Winthrop faculty, president say SC budget cuts for gay-themed books would trample academic freedom

adouglas@heraldonline.comMarch 19, 2014 

FILE. Tillman Hall at Winthrop University.

  • Past Winthrop common books

    Winthrop has assigned freshmen common books since 2004 that have included topics such as the poor working conditions in the global economy for garment workers, AIDS and poverty in West Africa, and racial issues including affirmative action and education funding. The university’s freshmen book assignments are not part of the current budget and academic freedom debate.

    Since 2004, the college’s common books have been:

    • “Into The Wild” by Jon Krakauer

    • “A Hope in the Unseen” by Ron Suskind

    • “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell

    • “The Creative Habit” by Twyla Tharp

    • “Nine Hills to Nambonkaha” by Sarah Erdman

    • “Growing Up” by Russell Baker

    • “Make the Impossible Possible” by Bill Strickland

    • “Where Am I Wearing” by Kelsey Timmerman

    • “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” by William Kamkwamba

— Winthrop University faculty members are joining with their counterparts at other state colleges in defense of academic freedom, which some say has come under fire this month in the South Carolina legislature.

The state House voted earlier this month to take $70,000 away from two colleges that assigned books with gay themes to freshmen students. Pending a Senate vote, College of Charleston stands to lose $52,000 for asking students to read “Fun Home,” and the University of South Carolina-Upstate could lose $17,000 for assigning “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio.”

The books are part of programs at each college that call for all freshmen to read the same book.

The debate now moves to the state Senate, where lawmakers will decide whether to go along with the cuts or add the $70,000 in the Senate’s version of the budget. Professors and college leaders across the state, including those at Winthrop, have drafted resolutions to send to lawmakers decrying the proposed college book budget cuts.

Winthrop has an initiative – called the Common Book Project – which is similar to the programs at the College of Charleston and USC-Upstate.

This year’s assigned reading at Winthrop was “The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind,” a memoir about a boy in Malawi who builds a windmill from scrap metal to help feed his village. The university spent about $11,800 on the books. Winthrop will host William Kamkwamba, author of “The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind,” on April 3.

While Winthrop’s book isn’t part of the controversy in Columbia, university President Jamie Comstock says she supports the faculty’s resolution, which asserts that academic freedom is threatened by “legislative efforts attempting to influence or limit curricular decisions.”

The resolution states that academic freedom, “and the occasional controversies it can generate, is fundamental to the pursuit of truth and knowledge in all disciplines.”

Academic freedom is an extension of and grounded in First Amendment rights granted by the U.S. Constitution, Comstock said. The point of academic freedom is to shield scholars from interference or punishment during or after the course of study or research that may arrive at an “inconvenient truth.”

The point of the common book at Winthrop, Comstock said, is to provide students with “a common experience” that may show them new views or experiences that are different from their own.

Universities should expose students to the “marketplace of ideas” and encourage them to reflect on their own values and experiences, she said. Students may not change their opinions or values by simply learning about someone else’s, but after the exposure to new ideas, Comstock said, they’ll be better able to defend their own.

Winthrop’s common book – along with seven events planned this year to discuss it – supports a basic tenet of university life: the promotion of a “higher level of understanding of one another,” she said.

Some curriculum or reading material will be “provocative” or thought-provoking to help teach students to think critically about issues and arrive at their own conclusions, Comstock said.

“The way we move society forward is to challenge conventional wisdom,” she said.

Parent complaint started budget backlash

For Rock Hill Republican Rep. Gary Simrill, the book budget cuts aren’t an issue of academic freedom.

“It’s not a freedom if it’s mandated,” he said, referring to the requirement that freshmen read the books.

He supported the effort, led by Greenville Republican Rep. Garry Smith, to use the “only real avenue ... the wallet” to express disapproval of the College of Charleston and USC-Upstate’s book choices, he said.

His decision, Simrill said, was based on South Carolina’s “social mores” and what he believes are the values of most of his constituents.

“Any state-supported institution is a subset of our demography and our constituency,” he said, adding that College of Charleston’s “Fun Home” choice is “offensive to many.”

Had the books been offered as one of a few for students to pick from, he said, the budget controversy over the gay-themed common books may not have started.

Smith agreed, saying he and others approached the College of Charleston and USC-Upstate last year to raise concerns about the books. A parent in his district emailed Smith, he said, and was upset about the “Fun Home” reading assigned to his 17-year-old daughter.

Representatives from both colleges told Smith they would not offer alternative book choices for students who may be offended by the reading material. Neither school, Smith said, would agree to what he thought was a true “academic debate” that would share views opposing those presented in the book. Some book-related events were scheduled but Smith felt those simply reinforced issues raised in the books.

Like Simrill, Smith said he doesn’t view the matter as one about a faculty’s academic freedom.

“Their freedom infringes upon someone else’s rights,” Smith said, adding that he was particularly opposed to students and parents having to pay for books – through tax dollars or tuition – that offended them.

It was one sexually graphic image in “Fun Home” – not the fact that the book is about gay issues – that convinced Fort Mill Republican Rep. Raye Felder that the book wasn’t appropriate for college freshmen.

While she voted to cut funding to the two colleges, “I’m not in support of using the budget as a weapon,” she said. Felder would have preferred to deal with the book issue through non-budget legislation by involving academic professionals, testimony and House committee discussion.

Like some others, Felder wanted the colleges to offer more than one choice of books to freshmen if some people found the material offensive. Some material, such as “Fun Home,” would be more appropriate in advanced classes, instead of for freshmen students who could be 17 years old, she said.

To avoid academic freedom problems in the future, Comstock says, college and university leaders may need to explain better to legislators the value of a liberal arts education and the importance of exposing students to a range of ideas.

The strongest voice in the debate over proposed book funding cuts and the threat to academic freedom, she said, is the voice of faculty members. “It’s their academic freedom ... that’s been called into question.”

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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