Officials at State University of New York College at Geneseo are looking into one of the school's sociology professors after he allegedly asked students to pick out trans women from a series of pictures in a slide titled "Female or Shemale."
A picture of the presentation, shown to students during an introductory sociology class this week, was shared on social media Friday morning and has since been circulating among students at the university.
Subsequent criticism over the presentation prompted the university's president, Denise A. Battles, to respond, and promise that the school would look into the issue.
"A professor is reported to have presented materials and made comments about which some students have expressed concern," Battles said in a statement Friday evening. "We are taking the matter very seriously and are gathering the facts to determine if and what action is warranted."
Jillian Sternberg, a sophomore who took the picture now circulating online, told BuzzFeed News that she and other students were disturbed by the classroom activity, which asked students to distinguish from headshots who was biologically born a female, and who was born a trans woman.
The topic of the class session, held on Wednesday, was gender, sexuality, and sexual identity, Stemberg said, but students were taken aback not just by the impromptu quiz but also by the explanation of the activity given by the professor, David Sorbello.
"He just said, 'We want you to write whether it's female or she-male,'" Sternberg said. "He never said what the point of the quiz was during the class, but when I addressed him afterward he said it was partly for humor and partly to discuss sexual dimorphism."
The session, however, didn't include any discussion about sexual dimorphism, or the physical, nonreproductive differences between males and females of the same species, she said.
Sorbello also made comments that were disturbing to students, Stemberg said.
"He said something along the lines of, 'Be careful not to get too drunk or you'll take the wrong one home,'" she explained. "He would comment on some of the pictures like, 'I'm definitely not going to the bar with you.'"
Neither Sorbello nor the university immediately responded to requests for comment from BuzzFeed News. The university's website identifies Sorbello as an adjunct professor in the sociology department.
During Wednesday's class, students were given the answers to the quiz, but there was no follow-up discussion or lecture after the activity, Stemberg said.
"After we took the quiz, he even said, 'I know a lot of you guys look uncomfortable,'" Sternberg said.
After the class, Sternberg said she and a friend approached him to tell him they were uncomfortable with the material, and to try to understand the goal of the activity. She said Sorbello apologized that they didn't find it funny, and then said he believed the only way he could approach the subject was through humor.
"He was very mad that we were calling him out," she said. She added that she later emailed Sorbello to apologize and say she could have approached him differently, but continued to stress that she found the material offensive.
Jasmine Cui, a sophomore at SUNY Geneseo and a member of a student diversity group on campus, told BuzzFeed News that several students have approached school administrators to ask that they address the issue, and are also circulating a petition to enact policy changes, including requiring sensitivity training for professors.
Students are hoping the issue is dealt with head-on, Cui said, and "not just sweep it under the rug."
"This is emblematic of this larger problem."
Stemberg said that she has not yet received a response to the email she sent Sorbello — but that she did receive a class-wide email notifying students that phones, laptops, and photo-taking will now be banned from his class. Sternberg said students were previously allowed to take pictures of the class slides to use as study materials.
As the image has circulated on campus and beyond, Stemberg said she is encouraged to see the support and reaction from students. She expressed concern about the angry reactions from some students and alumni who have criticized the university over the incident, but she said she hasn't had other negative encounters on campus.
"That makes me really upset because I don't want it to be our reputation," she said. "I love my school."