A controversial University of Connecticut School of Law professor will return in the spring to teach three courses.
In an e-mail to students obtained by The Connecticut Law Tribune, Dean Jeremy Paul said that Robert L. Birmingham will teach upper class seminars on the late Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, Law and Philosophy, and Law and Science.
Birmingham was asked to take a leave of absence this month after he showed a portion of a documentary on prostitution to students in a Remedies course and a later seminar. The bulk of the clip was an interview with a pimp, but just as Birmingham hit the pause button, an image of a scantily clad woman came on the screen.
Birmingham's supporters say he often strays from conventional teaching in order to provoke thought and conversation. In this case, some students say, Birmingham was drawing a parallel between the plight of blacks as slaves and the continued oppression of some African-Americans in modern times.
But some students found both the topic and the sexual image offensive. Among those posting criticism on an array of Web sites were female students. Their concerns appear to have been heard. An online course guide has Birmingham scheduled to teach a Feminist Legal Theory course in the spring, but his lawyer said the professor has been told by UConn officials that won't happen. Attorney Heather Kaufmann said Birmingham was disappointed to hear he wouldn't be teaching the feminist course.
Although Paul said he had received no formal complaints after the video was shown, he stated that he wanted to foster an environment where every student felt comfortable, and he asked Birmingham to take the leave of absence. The move launched a debate about academic freedom at the law school.
In his e-mail, Paul said: "I wish to emphasize my unshakeable commitment to creating a learning environment where students and teachers alike feel free to explore issues and express controversial viewpoints. I feel equally strongly that professors entrusted with the education of aspiring attorneys have an obligation to run a classroom where no one feels he or she is unwelcome as a result of race, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation, or on account of a disability."
Paul did not ban the showing of sexually explicit images, but said that they should be used "only when every effort is made to clarify for students the relevance of such material to the subject matter at hand. Similarly, each member of the faculty, including me, bears a special burden to choose course materials and to prepare ourselves to handle discussions of volatile topics, such as race, in ways that clearly champion the right of every person in the class to participate in the discussion and ultimately to join the legal community."