Community College Fires Professor for Discussing ‘Nature versus Nurture’ in Classroom

By February 22, 2008

SAN JOSÉ, Calif., February 22, 2008A community college in California has fired a professor for leading a brief discussion on the controversial “nature versus nurture” debate regarding sexual orientation during her Human Heredity course. After a student complained that the discussion had been “offensive,” the San José/Evergreen Community College District (SJCC) terminated Professor June Sheldon without a proper hearing. She contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.

“SJCC has violated its constitutional obligations and its own promises of academic freedom by summarily dismissing a professor for engaging in clearly protected classroom speech,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “A professor has every right to discuss controversial material that is germane to the subject matter of the class, and firing Professor Sheldon for doing so is an egregious violation of her rights.”

In her Summer 2007 Human Heredity course, Sheldon led a brief discussion on sexual orientation, a topic covered in the course readings. About a month later, a student complained that the lecture was “offensive and unscientific,” which prompted Dean of Mathematics and Science Leandra Martin to launch an investigation into Sheldon’s comments by surveying other science faculty about the state of the nature/nurture debate among experts.

In the class discussion, Sheldon noted that the nature/nurture question was complex. She said that from the nurture point of view, fathers who wanted heterosexual sons might choose to treat their wives with courtesy. She also argued that from the nurture point of view, a theoretical possibility is that some women might have chosen lesbian relationships after having had bad heterosexual relationships.

All of the faculty members interviewed by Martin agreed that the nature/nurture question was complex. Martin, however, concluded that Sheldon was teaching non-scientific material as science and punished her by withdrawing SJCC’s offer for her to teach further courses. On December 18, 2007, SJCC Vice Chancellor of Human Resources Anita Morris wrote Sheldon a termination letter, citing the protected and relevant statements she made in class. In a statement submitted in her defense, Sheldon addressed the student’s allegations and demonstrated the failures of due process in her case.

FIRE wrote to former SJCC Board of Trustees President Richard K. Tanaka on February 6, 2008, asking that the finding against Sheldon be reversed, the punishment of termination be withdrawn, and that SJCC assure its faculty that it would never punish a faculty member for exercising her right to academic freedom. SJCC has not responded. However, at a hearing on February 12, the SJCC Board of Trustees upheld Sheldon’s termination. The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) and Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) assisted in Sheldon’s defense.

“SJCC has failed to safeguard the basic rights of a member of its faculty,” Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, said. “Using the pretext that Sheldon was not teaching ‘science,’ SJCC has unconstitutionally declared which points of view must be taught regarding the nature versus nurture debate.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at San José/Evergreen Community College District and at campuses nationwide can be viewed at thefire.org.

CONTACT:

Adam Kissel, Director, Individual Rights Defense Program, FIRE: 215-717-3473; adam@thefire.org
Randy Okamura, President, San José/Evergreen Community College District Board of Trustees: 408-276-6700; info@sjeccd.org
Rosa Pérez, Chancellor, San José/Evergreen Community College District: 408-274-6700 ext. 6402; rosa.perez@sjeccd.org

Schools: San Jose City College