Our View: The University should fully disclose the circumstances of Professor Schaffer’s dismissal to avert a PR disaster
Thurston Hall is perennially rumored to be among the nation’s most sexually promiscuous residence halls. It seems, however, that not everyone at GW subscribes to such liberal attitudes about intercourse as the freshman residents of Thurston.
Recently, the University cut ties with Michael Schaffer, a GW sex education professor, after 17 years of service. Schaffer said that he did not receive a valid reason for his dismissal, and was told to check his most recent set of course evaluations, which he said contained the threat of a lawsuit from one female student.
In addition, Schaffer said his department chair told him that the department is going in a different direction and may drop the course altogether. If the University is in fact going in a different direction, then it is going in the wrong direction. When a professor can galvanize excitement about a subject among his students – a rare feat at GW – a department should be looking for ways to expand the course, not cut it.
At this point, because GW has not fully disclosed the nature of his dismissal, the only allegations against Schaffer boil down to him talking explicitly and candidly about sex within the confines of a sex education class. This is a dangerous precedent to set. Censoring a professor due to the controversial nature of his or her subject substantially impugns academic freedom no matter if he or she is a sex education professor or a history professor.
Since the University refuses to comment, the general perception of the case is turning negative against GW. No matter what the realities of the case are, the perception of GW as an institution where academic freedom is hindered by a single student’s evaluation does not bode well for the University.
There may be other aspects of the case, however, which would clearly merit Schaffer’s dismissal. It is in GW’s interest to disclose those reasons as much as is legally possible before the media organizations, rumors and students without full knowledge of the situation shape the case in a manner negatively portraying the University’s actions. Outlets such as Inside Higher Ed and local Fox 5 news have already covered the story – stories by other organizations are coming. If University administrators can prove that Schaffer maliciously created a hostile environment in class or broke University codes in some way, it is in their best interest to do so.
Sex education can be an uncomfortable topic for many. It should provide young people with as much information as possible to make informed sexual choices.
In a University setting, classes are self-selecting. In order to teach a class of this kind, a professor has to be explicit. If students are unwilling or unable to handle this material, they should not take the class.
Professor Schaffer taught more than 4,500 students at GW in 17 years. It seems only fair that the University should provide a full accounting of the reasons for his dismissal. If Schaffer is guilty of violating policies or laws to warrant his dismissal, then good riddance to a no-longer-wanted faculty member. If, however, he was let go because of one student’s evaluation, GW has serious questions to answer about whether academic freedom and due process have a place at this University.