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USF scolds staffer over priest-toilet comparison

TAMPA — A University of South Florida faculty member accused of relating a priest to a toilet at an academic conference last month has been reprimanded by university officials.

On Wednesday, the dean of the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences wrote Timothy Weil a two-page "letter of counseling." Weil, a practicum coordinator, will also be issuing an apology, dean Julianne Serovich said.

The dustup started with a slide in Weil's behavioral psychology presentation at a conference in Daytona Beach:

On the left, a toilet. To the right, a priest. In the middle, an equal sign.

The point was to show how people relate seemingly dissimilar things, the professor later explained to the university. He wasn't looking for any particular response — but he got one.

They're both "full of s- - -" someone in the audience said.

Later, an unnamed person contacted the Catholic League, which describes itself as the nation's largest Catholic civil rights organization. Its leader, Bill Donohue, demanded a written reprimand from USF.

The league has become known for its aggressive approach during its two decades under Donohue, who has taken issue with certain movies, news reports and celebrities including Jenny McCarthy and Kathy Griffin.

Donohue pressed the university when he did not see immediate action, and USF started to investigate. University officials got a copy of the slide in question and listened to Weil's explanation.

He told them the point of the exercise was missed. He also said others in the audience had shared positive similarities between the toilet and priest: They "take bad things from us" and "they both help us."

Weil told the university he can't be held responsible for the person who shouted the expletive. He said he replied with, "I hope that no one was offended by that."

But that wasn't enough — the trouble had started with his selection of the two images, Serovich wrote in her letter.

USF faculty members have "broad academic freedom" in discussions, extending to provocation or controversy, she wrote.

However, Weil wasn't trying to provoke that particular response, she wrote, and his purpose of showing how two dissimilar objects can be related could have been done with pretty much anything else. "Put another way," she stated, "the issue here is not academic freedom but rather given the potential universe of images you could have used for arbitrary associations, was it good judgment to present a slide with the following equation: Catholic priest = toilet?"

On Wednesday, the Catholic League thanked USF for its "judicious" response.

USF Faculty Senate president Gregory Teague said he doesn't think USF's reprimand will chill professors' lectures — but it might make them think twice as they assemble their presentations.

"My impression is that this was a gross misconstrual of what he was trying to say," Teague said, sharing his own opinion and not speaking of behalf of the Faculty Senate.

To Teague, an associate professor in the Department of Mental Health Law and Policy, USF's response doesn't set a precedent. He said he has always considered his lectures to be somewhat public since he teaches at a public university.

"Obviously this was someone else's misunderstanding," he said. "I guess we take those risks."

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

USF scolds staffer over priest-toilet comparison 10/30/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 30, 2013 10:43pm]
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