In the middle of a busy week, I was diverted from working on "Mojo Mom" to write this commentary in response to an incident that involved a University of North Carolina Professor allowing his home to be used as a location for a photo shoot for Playboy Magazine's "Girls of the ACC" issue. It really upset me, and I knew I wouldn't get it out of my mind until I made my feelings known.
My commentary aired during the final segment of the September 22 episode of "The State of Things" on WUNC 91.5 FM public radio.
HOST INTRO: On Wednesday, September 15 an article called, “Extra Credit,” appeared on the front page of The Chapel Hill News. It reported that a Carolina undergraduate had posed nude for Playboy Magazine at a UNC Chemistry professor’s house. The incident as well as the media's coverage of it left writer Amy Tiemann confused and upset.
AMY TIEMANN'S COMMENTARY: The fact of the nude photo- shoot was reported as, and I quote, “a moment in the life of the community.” In case there was any question about the extent of the professor’s involvement, Dr. Malcolm Fobes is pictured in an accompanying photo taken at a local magazine signing. He is shown standing above UNC Junior Evelyn Gery, looking for all the world like he is staring down her blouse.
Am I the only one who feels that it's incredibly creepy and inappropriate for a professor to host a student at his house for a nude photo shoot on his front porch?
I am neither a student nor a professor at UNC, but I'm no stranger to the way women in the academic sciences are treated. As a senior in college, I was invited to a prestigious UC Irvine Neurosciences graduate program recruitment week. Irvine was one of my top choices. After I returned from the program, I received a sexually explicit letter from one of the male grad students who had been a volunteer host. I was accepted by Irvine but no longer wanted to go there. Looking back, I wish I’d reported this incident, but I was so embarrassed that I didn't tell anyone about it until this week.
I will never forget the day I proudly presented my graduate work as a poster at a national Neuroscience meeting. A male colleague came up and attentively listened to me explain the experiments that had taken me four years to complete. I felt proud that he was interested in my work. Then, at the end, he said, “Do you know that the color of your poster exactly matches your blue eyes?” I was deflated. Did I leave science over this? No, but I felt demoralized by this quintessential “just when you think you’re being taken seriously...” moment.
As a lab scientist, high school chemistry teacher, mother, and feminist, the UNC incident just about set my brain on fire. Professor Malcolm Forbes may not have broken any laws, but his abysmal judgment has far reaching implications for everyone in the community. How will his female students feel knowing that he may be more interested in seeing them naked than discussing organic chemistry with them? How about his female colleagues or lab members? And what about the men on campus? Professor Forbes’ behavior encourages male students and faculty to confine their image of women scientists to naked coeds rather than intellectual equals.
And there are other questions -- Why should high school teachers and parents encourage students to study science at Carolina, knowing that a professor is actively fostering an atmosphere in which young women are regarded as “Playmates?”
Just when women start to get comfortable, to think that they might actually belong in the sciences, something like this happens that tells us that even when we earn our Ph.D.s, there are those who would reduce us to mere T&A.
Professor Forbes, I think I speak for many women when I say, we are duly reminded.
Amy Tiemann received her Ph.D. from Stanford in Neurosciences in 1996. She is the author of the novel "High Water" and the founder of the website MojoMom.com