TAMPA — A Catholic watchdog group is accusing a University of South Florida professor of mocking priests by comparing them to a toilet in a presentation at a recent academic conference.
The professor contended his use of the symbolism was misinterpreted and was academically valid.
The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has complained to USF President Judy Genshaft and other university officials about an incident involving Timothy Weil, a professor of psychology and behavior analyst who gave a presentation at a September meeting of the Florida Association for Behavior Analysis in Daytona Beach.
Weil told a reporter via email that he is “saddened that this has mushroomed as it has,” but declined to discuss the incident.
USF said in a statement that the university will review the matter.
The Catholic League said a participant in the conference contacted the group with the description of what happened at the Sept. 27 conference.
According to the participant's account, Weil “put up a picture of an equal sign (=) in the middle of the large screen and then added a picture of a priest holding a crucifix to the left of it, and a picture of a toilet to the right. He then asked the audience to comment on what the picture means. Someone from the audience yelled, 'They're both full of s---.'
“After the audience settled down, Dr. Weil strolled around the room and gleefully repeated the response; those who were there knew he got the response he sought.”
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, would not divulge the identity of the participant who made the complaint.
In an email exchange obtained by the Tribune, Weil fielded a complaint from Ken McDonald, a Gainesville behavior analyst who attended the conference, who said he found the example “highly offensive.”
Weil responded to McDonald but McDonald said he was not the person who contacted the Catholic League.
“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 mis-matched to make the point about how we are able to relate arbitrary stimuli without much effort.”
The topic of Weil's presentation was “Impact of Rule Governance on Motivation and its Clinical Application.”
In the same email exchange, he said such an exercise speaks more about the learning history of those who respond than the presenter. He said some people attending the presentation responded positively to the priest and toilet bowl images — saying both help people, for example — and that as presenter he could not be responsible for the person who responded with the profanity. “Following that response I made sure to say, 'I hope that no one was offended by that,'” Weil wrote McDonald.
This week, Donohue complained in a news release that he did not receive a response to the Catholic League's Oct. 3 complaint to USF.
The university apologized for the delay, saying in its statement it was “caused by unexpected absences.”
Donohue, who is known for his confrontational style, was unmoved.
“I find it astonishing. You'd think there would be some kind of notification,” he said in an interview. “To just blow this off at a state institution? They're not going to blow us off. I'm prepared to go to the governor. I'm not going to accept this.”
Donohue said he was not seeking the professor's dismissal, but called for some action such as a written reprimand. “You have to put a note in this guy's file. You can't get away with this stuff. It's not academic freedom.”
Universities are accustomed to dealing with conflicts between academics and religious or ideological advocates and typically give educators leeway in the name of academic freedom.
Earlier this year, a professor at Boca Raton-based Florida Atlantic University was placed on administrative leave but then had his contract renewed after leading an exercise in which students were asked to write the name “Jesus” on a piece of paper, put it on the floor, and stomp on it.
The exercise was meant to address the importance of symbols in culture.
In 2010, USF raised the ire of the Florida Family Association when the group learned a drag performer would appear in a class called Queer Theory. USF administration supported the professor.