Our view

S.C. lawmakers punish university again

April 10, 2014 

The USC Upstate administration building.


  • In summary

    Those who believe in academic freedom need to condemn actions of Legislature.

South Carolina lawmakers are back to meddling in the curricula of state universities again, and once more gay themes have sparked the intrusion. The question that residents who value free expression need to ask is, where does this stop?

State lawmakers recently used the cudgel of budget cuts to punish two public universities for assigning books on homosexuality as part of common reading lists for incoming freshmen. In March, the House approved a spending plan for 2014-2015 that would cut $52,000 from the College of Charleston and $17,142 from the University of South Carolina Upstate because they refused to offer alternative texts for students to read.

This month, lawmakers were threatening to bludgeon USC Upstate again for another gay-themed program on its Spartanburg campus. The school is hosting a campus-wide discussion on gay topics, called the Bodies of Knowledge Symposium, that includes a lecture titled, “How to be a lesbian in 10 days or less,” and outraged House members threatened to slash more from the school’s budget next year unless the show was cancelled.

USC Upstate officials, under pressure, agreed to call off the program. A statement from the university said the reason for the cancellation was that “the controversy surrounding this performance has become a distraction” to the school’s mission.

While fighting the budget cuts might have been futile, we’re disappointed the university was forced to give in. A protracted battle might have exposed the lawmakers for the craven panderers they are.

“How to be a lesbian in 10 days or less,” which has been performed at other colleges, is a satirical show. Its website states that “writer and peformer Leigh Hendrix weaves a story that is one part instructional seminar, one part personal story and one part wacky performance art,” saying it is “at turns funny and poignant, silly and earnest.”

But some of the oblivious legislators who threatened to cut the school’s budget believed that the show really was an event designed to recruit people to become lesbians, according to school officials.

“If they’ve got extra money sitting around to promote perversion, obviously they’ve got more money than they really need,” said S.C. Sen. Kevin Bryant, an Anderson Republican who sits on the Senate budget-writing committee.

USC Upstate officials insist they had no intention of sparking a controversy with the symposium. And attendance is optional.

But while canceling “How to be a lesbian in 10 days or less” might seem a small concession in the face of threatened budget cuts, it emboldens lawmakers to interfere whenever they choose with decisions on what the state’s universities teach.

This time, the issue is gay-themed symposiums. What will it be next time? Political or religious themes that don’t suit the lawmakers’ point of view?

These assaults on schools’ budgets are not only a threat to academic freedom but also an affront to students who, by and large, are perfectly capable of considering different ideas and making their own informed judgments about them. Students don’t need to be coddled and protected from academic inquiry by narrow-minded elected officials.

Those who revere diversity and academic freedom need to rally behind the state’s colleges and universities when they are attacked by the Legislature for doing what they were designed to do.

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