University of Pennsylvania Anthropology Professor Theodore Schurr is apparently an academic recidivist in allowing a diversity of viewpoints in a classroom. For that offense, Dr. Schurr is again the subject of complaints and a call for suspension. Tolerating, let alone encouraging, such diversity of viewpoints in a classroom is now considered harmful and abusive.
Dr. Schurr would appear to be someone who fits in with the political profile of most faculties. He was one of the signatories on a letter attacking then-President-elect Donald Trump for alleged “racist, xenophobic, sexist speech and behavior.”
However, Schurr has some old-fashioned ideas of teaching, including the value of discussing opposing views on relevant subjects. In his course, “Sex and Human Nature,” transgender issues loom prominently in the subject matter and Schurr allowed students to share their different viewpoints.
That is now verboten on campuses where students are constantly told that they do not have to tolerate the opposing views of others. Indeed, we previously discussed the effort to fire University of Pennsylvania Professor Carlin Romano for questioning the language of a proposed statement on racism in the publishing industry.
It is also the university at the center over the long fight to terminate Professor Amy Wax for her controversial views.
The school newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvania reported that the course is heavily attended because there is a mandatory “cultural diversity” requirement for students and it double counts for the separate “Living World Sector” requirement.
First-year student Haydr Dutta declared that Dr. Schurr (who has a long list of prestigious publications) was completely ignorant of the subject as it relates to transgender issues: “Things were a little horrifying because [Schurr’s] definitions about being trans were basically all factually wrong.” Haydr Dutta, who alternatively uses “Aiden,” is on the Trans/Nonbinary Committee at the LGBT Center.
Dutta added that the class fueled divergent thoughts and that there was a risk that students “walk out with these wrong views about what being trans means.”
Dutta told The College Fix that Schurr encouraged discussion of why trans healthcare could be controversial, opening up some students’ points that ‘a fair number of people detransition,’ that ‘taxes should not be spent on trans healthcare and should instead be going to a useful place like the military,’ and that ‘the treatment of transgender people is driven by big pharma who just want the money.’”
This is not the first time that Schurr has been targeted. In 2019, he was removed from teaching the “Human Nature” course, though he resumed teaching the course in 2021.
He is now under investigation by the university’s Title IX office. Among the complaints is that Schurr used the “deadname” of actor Elliot Page who was known as Ellen Page during the movie Juno but now identifies as a male.
Penn student Lex Gilbert also told The Fix that “when asked clarifying questions during class, he relied on students to give their thoughts and appeared to not know how to respond. He relied heavily upon extremely dense PowerPoints throughout the course.”
Another student, who remained anonymous, complained that “once we really got to the topic of gender and sexuality, the conversation got pretty uncomfortable.”
The controversy reflects a different culture at Penn from the top ranking university, The University of Chicago (where I attended).
UChicago shocked many in 2016 when it sent a letter to incoming students that promised an unfettered and uncensored education without the protection from disturbing or offensive ideas. While most schools are actively curtailing free speech, its letter warned the students that they will not be protected against ideas or given “safe spaces.”
The origin of the letter is found in a policy produced at the University of Chicago in 2014-2015. The Chicago Statement’s key provision declares that a university’s
“fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.”
The Chicago Statement also states unequivocally that students cannot “obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views.” That latter statement stands in contrast with many academics who believe that stopping others from speaking is free speech.
The complaint raises both free speech and academic freedom issues. While this first-year student believes that Dr. Schurr is ignorant of the subject matter of his course, he was selected to teach the subject at one of the premier universities in the world. In addition to receiving tenure at Penn, he is a Consulting Curator in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, and the Director of the Laboratory of Molecular Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Schurr was assured that he could do so with the full benefits of academic freedom — the touchstone of higher education. Penn now faces yet another test of its commitment to that principle.
Nevertheless, students have already reportedly been allowed to take just a credit for the course or transfer to other classes due to their discomfort.