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Biology professor given ultimatum by her dean after controversial lecture

A VSU biology professor said she was told to change her course lectures after a complaint by a parent.

Since 2004, Dr. Leslie S. Jones, an associate professor of the biology department, has been known for teaching about topics surrounding the biological aspects of religion, sex and gender and race in her introductory biology course, BIOL 1010 “Evolution and the Diversity of Life.”

However, during the fall semester a parent complained about her teaching the difference found between sex and gender in her course lecture, and the fallout has left her unsure how to proceed.

Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a national free speech organization, is involved in the case.

“We have connected Professor Jones with an attorney through FIRE’s Faculty Legal Defense fund, who is working with her on protecting Professor Jones’s right to academic freedom,” Sabrina Conza, a program officer for FIRE, said.

In the course, Dr. Jones touches on the evolution and creationism controversy, human evolution, the variation between sex and gender, the evolution of skin color and, in her last sector of her class, how human diversity is not race.

Dr. Jones’s teachings have occasionally raised objections over the years.

“Sometimes a student might complain,” Dr. Jones said.

In the past five years, her department head, Dr. Robert Gannon, has received multiple complaints from students and parents and was initially concerned. However, Dr. Jones went over her lectures with him, and he has since backed her, saying to protestors that she is simply teaching biology.

In spring of this year, she also held face-to-face meetings with both the VSU president, Dr. Richard Carvajal, and the provost, Dr. Richard Smith, where she again went through her teachings and explained their importance.

According to Dr. Jones, she received approval from both men to continue those lessons.

This fall semester, Dr. Jones was told by Dr. Gannon that the father of one of Dr. Jones’s students complained to both him and Dr. Pierre-Richard Cornely, the dean of the College of Science and Math.

The parent said that Jones’s teachings on the biology of sex and gender were inappropriate, and that “he didn’t want his daughter to be learning about “woke s**t,”’ Jones said as she recalled the situation and held up her fingers to emphasize the father’s words.

“I’m not teaching it to be woke. I teach sex and gender because look at what happened in Colorado. LGBTQ+ people are discriminated against, and I think if people understood those things, then it will be a little easier to deal with. There is so much variety in gender,” Dr. Jones said referencing the recent shooting that occurred at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs.

According to Mya Arthur, a junior mass media major and a student in that class, the lecture that led to the latest complaint was like a normal day in class.

“We started a new subject on gender and sex, and of course, when talking about such a sensitive topic, you go into depth about the different genders and sex,” Arthur said.

Arthur said there were many discussions among students after the complaint was discussed in class during the following course meeting.

“I most definitely do not think any parents should be involved with any decisions made in college,” Arthur said.

Conza said that it wasn’t common at the collegiate level for FIRE cases to involve parents’ complaining.

“Dr. Jones was a bit confused on the situation as she had no choice but to teach the lecture,” Arthur said. “What people don’t understand is that this is real life. People being transgender and wanting to be called certain pronouns is their life and no one, not even a parent, should ever judge or get offended because of it.”

Jones added that as she gives these lessons, her goal is to leave the political association that is linked with these topics out of the lectures. Instead, she tries to focus strictly on the factual and biological aspects of these subjects.

Following the phone call from the father, the student was moved to a different class section of the same course taught by a different professor.

However, Dr. Cornely shared with Jones his concern about complaints regarding her class lectures and suggested that she should instead only teach these subjects in her higher-level biology classes, according to Dr. Jones.

“I don’t want to teach it to a higher-level biology class, I want to teach it to regular citizens,” she said. “The non-majors. Because that’s the best biology I teach you [when] it’s about those subjects.”

According to Dr. Jones, Dr. Cornely told her he will remove her from teaching the course if she continues to touch on these issues through her lectures in these introductory classes.

Both Dr. Gannon and Dr. Cornely declined to comment for this story.

After being sent a series of questions regarding the specifics of the incident, VSU released the following statement.

“Valdosta State University is reviewing the issues raised by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and has responded to the inquiry. VSU remains committed to the protection of all citizens’ freedom of speech, expression, petition, religion, and peaceful assembly guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and affirmed by the University System of Georgia Board of Regents policy. At the same time, the university also remains committed to ensuring that content taught in courses is consistent with the published catalog description of each course.”

However, like most courses, VSU’s course catalog description for BIOL 1010 is one sentence.

“An introduction to the diversity of life on Earth with a special emphasis on ecological and evolutionary processes and relationships.”

The lecture that is being questioned is about sex and gender. Dr. Jones said that she teaches that sex, instead of being a dichotomy, is bimodal, meaning there are two large lumps (male and female) with other in between (intersex).

She hopes that in teaching that there are not simply two sexes would help students understand how there are more than two genders.

Dr. Jones feels that as a reproductive physiologist and researcher of gender, evolution and creationism, she is qualified to teach these subjects. For the university to attempt to dictate what she chooses to teach in her courses is a violation of her academic freedom, she said.

“The problem is they don’t stand-up and back-up the faculty,” she said. “They’re not supporting us. People are calling in from the outside of the university and complaining, and VSU is paying attention to outside complaints.”

Dr. Adam Wood, the English department head and former chair of the academic freedom and tenure committee of his previous institution, discussed the importance of academic freedom.

“As soon as you let academic freedom slip in one way, it starts to slip everywhere else,” Dr. Wood said.

He brought up the American Association for University Professors’ 1940’s definition of academic freedom, which covers three major points: teachers’ freedom to research and publication, teachers’ freedom in the classroom to discuss their subject matter, and teachers’ freedom as citizens to speak freely without institutional discipline or censorship.

As a professor, Dr. Jones regards the right to teach biological science in a way that connects to current societal issues within her classroom, and she feels that VSU administration should defend their faculty better for them to carry out this right.

“Everybody in biology is given a title, and we’re allowed to choose whatever lectures we want to give, and that’s how it works around here, and I have been giving these lectures for years, and they’re the best stuff I do in that class,” she said.

Dr. Wood agreed that, according to the academic freedom definition, Dr. Jones was in her right to teach the diversity of sex and gender.

“If this is the extent of what she did, then her academic freedom is being violated,” Dr. Wood said.

He said that the only concern about Dr. Jones teaching methods would be if she was pushing her students not to form their own opinions and testing the material as fact.

“I want to teach them the biological facts and let them decide for themselves,” Dr Jones said.

She said that in the course she requires students to write a personal essay for each of the main social issues she teaches: religion in biology, sex and gender, and race.

However, the personal essay content is completely up to each student to process how they feel about each topic with their own thoughts and opinions, provided it is backed by other sources.

According to Dr. Jones, VSU administration’s decision to not defend her against her dean’s ultimatum also goes against the initiatives that the university advertises in their 2027 strategic plan.

“VSU has had two diversity initiatives… and they told the faculty to teach for D.E.I. (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion),” she said.  “That’s what I’m doing.”

Dr. Jones made it clear that she does not plan to remove these lectures from her introductory biology course. Instead, she is prepared to settle the affair in court, even though she hopes that she will not have to take the legal route against an institution she feels loyalty to.

“This will be the legal court case if VSU doesn’t do the right thing,” she said.  “I will not apologize for being an anti-racist educator.”

Written by Angel Davis, Copy Editor, and Samiriya Hamilton, News Editor. Photos courtesy of Dr. Leslie Jones and VSU.

 

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