The University of Connecticut School of Law and veteran professor Robert L. Birmingham have agreed that he should take an immediate leave of absence after he showed a provocative film clip in class from "Really Really Pimpin' in Da South," a documentary that has been used as a training film for prostitution.
But whether the incident was exacerbated by a mishandling of video technology remains a subject of at least some debate.
UConn Law Dean Jeremy Paul confirmed Oct. 2 that he and Birmingham had a "discussion following an incident in one of his classes," and decided it was "in the best interests of the school" for Birmingham to leave for the rest of the semester, which ends in December.
Paul called it "a difficult situation" and said he and his administration are concerned with fostering academic freedom, while preserving "a welcoming, diverse and tolerant environment for students."
According to three students who were either present in Birmingham's remedies class on Friday, Sept. 21, or spoke with students who were, the sometimes controversial professor asked students to make a case for slavery reparations in light of the fact that much of Africa is beset by war, famine and AIDS. Some students were so upset and offended by the topic -- and images of barely-clad exotic dancers in the film clip -- that they stood up and walked out of the class.
The legal case under discussion was the 2004 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case of U.S. v. Charles Floyd Pipkins, a.k.a. Sir Charles, and Andrew Moore Jr., a.k.a. Batman. Pipkins and Moore were appealing their convictions on Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act charges as Atlanta pimps of juvenile girls as young as 12 years old. In the documentary film, Pipkins explains and defends the rules of "The Game."
The 11th Circuit opinion found that prostitutes are free to choose a different pimp. Birmingham asked the 50 students in his remedies lecture class whether that means they were not held in involuntary servitude -- one of the counts in Pipkins' and Moore's RICO indictment.
Part of the problem with Birmingham's film demonstration, according to witnesses, was due to the video equivalent of a wardrobe malfunction. "He's not very good at operating the video equipment, and it didn't stop when he wanted it to," said one student. "It continued to show these dancers in tassels and a G-string, and stopped with a close-up of the G-string."
A law school administration source familiar with the situation, however, said Birmingham stopped the film at the objectionable G-string segment a second time that day, when he used the film in his class on the Nuremberg trials. "It wasn't just a one-time 'wardrobe malfunction,'" said the official who wished to remain anonymous.
Heather Kaufmann, a Vernon, Conn., solo, is representing Birmingham and serving as his spokesperson. In an interview, she said, "All he did in each class, both remedies and [the one on] Nuremberg, is show an interview with [Pipkins]. At the conclusion of that interview, he pressed stop. There was apparently a second or so of run-over of R-rated material," Kaufmann said. "To our knowledge, no issue was raised in the Nuremberg class, and professor Birmingham's apologies only went out to the remedies class. The suggestion or implication that professor Birmingham intentionally showed the questionable material is troubling and simply dishonest."
In a formal apology to students, Birmingham wrote, "I regret that I did not cut off the film at the end of the interview of Mr. Pipkins in time to prevent the adjacent material from appearing on the screens. I apologize to those of you whom I offended. I apologize as well that I did not emphasize the presupposition of our discussion: the extreme enduring suffering that slavery entailed."
On Oct. 1, Associate Dean Paul Chill met with students, in this semester's first "Query The Dean" session, to discuss Birmingham's actions and the administration's reaction.
"It's ironic that this was all about a remedies class," said one female law student. "People were upset with some of the images in the film, and what professor Birmingham said. But I think they were even more upset by what the administration did to him."
One minority student added, "Two wrongs don't make a right here. Lots of other professors have said provocative things without any reaction from the administration like this. I think Dean Chill and Dean Paul are punishing a professor they don't like in the name of protecting minority students' feelings."
The students spoke to the Law Tribune on the condition that they would remain anonymous.
Two recent graduates appeared at the Oct. 1 session and spoke up in Birmingham's defense. "A lot of people are really mad," said a female law student.
Students praised Birmingham's efforts to spark critical thinking and his provocative use of the Socratic Method. "He's one of very few professors who don't teach like it's purely a vocational school," one said.
A female student, however, noted that she had a female African-American classmate who "was very angry and offended" by Birmingham's class, because "the wounds haven't healed" from discrimination that student suffered in her youth.
In an e-mail, one student in the remedies class characterized Birmingham's classroom exercise as a "syllogistically perfect" argument that the students, try as they might, were not able to disprove in 15 minutes of discussion. The professor questioned whether reparations are logically due for American descendants of slaves, who generally enjoy a much better standard of living than modern West Africans whose ancestors were not enslaved," the student wrote.
LOOKING FOR A REPLACEMENT
Birmingham has an unfortunate backdrop to contend with. Earlier this year, SmokingGun.com posted photos from an off-campus party themed "Bullets and Bubbly." The photos depict white UConn law students sporting tiger claw tattoos, "do-rags," 40 oz. beer bottles and T-shirts emblazoned with "THUG LIFE" and "SNAP, SNAP, SNAP." In the soul searching that followed that incident, students debated whether Student Bar Association officers in the photos should step down.
"I think the administration was trying to apologize for the stereotyping [at the] Bullets and Bubbly party," said a student who would only speak on condition of anonymity.
Paul said no student formally complained about Birmingham. He said students were divided over whether Birmingham's behavior deserved a sanction or whether he should be protected under principles of academic freedom. Black and white students, Paul added, were on both sides of the divisive issue. Four of the five current and former students who spoke with the Law Tribune said they felt Birmingham was singled out for excessively harsh treatment.
Said Kaufmann, "The administration took the action it took, not only without seeing the film in question, but also without knowing the correct title of the film until five days after action was taken, at which time professor Birmingham provided the administration with a copy of the film." The incident occurred on Friday, Sept. 21, and Birmingham was placed on leave on Tuesday, Sept. 25.
Paul said Dean Chill is working diligently to find a new lecturer for the 50-person remedies lecture class and to find alternative instruction for three 18-person seminars Birmingham was teaching.
Kaufman said Birmingham "feels a strong sense of duty and obligation to the school, and does not want to draw any negative attention to it ¿ or escalate anything. In his perfect world, he'd like to get back into the classroom as soon as possible."