Sexuality class gives Loyola teacher an unwanted image Changing Course

April 17, 1995|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Sun Staff Writer

If 1992 was Charles LoPresto's favorite year -- the exhilarating time when students voted him their most distinguished teacher, and he rode that adrenalin high for the semester -- then 1995 has felt like its evil twin.

This year he's watched his image being remade. Loyola College's beloved associate professor of psychology has become, in the minds of some, the teacher of pornography, promoter of masturbation, blasphemer of the Catholic faith.

The crux of the issue? His human sexuality course. Two months ago, a group of students called the seminar -- with its frank discussions and explicit videos -- "detrimental to the soul of our college." In a full-page ad in the school newspaper, they requested the noncredit class be discontinued. The forums and rallies that followed rocked the Jesuit campus in North Baltimore, making national headlines and embarrassing the archdiocese.

Although a school committee has ruled the seminar will continue, it is still debating in what form.

And David Roswell, dean of Arts and Sciences, says he doesn't believe the controversy has hurt Dr. LoPresto's image with students or faculty. "He's highly regarded and certainly well liked," he says.

But whatever the outcome for the course or the effect on his own image, the conflict has had a profound effect on Dr. LoPresto.

Though his tenured position at Loyola was never really in danger, something just as important was at stake: his reputation.

"In my entire teaching career, whenever I've talked about sex, my intention was not to titillate," says Dr. LoPresto, 48, who lives in Towson. "My feeling is if we talk about and see it perhaps we will have a better appreciation of it. . . . But I certainly respect the reservations many people have. This is not an easy topic in our culture, and the only exposure we have to it is the sensational aspect. So, of course, whenever we hear about sex, our immediate knee-jerk reaction is to see it as sensationalism or pornography."

On this peaceful spring morning, the words echo through his cramped basement office. It's quiet here now, save for the oc- casional rumble from the boiler room across the hall, and the silence sounds to him like an answered prayer.

In recent months, the din made it difficult to concentrate. The phone rang constantly with calls from alumni, students and friends wanting to discuss the issue and offer support. While Dr. LoPresto didn't receive hate calls, he says the school did. And a taped message calling Loyola "a sex shop" and the seminar "deranged" turned up on a local anti-abortion hot line.

"There was this sense of physical vulnerability," he says. "I think I realized I'm more tenacious than I thought I was. But I also realized that things can get real scary real fast. I never put that together . . . that education can lead to this. That was part of the harrowing experience."

During his career, he's been more comfortable in another role: cool teacher on campus. Tall and trim with grayish hair and a mustache, he's a man unafraid to wear pastel shirts and polka-dotted ties. A photo of Father Guido Sarducci hangs in his office, a gift from students who say he resembles the "Saturday Night Live" comic.

Around campus, his classes are known for their animated patter. He doesn't lecture from the podium but moves around the room, engaging students in discussion. During a recent social psychology course, he used riffs from the Home Shopping Network and the movie "Airplane" to illustrate points. And he listened patiently while a student told the seemingly endless tale of his mother's misadventure buying a car.

Supportive students

If some young faces on this campus oppose him, more seem to be admirers.

"People . . . are portraying him as being anything from a pervert to a revolutionary," says Kristin Wickersty, 21, a theology major who has taken the sex seminar. "But he's a good professor. He's a professor who stuck his neck out to teach in a field that's hush-hush. He's willing to take the scandal if he can continue to teach students. Just because he can make any piece of information clearly understood doesn't mean he's pushing any piece."

But Matt Focht, 21, a political science major, believes that Dr. LoPresto advances a liberal -- and sometimes controversial -- social agenda.

Although he wasn't opposed to the sex class, he was bothered by the methods Dr. LoPresto and his colleague, Cynthia Mendelson, used. They included videos of people masturbating and homosexuals having oral sex along with discussions about pre-marital sex and contraception.

"There are limits to what you do in a public setting," he says. "The videos crossed the line between what's there for legitimate educational value and what's there for shock value. My gut tells me they were there to create controversy."

Although the seminar was the most contentious issue Dr. LoPresto has faced, it wasn't the first.

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