When a USF professor in the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences allegedly held up a sign at a conference last month that had an image of a priest holding a crucifix with an “equal” sign and a toilet, he likely did not expect it also equaled a controversy between the university and a catholic liberties organization that would require him to receive a letter of counsel and issue an apology.
Early this month, William Donahue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, who has been featured on CNN, quoted by major news outlets on issues facing the Catholic church and parodied by “South Park,” sent a letter to the chairman of the Department of Child and Family Studies, which Timothy Weil, the professor whose actions are in question, teaches in.
He also sent a copy to the dean of the College and USF President Judy Genshaft.
In his letter, he detailed a complaint he received: At the conference, Weil allegedly held up the poster and asked the audience to tell him what they thought the images meant. When someone said “they’re both full of s—,” he allegedly repeated the response “gleefully.”
“I have great respect for academic freedom, but I also have great contempt for those who abuse it,” he wrote. “There is obviously nothing of any academic value when someone gratuitously insults the adherence of any world religion. Whatever point Dr. Weil was trying to make could surely have been made without unnecessarily offending catholic sensibilities.”
Donahue asked if the allegation was true, and if it was, what would be done about it.
Weil, who could not be reached for comment for this article, purportedly responded to the complaint, according to an email published in a Tampa Tribune article.
“It seems the purpose of the exercise may have been missed,” Weil wrote in the email. “It was an attempt to show that through language, we are able to relate a wide variety of things that we come across in daily life — even those things that have seemingly no link, such as the two pictures that I had on the screen. Please know I had no goal of a preferred response on the part of the audience. …I only needed to present stimuli that were seemingly mismatched to make the point about how we are able to relate arbitrary stimuli without much effort.”
The university, however, did not respond, and Donahue posted on his website that he would contact the Florida Board of Governors and the chairman of the Board of Trustees about the university’s failure to respond.
Weil’s department chair referred requests for comment to the dean of the college, Julie Serovich, who referred requests for comment to the University Communications and Marketing office.
USF Media and Public Affairs Coordinator Adam Freeman sent a written statement from USF spokeswoman Lara Wade-Martinez stating the university provided media outlets regarding the issue.
“We understand that the faculty member has responded, but the university will also be reviewing the matter,” the statement said. “We apologize for the delay in response, which was caused by unexpected absences. …USF takes such concerns seriously. At the same time, USF affirms the principles of academic freedom, which include the freedom to discuss all relevant matters in an educational context, to explore all avenues of scholarship, research and creative expression. On the part of our faculty, the exercise of academic freedom comes with responsibility and should be consistent with USF’s values of respect, integrity, civility and collegiality.”
According to a post on the Catholic League’s website, which prominently featured “USF PROFESSOR REPRIMANDED” on its homepage Wednesday evening, Serovich sent Donahue an email stating Weil received a “letter of counsel” from the university and would be issuing an apology.
On his website, Donahue stated he thought the response was “judicious” and that he considered the case closed.