Valdosta prof’s ‘woke’ lesson draws parent fire, free speech support

A national speech rights group demanded the university rescind an ‘ultimatum’ on how to teach a biology course.

A tenured Valdosta State University biology professor is pushing back after she said she was told to change how she teaches about topics such as sex and gender or else she’ll be removed from the course.

Leslie Jones, 67, said a parent complained earlier this semester after she gave a lesson titled “Cultural Construction of Gender” in her Evolution and the Diversity of Life biology course. She teaches that sex is biological and gender is a cultural construct. Slides from the gender lesson, which she shared with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, touch on gender roles, distinctions and socialization as well as sexual identity.

“The father told my dean that he didn’t want his daughter being taught that ‘woke (expletive),’ “ Jones said.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Jones said her dean, Pierre-Richard Cornely, informed her of the parent’s complaint and instructed her to change her approach or else she would be moved to another class. Jones reached out to the nonprofit campus free speech organization Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, for support. It is demanding the university remove any restrictions.

“Valdosta State is a public university,” said Sabrina Conza, a program officer for FIRE. “In giving Professor Jones this ultimatum they are violating her First Amendment rights to academic freedom.”

Cornely referred to the university for comment.

In a statement to the AJC, Valdosta State said it “is reviewing the issues.”

“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,” the statement said. “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.”

The university provided a copy of its attorney’s Nov. 7 response to a letter FIRE sent warning of a First Amendment violation. Valdosta State told FIRE that Jones should bring the matter to a grievance committee that addresses faculty concerns and wrote that the university “will continue to address this matter directly with Professor Jones.”

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Jones, though, said Friday that the school has yet to respond to her directly. She continues to teach the course and is also scheduled to teach it next semester.

“I am not looking for an adversarial process with my school,” Jones said. “(But) they need to stand behind their faculty members.”

Educators across the country have faced more scrutiny, primarily from conservative activists and parents, concerning how they teach courses about gender or race. A Republican state lawmaker earlier this year asked University System of Georgia administrators to gather information about courses, curriculum, jobs and research that focus on topics such as anti-racism and social justice. Georgia lawmakers passed a law this year to control how nine “divisive concepts” are taught in K-12 public schools. The law does not impact colleges or universities.

Conza said FIRE has seen more attempts to censor classroom discussions nationwide in recent years. Many cases involve the social justice issues Jones tackles.

“When issues like gender, sex and race become controversial, that’s when universities and legislators are going to try to ban them,” Conza said.

FIRE’s letter alleges that the dean told Jones in an email that the issue is about, in part, “serving the customer who is paying the bills” and “minimizing controversial situations that affect our ability to deliver overall.”

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One slide in her gender lesson breaks down seven “distinctions”: cisgender, transgender, gender fluid, non-binary, agender, gender neutral and genderqueer. Other slides define terms such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual.

FIRE contends that interdisciplinary lessons on topics such as gender and sex “are pedagogically relevant in Jones’ biology class, as they discuss how biology and sociology interact.”

Jones said her lessons, particularly what she describes as “anti-racist lectures,” have generated “isolated” complaints before, including some last spring. She said her approach reflects her commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion on behalf of those who face discrimination and racism.

The university in South Georgia enrolls just over 10,000 students. About half are white, nearly 35% are Black and 9.5% are Hispanic, according to state data released this week.

Jones describes herself as a white cisgender female, meaning her gender identity matches the sex she was assigned at birth. She has a doctorate in science education from Ohio State University and was hired at Valdosta State in 2004.

She’s taught the evolution and diversity of life biology course for roughly 15 years, and said it attracts many first-year, non-biology majors looking to satisfy a science requirement.

Jones said she’s also careful to consider the views of religious conservative students when she discusses creationism and evolution.

“I am not administering a left-wing agenda in my class. I teach them about important social values that affect all of us in Georgia,” she said.