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

February 22, 2008

In a press release today, FIRE reports that the San José/Evergreen Community College District (SJCC) 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 district removed Professor June Sheldon from the seniority rehire preference list, withdrew its offer to her to teach courses in the spring semester, and terminated her without a proper hearing. She contacted FIRE for help.

In her Summer 2007 Human Heredity course, Sheldon led a brief discussion—for about five minutes—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. All four faculty members agreed that the nature/nurture question was complex, but Martin then asked them whether it was true that there were "no true female homosexuals." When three of them said, as one might expect, that such a statement is false, Martin decided that this was enough to declare that Sheldon had been teaching "misinformation" as science.

The problem is that Sheldon does not believe, and insists that she never said, that there are "no true female homosexuals." According to Sheldon, a student asked her about Günter Dörner’s research, and she explained what she knew about how Dörner’s research applied to the topic. Some persons who have received the press release have pointed out differences between what the student alleges Sheldon discussed, what the dean alleges she discussed, and what we report Sheldon herself (based on Sheldon’s own account) and her class discussed. It is important to note that Sheldon denies having said most of what is contained in the other allegations by the students and the dean, especially the most egregious allegations, and has said to me that she would not say such things because she does not believe them. Describing Dörner’s research or views is not the same as presenting one’s own views.

In any case, Martin apparently did not ask the other faculty what they thought about those other allegations. Martin had what she seems to have wanted—faculty denial of a false statement that Martin had attributed to Sheldon.

FIRE does not rule on what counts as science and what does not count as science. And I think it is still an open question whether a public college should be able to control the content of what a professor teaches about a controversial topic. But when an investigation is as flawed as Dean Martin’s was, I have no qualms about declaring that the academic freedom of a professor has been violated. To me, it looks like another case where, armed with a single student complaint, an overzealous administrator runs straight ahead without looking back.