is an action that other professors would emulate is beside the point. Whether it contradicts societal norms is beside the point. Whether it could be construed as sexism is debatable but nevertheless not grounds for pedagogic censorship.

The essence of this episode is that academic freedom exists to protect free inquiry and controversial teaching. It exists to defend the professoriate from conformist insistence upon middle class or puritannical mores and provide a safe haven from those who wish to impose their ideologies onto another’s classroom teaching.

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