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NU sex: academic freedom in action

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

I am not very comfortable talking about sex.

Never have been. May never be.

But I am comfortable talking about academic freedom.

And despite all the talk of naked bodies and a dildo connected to machine-powered saw, that’s what the ruckus at Northwestern University is really about.

A Northwestern professor clearly pushed the envelope last month when he allowed a live sex demonstration in an optional after-class session.

No doubt about it.

Parents, alumni, even the university president, have a right to be disturbed by it. They also have a right to express their opinion, to mull it over it, to investigate.

Those are hallmarks of a university that promotes the free exchange of ideas in the name of producing thoughtful and critical thinkers.

But I’m not disturbed by the demonstration, even with my discomfort in publicly discussing — and certainly watching — sex.

The demonstration was not a mistake, nor does it degrade a Northwestern education in any way.

Quite the contrary.

The demonstration, which featured a sex toy used on a naked woman, fell well within the bounds of the academic freedom vital to any university worth its salt. Under that rubric, professors are free to generate controversy, to push students to question what they think they know, so long as there is an educational purpose.

“The purpose of academic freedom isn’t simply to provoke but to provoke with a purpose, to educate,” said Matthew W. Finkin, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Law and co-author of a recent book on academic freedom.

The sex demonstration clearly fits into that category.

It was part of a psychology class on human sexuality, designed to explore — in a research-based academic setting — all facets of the topic.

This wasn’t a university-sanctioned tour of Chicago’s sexual underworld. It was a class on human sexuality, including the kinky parts.

When you delve into a topic, you don’t avoid certain parts because they make people uncomfortable. You warn students who may want to opt out — as Northwestern Professor J. Michael Bailey did — and then you move ahead.

The larger context here is important. Recession-battered parents are increasingly pushing universities to justify their skyrocketing costs. A sex demonstration, it goes without saying, is much harder to justify than a statistics class. Plus, there is a general unease about the coarsening of our society. The foul language, foul images and foul attitudes that regularly assault us are indeed a major problem.

But strip those away and simply look at what Professor Bailey did. In the context of academic freedom, he made a judgment call.

You can disagree with his call, but it is his to make.

On Saturday, Bailey, who was facing a torrent of criticism and a media onslaught, apologized for the sex demonstration and told Sun-Times reporter Kara Spak that he believes he crossed the line “from good to bad judgment.”

Bailey said he didn’t know if he went beyond “the actual guarantees of academic freedom,” and presumably that’s an assessment his colleagues will have to make.

In the meantime, I’m still standing behind Bailey, bad judgment call and all, because it is his right - and obligation - to provoke, as long as it has an educational purpose.

Academic freedom is an easy topic to talk about. Sex is not.

Perhaps, had I been a student at Northwestern and taken Bailey’s class, I might feel differently.

But I wasn’t.

So I don’t.

Kate N. Grossman is deputy editorial page editor.

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