Old Dominion University has put a professor on leave amid controversy over their research into adults who are sexually attracted to minors, saying it had put campus safety at risk.

The public university was facing a firestorm over Professor Allyn Walker’s use of the term “minor-attracted people” and whether that language and approach destigmatizes sex offenders. Students protested on the Norfolk campus Tuesday, outrage spread on social media and an online petition to remove Walker had garnered thousands of signatures within days.

On Tuesday night, university officials announced that Walker had been placed on administrative leave. Reactions to Walker’s book and academic research “have led to concerns for their safety and that of campus,” have disrupted campus and are interfering with teaching and learning, officials wrote in a statement online.

“I want to state in the strongest terms possible that child sexual abuse is morally wrong and has no place in our society,” the university’s president, Brian O. Hemphill, said in the statement.

Walker, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice, said Wednesday that the research is aimed at keeping children safe from predators — a goal Walker, who is transgender, said they have had since working as a counselor and advocate for victims.

“The idea that I’m somehow condoning child sexual abuse is absolutely outrageous,” Walker said. “I really think it’s a coordinated effort about attacking the LGBTQ community” and academic freedom.

Kayla Foster, a senior from Newport News studying criminal justice, said ODU students recently had learned about Walker’s book “A Long, Dark Shadow: Minor-Attracted People and Their Pursuit of Dignity.”

The book is described by the University of California Press as challenging “widespread assumptions that persons who are preferentially attracted to minors — often referred to as ‘pedophiles’ — are necessarily also predators and sex offenders.”

“People really misunderstand why I do this work,” Walker said. The research, they said, involves talking to people “who have unwanted attractions and never want to harm a child, but they’re unable to get the help that they want because they’re scared” of the reaction.

“Getting them the help they want and need will protect children,” Walker said.

But Foster said after looking at the book that it gave pedophiles “a pat on the back” for not acting on their attractions. “The language that they’re using is basically a slap in the face to anybody who has been groomed as a child,” Foster said.

She and others objected to those ideas being taught to students. “We don’t want our next generation of criminal justice and sociology students to normalize pedophilia,” she said.

Foster launched the petition on Saturday that demands Walker’s removal and calls their views on attractions to minors unacceptable. By Wednesday, the petition had more than 5,600 online signatures.

A short video clip of Walker explaining the use of the term “minor-attracted persons” had gone viral on social media last week. On Tuesday, someone painted the ODU landmark Dominion Rock with the message “GET Allyn Walker OFF Campus,” and students and others gathered with signs calling for the protection of children.

Walker said their research was “being misrepresented in right-wing media,” making it “unsafe to remain on campus.” “The university’s decision to place me on administrative leave really acknowledges the gravity of the threats to me and other people on campus,” they said.

A university spokeswoman said there had been threats against Walker’s life and those of their family members, and the threats were serious enough that Walker was being provided with armed security while on campus.

“Many individuals have shared with me the view that the phrase ‘minor-attracted people’ is inappropriate and should not be utilized as a euphemism for behavior that is illegal, morally unacceptable, and profoundly damaging,” Hemphill, the university president, said in a message to campus Tuesday. “It is important to call pedophilia what it is.”

Hemphill also said that ODU “remains committed to providing an environment in which our faculty can and will engage in rigorous research. At the same time, this freedom carries with it the obligation to speak and write with care and precision, particularly on a subject that has caused pain in so many lives.”