12 Most Controversial College Courses Ever Offered

Colleges and universities are no stranger to controversy. From professors who have radical ideas to scandals that end up splashed across the covers of nationwide newspapers, higher education certainly isn't free from criticism and even, at times, protest. While it is more often specific students and professors that are cause for controversy, sometimes college courses themselves spark dispute. Whether they're deemed too racy, promote radical ideas or sometimes just don't fit into the status quo of college classes, these courses have been some of the most controversial and newsworthy every offered.

  1. Human Sexuality, Northwestern University, Michael Bailey: If you haven't heard about the outrage caused by this course, you probably haven't been reading the news. While the human sexuality class itself was never a particular cause for controversy (though some parents surely weren't comfortable with the subject matter being taught to their students), it was not until a recent after class demonstration that the course caught national attention. Professor Michael Bailey invited students to witness a live sex act between a woman, her boyfriend and another woman in a campus building. While nobody was obligated to attend, many students and parents were outraged and felt that the professor and the demonstration were not things they wanted included in their children's education. Other students and the university itself have come to the professor's defense, making the outcome of this situation difficult to predict.
  2. Contemporary Issues in the Executive Branch, Texas Tech, Alberto Gonzalez: A political science course on the executive branch doesn't sound controversial, and that's because it isn't. Not unless it's taught by someone like Alberto Gonzalez. Gonzalez was the Attorney General under former president George W. Bush, a position from which he was forced to resign due to accusations of perjury and a number of controversies involving illegal wiretapping, habeas corpus, and the dismissal of several U.S. attorneys. Gonzalez's conduct, which some felt was not only morally reprehensible, but should have warranted jail time, made him a controversial choice for a faculty member at Texas Tech. While students, other faculty members and the community protested his appointment, it seems that his course and other duties on campus have gone on without much to-do after the fact.
  3. Renewing American Civilization, Kennesaw State University, Newt Gingrich: Former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, was already a controversial figure before he gave a series of lectures for a course at Kennesaw State University in 1993. While Gingrich was no stranger to the academic world, he holds a PhD and taught history at the University of West Georgia in the 70s, many were not happy about him taking on this role again, especially to teach such conservative courses. Faculty members felt the course was more of a series of sermons than lectures, at times twisting or misrepresenting history, though none were outraged enough to protest the course or ask for it to be cancelled. The controversy over this course didn't end after its completion, however, as Mr. Gingrich was brought up on charges that he misused tax-exempt funds for partisan purposes, partially for work done during his teaching of this course. He was fined $300,000- the stiffest punishment ever imposed on a Speaker by the House.
  4. The N-Word: An Anatomy Lesson, Arizona State University, Neal Lester: Few words can spark as much controversy as the n-word, whether used in literature, movies, music or everyday speech. This course at Arizona State aimed to take the issues that surround this word head on — though not all were entirely behind the effort. Race has always been, and will likely continue to be for some time, a delicate issue in the U.S. Some felt that the course used the word and addressed its use a little too liberally. Others, however, felt it was a chance to really get to the bottom of it, what it really means and take away some of the surrounding mystery. One only needs to read the comments below the linked article about the course to see what a hot topic the use of the word still is.
  5. The Politics of Gay Marriage, Seton Hall University, W. King Mott: Gay marriage is a divisive issue for many Americans. Some believe wholeheartedly that all who are citizens should be given equal rights under the law. Others cite their religious beliefs as a reason why gay marriage shouldn't be allowed. Ask someone their opinion on the issue and you're sure to open a can of worms, so it's really not a surprise that a course on the subject given at a conservative college would cause a great deal of controversy. King Mott's course was set to be offered at Seton Hall University, a Catholic university, but university officials opposed it as it conflicted with church doctrine. While the church never changed its position on the course, university officials allowed it to be taught after much protest from the professor and the academic community, who said stifling discussion of issues on a college campus simply wasn't good for education.
  6. Politics of the Middle East, Brooklyn College, Kristofer Peterson-Overton: This professor and his course came under fire after being condemned by Dov Hikund, a member of the New York State Assembly and several other influential individuals. These critical remarks prompted the college to fire the adjunct professor– a move that garnered them a lot of criticism not only for political pandering but for taking away Peterson-Overton's First Amendment Rights. The school tried to justify their decision by stating that the professor was not qualified to teach a graduate level course, but an investigation quickly discovered many other professors with similar experience teaching graduate level courses. It was widely suspected that he was not fired for being under qualified, but instead for his pro-Palestinian beliefs.
  7. Animal Liberation, Monash University, Peter Singer: Peter Singer is a renowned philosopher in his homeland of Australia and around the world, and many of his texts are still being used in college classrooms today, even though the professor is now retired. Of course, like any philosopher his ideas weren't without controversy. During the '70s, he published a text and taught courses that asked students to think about the feelings and experiences of animals. It was a revolutionary idea at the time, and one that many still feel is out of line with how humans should live today, as evidenced by the controversial role animal activist organizations like PETA still play in the world.
  8. Your Brain on the Internet, Duke University, Cathy Davidson: The subject matter of this course isn't what makes it controversial. It's the method by which the course was taught and administered. Professor Cathy Davidson decided to take a different approach to evaluating her students in this class– by not evaluating them at all. Instead, students were asked to grade the work of their peers and to earn a good grade by completing all of the work in the course, coming to class and participating. Critics at the university felt she was shirking her duties and jeopardizing the academic integrity of the course, but Davidson felt the results of the course were positive and that students graded themselves fairly and accurately– so much so that she is planning to use the same method in future courses. While most students in the class did receive an A, they had to work hard for it, doing three times the amount of writing required by the university.
  9. What Is Islam? Lane Community College, Barry Sommer: Islam is a touchy subject for many in the U.S. after the attacks of 9/11 and the continuing conflicts with many Middle Eastern nations. Many Islamic individuals have been the object of hate crimes and verbal attacks due to lack of information or widespread misinformation. This non-credit course was set to be taught by Barry Sommer, a chapter leader of the group Act for America, an organizations whose mission is to, "inform, educate and mobilize Americans regarding the multiple threats of radical Islam, and what they can and must do to protect themselves and their country against this determined enemy." Administrators and faculty felt the course was a bit too incendiary, especially given recent attacks against Muslims and foiled terrorist attacks. While many accused Sommer of trying to spread hatred about Islam, he claims he planned to present a fair and balanced view of the religion, though he has no academic training or degree in the subject matter.
  10. The Phallus, Occidental College, Jeffery Tobin: This class has been criticized from all angles. Some call it too politically correct, others challenge the merits of a class focused on the male genitalia. No matter how you look at it, it addresses issues that aren't usually talked about in polite conversation– at least not outside of a pretty liberal college campus– and might be hard to explain to parents when it shows up on a report card. While parents, conservatives and prudes might get bent out of shape at the name and subject matter of the course, students who took it found it, well, less than controversial –with a few even feeling that, despite the sexual subject matter, it was a bit boring.
  11. Street Gangs, De Paul University, Greg Scott: A course on street gangs isn't controversial in and of itself, and can be a way for students to learn some beneficial things about the sociology and interactions of these groups within the urban habitat. Of course, when part of that course involves taking a field trip into gang territory and personally interacting with members, parents and students alike can become a bit worried. Taught in Chicago, where gang violence has been a major issue for law enforcement, especially on the South and West sides of the city, there are plenty of opportunities for students to see gang life and street culture firsthand– something this professor didn't think they should miss out on. While the course sparked controversy, it's still taught at the university today.
  12. Natural Philosophy, University of Virginia, Thomas Cooper: Of course, college courses being controversial is nothing new, as this example illustrates. Even our founding fathers had issues with professors, lessons and agendas that the general public just couldn't swallow. While Cooper's name is virtually unknown today, at the time his ideas and his scholarship were taken quite seriously, especially because he earned great esteem from President Thomas Jefferson. Like any philosopher worth his salt, Cooper's ideas were well outside of what the mainstream could handle, especially his lessons on natural philosophy at the University of Virginia. These courses were deemed far too liberal and bordering on sacrilegious by local religious clergy and Cooper was forced to resign– a problem he would face throughout his career.

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