College prof fired over homosexuality nature-nurture discussion
Dr. Warren ThrockmortonDr. Warren Throckmorton's Weblog
- 2008 Jul 22
The case of the San Jose/Evergreen Community College firing of June Sheldon is raising some eyebrows among academics, liberal and conservative . Here is the media version:
The controversy centers on an incident in June 2007, when Sheldon was asked by a student in a human heredity class about heredity’s impact on “homosexual behavior in males and females.” Among other references, Sheldon noted a German study demonstrating some link between maternal stress and homosexual behavior in males, according to the lawsuit.
After a student complained, college officials investigated and dismissed Sheldon, an adjunct professor at the school since January 2004. Court papers say the student expressed concern that Sheldon’s response was “offensive and unscientific.”
In the lawsuit and in a letter sent to the college district’s board of trustees, Sheldon, a veteran biology instructor, maintains she was simply providing students with an exchange on the “nature vs. nurture” aspect of sexual orientation. While acknowledging she was offering views that may have been controversial, Sheldon argues that it was relevant to the course work and part of important classroom dialogue.
“The textbook itself points out that the causes of homosexual behavior are a subject of debate in the scientific community,” said David Hacker, Sheldon’s lawyer. “This teacher did nothing more than explain this fact.”
The Foundation of Individual Rights in Education has taken on the issue and has a lengthy description of the case as well.
A biology professor, P.Z. Myers, who describes himself as a “godless liberal,” blogs about this at Pharyngula. He casts a somewhat skeptical eye on the complaint and makes some good points in the process. He provides links to relevant documents for those interested.
Coincidentally, this past week, I was researching for my book by reading Lisa Diamond’s new book Sexual Fluidity. By the way, this is an excellent book with a wonderful description of her research. On page 39, the maternal stress hypothesis is mentioned:
Another line of research on the neuroendocrine theory concerns male children born to mothers who were exposed to extremely high levels of stress during pregnancy. Animal research has found that such experiences can affect sexual differentiation in utero through a delay of the testosterone surge that influences brain masculinization.
Here she cites two studies, one led by Michael Bailey and the other by Lee Ellis, along with a review of biological studies with Brian Mustanski as the first author. In her account, professor Sheldon was citing Dorner’s work on hormones and brain differentiation. However, I suspect when this goes to trial, page 39 of Diamond’s book might also be presented in the court room.
Given what I have read regarding this situation, I like Sheldon’s chances in court. Professors present controversial material about subjects daily. Some (much?) of that material we do not agree with but present to help students become aware of the field as it is.