A college professor holds up a picture showing a priest holding a crucifix on one side, and a toilet on the other side. Between the two images is an equal sign.
“What does this mean?” he asks his audience.
Someone quickly yells, “They’re both full of shit!”
The audience laughs; and the professor gleefully strolls around the classroom, repeating the refrain.
* * * *
Does this bother you?
Well, it bothers the Catholic League; and it bothers me.
I’m bothered on two counts: because the exercise is truly blasphemous and disrespectful of the Catholic faith and of all the Catholics seated in the room; and because such cheap stunts have so often replaced higher academic discourse in contemporary education.
I’ve got to hand it to Bill Donohue, the Catholic League’s feisty founder, for defending the Catholic faith from contemptuous professors like this one.
On September 27, Professor Timothy Weil, practicum coordinator and professor of behavioral sciences at the University of South Florida, flashed the controversial poster as part of a presentation to the Florida Association for Behavioral Analysis, which was meeting in Daytona Beach. Weil has insisted that no harm was intended, and that his exercise was misinterpreted. The Tampa Tribune quoted his email response to an attendee who protested. Weil wrote:
“It seems the purpose of the exercise may have been missed. It was an attempt to show that through language, we are able to relate a wide variety of things that we come across in daily life — even those things that have seemingly no link such as the two pictures that I had on the screen. Please know I had no goal of a preferred response on the part of the audience … I only needed to present stimuli that were seemingly mis-matched to make the point about how we are able to relate arbitrary stimuli without much effort.”
Is that what he meant at the time, or is the crafty professor trying to do damage control, as USF investigates the matter?
Weil went on to explain that the exercise revealed more about the learning history of those who respond, than it does about the presenter. Some people, he said,
“…responded positively to the priest and toilet bowl images—saying both help people, for example”
and that he could not, as presenter, be blamed for the person who responded with the profanity.
But consider this: Instead of a Catholic priest, imagine on the left side of the poster one of the following:
- An African-American
- A Muslim
- A Jewish rabbi
In any of those cases, the drawing would have been deemed offensive and you would probably have found the classroom exercise to be transparently discriminatory.
And you would have been right. There exists a creative tension between academic freedom and the respect due to individuals and groups; but it is unacceptable to make an unfavorable inference about one of the bulleted groups above (to even speak the “N” word, for example, or to pair a black face in a drawing with a hangman’s noose).
Catholics, likewise, deserve respect in the public square, and an offense deemed politically incorrect deserves a review and a warning by university officials. If it’s wrong for statist governments like Nazi Germany or Communist Russia to have co-opted the classroom with their political propaganda, it’s also wrong for left-leaning professors to demand that the university provide a platform for their rants, and that captive students embrace their skewed narrative.
The Tampa Tribune, in its report looked back on two other complaints against institutions of higher education in the state of Florida, one at USF and the other at Florida Atlantic University:
Universities are accustomed to dealing with conflicts between academics and religious or ideological advocates and typically give educators leeway in the name of academic freedom.
Earlier this year, a professor at Boca Raton-based Florida Atlantic University was placed on administrative leave but then had his contract renewed after leading an exercise in which students were asked to write the name “Jesus” on a piece of paper, put it on the floor, and stomp on it.
The exercise was meant to address the importance of symbols in culture.
In 2010, USF raised the ire of the Florida Family Association when the group learned a drag performer would appear in a class called Queer Theory. USF administration supported the professor.
UPDATE: I’ve just received the following response to my request for comment. Although I had directed my email to Professor Weil, the response came from the department’s dean, Dr. Julianne Serovich. I’m predicting that as in the case of the drag performer I noted above, Dr. Weil will be defended and protected by the university, and no action will be taken. I’ll keep you posted.
Here is the content of the university’s response:
Thank you for contacting the University of South Florida with your concerns. The university is reviewing the incident that has been brought to our attention. The University of South Florida will be responding directly to the individuals concerned in the near future and will be sharing the outcome with the Catholic League. In advance of the response, USF takes such concerns seriously. At the same time, USF affirms the principles of academic freedom, which include the freedom to discuss all relevant matters in an educational context, to explore all avenues of scholarship, research and creative expression. On the part of our faculty, the exercise of academic freedom comes with responsibility and should be consistent with USF’s values of respect, integrity, civility and collegiality.
Dr. Julianne Serovich
Professor and Dean
College of Behavioral and Community Sciences