Legislator says universities refused to compromise over controversial books

© Book required for freshmen at the College of Charleston (Source: RCPL)
© Book required for freshmen at the College of Charleston (Source: RCPL)
© Book required for freshmen at USC Upstate (Source: Amazon.com)
© Book required for freshmen at USC Upstate (Source: Amazon.com)
Rep. Garry Smith
Rep. Garry Smith
Rep. B. R. Skelton
Rep. B. R. Skelton

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The South Carolina State Representative who proposed cutting funds to two state universities because of required reading says he's not trying to limit academic freedom.

"This certainly is not about censorship," said Rep. Garry Smith. "If they had offered an alternative, I don't think we would be having this situation or having this conversation today."

Smith proposed cutting $52,000 from the state budget allocation for the College of Charleston and $17,142 from the budget for the University of South Carolina Upstate.  Earlier this week, the House Ways and Means Committee approved the spending plan that includes the cuts.

Smith says the administrations of both schools refused to compromise or offer alternatives for students who did not feel comfortable reading the books required for their freshmen reading class.

"That's what got me upset," he said.  "That's what got me concerned. That an institution of higher education would take the elitist, arrogant attitude that, 'You have your 17-year-old daughter read this book.  There will be no other book that she could read as an alternative.'"

A man who lives in Smith's district contacted him after his 17-year-old daughter, who is a freshman at the College of Charleston, was required to read a graphic novel titled, "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" by Allison Bechdel. The coming-of-age book is about a young woman's relationship with her bisexual father and how it influenced her taste in literature and her own sexuality.

"If I were to hand that book to a 17-year-old, then I would probably be arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor and for spreading pornography, but this university bought 4,000 of these," says Smith. "If they were using the book and trying to have an academic debate, I'm all for that."

Smith says he contacted members of the college's Board of Trustees but they were not able to get a compromise from C of C administrators. When he failed to get action in the fall, Smith says he would make a statement by refusing to allow state funding to pay for the cost of the books.

"One of the ways to make things real is when it's felt in the pocketbook" he says.

When asked about Smith's claim the college refused to offer an alternative solution, the college told WIS through this statement: "No student was denied an alternative book or reading assignment by the College (sic). No student at the College of Charleston was required to read this award-winning book unless they registered for a course that required it."

The other book in question was assigned to all freshmen at USC Upstate, called "Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio." The book is about South Carolina's first gay and lesbian radio show.

According to a statement from USC Upstate, "the Preface first-year reading program introduces students to the joy of academic inquiry. As such, it combines guided reading of a selected text with co-curricular events in which students discuss questions raised by the text with university, community and national experts...to 'help USC Upstate first-year students make connections to each other and to the University, to practice skills that contribute to success in college, and to discuss how a deeper understanding of a shared reading can inform the way we make personal decisions and influence public policy today.'"

The statement continued: "The selection of Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio was never intended to cause controversy in the community. In selecting the text and teaching it, we do not seek to change anyone's beliefs, but we do wish to introduce our students to the words of people who have faced oppression within and beyond our region. We encourage our students to think critically, conceiving of multiple points of view on this current topic."

Smith says it's not about first amendment rights and academic freedom.

"I have a real problem with that explanation when they're telling this young lady, 'We don't care about what your convictions are on this issue.  This is the only way its going to be here.'"

Smith's colleague on the Ways and Means Committee, Representative B.R. Skelton, offered a counter proposal the committee voted down.

"At first blush it seemed to me a bit of censorship, a bit of retribution, a bit of punishment," he said. "A bit of an effort to micro manage situations."

"I didn't think that was an appropriate legislative function," Skelton says. "I thought we should be making legislative decisions establishing policy and the policy would be administered at the local level. I didn't think we should be making budget decisions based on social issues."

Skelton was a longtime professor of economics at Clemson University, so he's familiar with academic procedures.

"People who understand the decision-making process at the colleges and universities understand that most of these decisions are made by faculty and faculty have a bit of academic freedom," he says.

"I just don't want us to appear that we are some backward entity here in South Carolina and are unwilling to accept what goes on in the real world."

Statement from USC Upstate regarding proposed funding cut due to "Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio"

The fact that South Carolina legislators want to withhold $17,142 in funding from USC Upstate because they disagree with the selected text for a first-year reading program is very disheartening.  From the University perspective this action is punishing the very students the legislators claim to be protecting in the first place. USC Upstate has realized an almost 50% reduction in state appropriations since the 2008-2009 fiscal year.  Any additional funding cut places further burden on our 5,500 students, and makes it even more difficult to remain accessible and affordable to the South Carolina citizens we serve.

Regardless of the Legislature's final decision, USC Upstate is committed to remaining accessible and affordable to the people of South Carolina. To target funding for a particular program because it doesn't align with certain beliefs and judging it in terms of specific content instead of the discussions the content promotes is perhaps a bit shortsighted.  Indeed, controversial issues are essential in creating levels of discussion and student engagement that cannot be generated otherwise.  We see such engagement as essential to the educational process.

Full statement from the College of Charleston:

At the College of Charleston, we generally do not comment on the legislative process, and for good reason.  There often are significant legislative changes when a bill is considered by the full House and Senate.

Any university education must include the opportunity for students to engage controversial ideas.  Our students are adults, and we will treat them as such at the College of Charleston. 

As one of the oldest universities in the United States, the College of Charleston is committed to the principle of academic freedom.  Faculty, not politicians, ultimately must decide what textbooks are selected and how those materials are taught. 

Any legislative attempt to tie institutional funding to what books are taught, or who teaches them, threatens the credibility and reputation of all South Carolina public universities. 

I continue to welcome a constructive, cordial, and respectful dialogue on the topic of our College Reads program with any member of the General Assembly or the community at large.  

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