USC Upstate reading requirement raises ire, re-assessment

felicia.kitzmiller@shj.comJanuary 4, 2014 

Book cover

A piece of required reading and related programming is causing controversy at the University of South Carolina Upstate.

Legislators, religious leaders and community members have spoken out against what some have called a one-sided agenda surrounding homosexuality. USC Upstate officials said they will examine the method for choosing texts and related programs over the summer, but will continue on the current path for the upcoming semester.

"Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio" is a collection of essays from members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community living in the South. The book focuses on how their sexuality affected their life experiences in the traditionally conservative Bible Belt.

A panel of educators at USC Upstate chose "Out Loud" as the featured text of this year's Preface — a required reading program for all university freshmen. Students read the book as part of the English 101 curriculum and are then required to attend co-curricular activities including speakers and movies to facilitate conversations on the topic of homosexuality and society.

Tammy Whaley, a spokeswoman for USC Upstate, said four to five months of consideration goes into choosing the text for the class, and many titles were considered.

"This particular book was chosen for several reasons. With the recent Supreme Court decision and in anticipation of the winter Olympics in Russia, it's current and relevant," Whaley said. "This university has always prided itself on providing a safe environment for diversity… where students can feel comfortable exploring other points of view."

The Rev. Mike Hamlet of First Baptist Church of North Spartanburg said he has no issue with the university presenting opportunities to explore other points of view, but takes issue with the fact that it is part of a mandatory, not elective, course at a public university supported by tax dollars. By requiring students to participate in curriculum that disagrees with their faith, he said Upstate has created a "religious liberty issue."

State Rep. Rita Allison said she heard complaints about "Out Loud" from a handful of her constituents and brought their concerns to Upstate Chancellor Tom Moore.

"You can introduce people to other things, but when you start forcing them for a grade, you're infringing on them," she said.

Allison, who also serves as the communications director for the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, said issues like this come up occasionally, particularly surrounding controversial topics.

Hamlet said not all points of view are adequately represented in the curriculum.

Of the 11 events scheduled throughout the semester, most were presented by members of the LGBT community. There were three presentations from the faith community — a lecture from the Rev. Michelle Buhite, minister of the United Universalist Church of Spartanburg, titled "Compassion is a moral justice issue," and two panel discussions.

Hamlet participated in one of the panel discussions and said it was poorly attended, claiming the university added it to the program because of pressure. "This is not about homosexuals," Hamlet said. "This is about the university being used for a specific social agenda. … This is about balance."

Pastor Anthony Dicks of Cedar Grove Baptist Church of Simpsonville also participated in the panel discussion and defended the university's selection of the book. "My first, knee-jerk reaction to the book wasn't positive," Dicks said.

He said his faith and the Bible tell him homosexuality is a sin, but it is the church's responsibility to teach the Bible, not the university's. "We can't expect the state to advance the agenda of the church," Dicks said.

In the spirit of academic inquiry, Dicks said it is best when issues are presented from all sides in a conversational tone. "The thing about academia is you're supposed to introduce discussion," he said. "As soon as you introduce dogma, you can't have a dialogue."

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