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Lower Education

Sex toys and academic freedom at Northwestern.

Mar 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 26 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Northwestern University, the school at which I taught for 30 years, has been visited by a delicious little scandal. A tenured professor, teaching a heavily attended undergraduate course on human sexuality, decided to bring in a woman, who, with the aid of what was euphemistically called “a sex toy” (uneuphemistically, it appears to have been an electric dildo), attempted to achieve a climax in the presence of the students. The professor alerted his students about this extraordinary show-and-tell session, and made clear that attendance was voluntary. The standard account has it that 120 or so of the 622 students enrolled in the course showed up. Questions about what they had witnessed, the professor punctiliously noted, would not be on the exam. 

The professor, J. Michael Bailey, is a man with a reputation for specializing in the outré. (Northwestern ought perhaps to consider itself fortunate that he didn’t teach a course in Aztec history, or he might have offered a demonstration of human sacrifice.) The word got out about the demonstration he had arranged, journalists quickly got on the case, and Northwestern found itself hugely embarrassed, its officials concerned lest parents think it was offering, at roughly $45,000 a year, the educational equivalent of a stag party. 

The president of Northwestern, a man named Morton Schapiro, issued what might be termed Standard Response #763; every contemporary university president has a thousand or so of these equivocal responses in the kit that comes with the job. This one read:

I have recently learned of the after-class activity associated with Prof. Michael Bailey’s Human Sexuality class, and I am troubled and disappointed by what occurred.

Although the incident took place in an after-class session that students were not required to attend and students were advised in advance, several times, of the explicit nature of the activity, I feel it represented extremely poor judgment on the part of our faculty member. I simply do not believe this was appropriate, necessary or in keeping with Northwestern University’s academic mission.

Northwestern faculty members engage in teaching and research on a wide variety of topics, some of them controversial. That is the nature of a university. However, in this instance, I have directed that we investigate fully the specifics of this incident, and also clarify what constitutes appropriate pedagogy, both in this instance and in the future.

Many members of the Northwestern community are disturbed by what took place on our campus. So am I.

I have never met President Schapiro, but I have begun to establish a relationship with him. This relationship may be compared to that of a tsetse fly with a white settler in the Congo. As an emeritus faculty member, I have decided, without waiting to be asked, to be a pest. When, for example, a month or so ago it was announced that Northwestern had selected Stephen Colbert for this year’s commencement speaker, I sent President Schapiro the following email: 

I was a touch saddened, though not greatly surprised, to discover that you have chosen Stephen Colbert as this year’s commencement speaker. In this you follow the low tradition of choosing commencement speakers from television journalism, show business, and minor celebrity. I know Mr. Colbert is a Northwestern graduate, and I am sure he will prove, in the cant phrase, a fun speaker. But the choice of Stephen Colbert is pure public relations, and not in any way an educational choice. I’m not sure you will grasp this, but I thought it worth mentioning.

President Schapiro wrote back to assure me that he had grasped my meaning and also to predict that the graduating students would arise from Mr. Colbert’s talk “inspired.” I replied, “I’m sure that Stephen Colbert will be every bit as inspiring as Julia Louis-Dreyfus was three or four years ago or as Diane Sawyer will be next year,” and promised not to write to him soon again. 

The current scandal over Professor Bailey’s sex demonstration caused me to break my promise. Rosinante to the road again, I mounted my computer and tapped out the following: “I have just read your statement on what we may now term the Michael Bailey Dildo Scandal. I would have liked it a bit better if you’d added a final sentence, which read: ‘And so I have decided to have Professor Bailey castrated, the schmuck deserves no less.’ .  .  . Isn’t the faculty lots of fun?” President Schapiro, who gets high marks for equanimity, wrote back: “Never a dull moment.” And not many enlightening ones, either, I thought to answer but did not. 

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