For 17 years Michael Schaffer taught GW students all the touchy details of human sexuality. It was his honesty that endeared him to hundreds of students, but that same candidness may have cost him his job.
In his time at GW, Schaffer taught more than 4,500 students in a class that is usually filled five minutes after course registration begins. But in July Schaffer was dismissed from GW, two months after a female student threatened in a spring 2005 course evaluation to file a sexual harassment suit against the now-former professor.
In her evaluation, which Schaffer provided to The Hatchet, the woman claimed that Schaffer “does not teach, but reads extremely sexual student responses (to take-home papers), repeatedly hands out condoms, (and) shows naked pictures and videos.” She criticized a class discussion on pubic hair, and went on to say that Schaffer should be fired from the school.
Schaffer, who describes himself as a “popular” teacher, said the department of exercise science hasn’t given him the opportunity to defend himself against the allegations.
“Never before have I had a student that was so unhappy with my teaching,” Schaffer said. “The overwhelming comments on my evaluations were ‘this is the best course I’ve ever had.'”
Schaffer said Patricia Sullivan, acting chair of the exercise science department, told him that he was not fired; rather, the department declined to renew his contract. But Schaffer also said that when asked why his contract was not renewed, Sullivan replied, “check your student evaluations.”
Schaffer said that after he visited with Sullivan to go over his spring 2005 evaluations, the majority of which he called “glowing,” Sullivan told him that his contract was not renewed because “the department is going in a different direction, and may even drop the course entirely.” But the School of Public Health and Health Services still offers three sections of the Human Sexuality course that Schaffer introduced to GW 15 years ago. Linda Campanelli, who teaches two sections of the class, said she had no knowledge of why Schaffer was fired. Tracy Schario, GW’s director of media relations, would not comment on the situation.
Sullivan refused to comment on Schaffer’s dismissal to The Hatchet. Ruth Katz, dean of the School of Public Health and Health Services, which offers the human sexuality course, also refused to comment for the article, based on the issue’s “confidential nature.” It is not known whether a sexual harassment suit has been filed against Schaffer or the University, but Schario said that to her knowledge, the student has not filed suit.
Schaffer said he was “blown away” by the scathing evaluation that called him “disgusting and demeaning to women.” In a course that covers everything from the anatomy of the human reproductive system to masturbation and homosexuality, Schaffer said he “tends to be very honest” with his students.
“I will respond to any question,” he said in an interview earlier this month. “We can and did talk about anything.”
But some students said they could understand why a student would complain about the class.
“He might say things that are borderline inappropriate or something that you wouldn’t expect a professor to comment on,” alumnus C.J. Chido said.
2005 graduate Helly Schtevie said that although she thought human sexuality was one of the most fun classes she took at GW, some of her female classmates felt uncomfortable when Schaffer asked to see them after class to discuss their personal essays.
“If you have more conservative ideas about the world,” Schtieve said, “you might be uncomfortable about the way he talked.”
Schaffer defended his teaching methods, which include reading portions of student papers in class and showing a video of a male and female masturbating to orgasm.
“It’s all true,” Schaffer said of the woman’s criticisms. “I did talk about pubic hair in response to someone’s paper, and I show pictures of naked people to show what real bodies look like.”
“Students have said they enjoy hearing other peoples’ papers,” he said. “It makes them feel normal to hear that they’re not the only person who thinks like that (about human sexuality).”
And it’s that open connection with students that has caused many of them to contact Sullivan in Schaffer’s defense. Frustrated with the loss of his job, Schaffer e-mailed his former students to let them know he would no longer be teaching at GW, and asked them to e-mail Sullivan in protest.
“I am extremely upset at the thought of you firing professor Schaffer,” senior Noah Rothstein wrote in an e-mail to Sullivan, which was provided by Schaffer. “There must be an understanding that when taking sex education at the collegiate level, the class will delve into awkward and often uncomfortable sexual topics in order to help raise understanding and awareness so one can lead a more sexually safe life.”
“I understand GW has a need to cover their behinds and have long seen money come before education at this school, but firing professor Schaffer is a disservice to every student who would have taken his class in the future,” Rothstein said.
Several students told Sullivan that Schaffer’s course was so informative they would like to see it replace the Columbian College of Arts and Science’s mandatory freshman advising workshop.
“As a female it never crossed my mind to feel uncomfortable around Professor Schaffer. I would often stay after class to ask personal questions,” alumna Lucy Pear wrote in an e-mail to Sullivan, which was provided by Schaffer.
Schaffer said despite his protests, he is becoming resigned to the fact that he may never teach at GW again. He added that he’s begun looking for part-time teaching positions at other area universities, but would like to meet with University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg to discuss his situation.
“I would jump at the chance (to work at GW again),” Schaffer, who has a full-time job at the Prince George’s County Public Schools’ Department of Human Resources, said. “I really, really enjoyed it. It’s what I was excited to do.”