Students should know when to leave

March 24, 1995|By Michael R. H. Owens

CRAIG ROGERS needs to practice getting up and leaving the room. Of course, if he had done that last December he wouldn't be charging Sacramento (Calif.) State University and one of its professors with sexual harassment.

According to a $2.5 million complaint he filed, Mr. Rogers was sexually harassed by a guest lecturer in a psychology class. A lecture on female sexuality, which included a discussion of masturbation and pictures of female genitals, left the 33-year-old undergraduate feeling "raped and trapped," despite the fact that the guest lecturer, Joanne Marrow, warned students before the lecture began to leave if they would be offended by the nature of the material. Mr. Rogers, who has since graduated with a degree in psychology, walked out briefly. He then returned to the class and sat through the rest of the lecture. Afterward he went to see his pastor, who referred him to Kathleen Smith, who is now Mr. Rogers' attorney.

The professor in question is no stranger to controversy. A strong supporter of the Women's Studies movement, Ms. Marrow is a tenured professor who has taught various aspects of psychology at the college since 1974. Her areas of specialization include human sexuality and the psychology of women, and she is currently writing a book on female sexuality. She is also a lesbian who plays an active role in the gay community.

It is this last fact, and the role it may have played in her lecture, that the multi-million-dollar complaint seems to be about. Mr. Rogers claims that the professor's "male-bashing" was an attempt to impose "a certain type of lifestyle" on the students. Despite Mr. Rogers' description of himself as a "Christian" and of the professor as "immoral," his lawyer is quick to state that the complaint has nothing to do with Mr. Rogers' strong religious background. His lawyer further claims the professor's material, and her comments regarding it, are a direct violation of the university's sexual harassment code. Under this code, statements or pictures that are "sexually explicit" and create a "hostile, offensive or otherwise adverse" environment are prohibited.

Whether pictures of female anatomy, shown expressly for the purpose of illustrating physical characteristics, can be considered pornographic is highly questionable. What can be said with certainty is that some people, like Craig Rogers, will be offended by them. Which is precisely why students should be informed of the content of lectures and given the opportunity to leave, as they were in this case. By not exempting Mr. Rogers from five questions on the final exam on material covered in that lecture, did the university in effect force him to sit through the class? Of course not. No more than the university forced him to take the course in the first place or even enroll in the college.

The real issue is not the course or even the subject matter. According to Mr. Rogers' attorney, the subjects discussed by Professor Marrow are not in themselves offensive. If the professor had "just presented the facts and her research, that would have been fine." What offended Mr. Rogers, and what his lawyer is calling sexual harassment and an abuse of academic freedom, are the professor's conclusions and the ways in which she interpreted the data.

But that's what academic freedom is all about: Having the freedom in an academic setting to study an issue in depth, come to some conclusions, interpret data and present those findings in lectures and in written form for discussion and enlightenment.

If Mr. Rogers disagreed and was offended, he should have exercised his own academic freedom by raising his hand and responding -- or by simply getting up and leaving the room.

Michael R. H. Owens, a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, is currently a student at Towson State University.

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