SC colleges under fire about book, course choices

ashain@thestate.comFebruary 19, 2014 

University of South Carolina students make their way past the Russell House on campus during the first day of school in August.

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com Buy Photo

Some S.C. public colleges are coming under fire for the books they assign students and whether they follow a state law requiring instruction on the U.S. founding documents.

S.C. House budget writers voted Wednesday to take away nearly $70,000 from the College of Charleston and USC Upstate for having freshmen read books with gay themes.

Also, a University of South Carolina political science major appeared on a national cable news show Tuesday after she found one of her classes included reading a social work textbook that, she said, inaccurately portrays Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

Meanwhile, another USC political science major sparked legislators to question the school’s president about why the university is not following a 90-year-old state law that requires colleges teach the Constitution and Declaration of Independence for a year.

“The law does not say up it’s up to the students or the school,” said Jameson Broggi, a junior who has worked for a year on the effort. “It’s a requirement.”

‘Make it hurt’

Critics of the college books say they do not want to force one view on students.

State Rep. Garry Smith, a Greenville Republican who sits on the House’s higher education budget panel, pushed punishing the College of Charleston and USC Upstate for their book choices.

The amount of state support that legislators voted to withdraw from the schools was based on the amount of money the schools spent on the required-reading books last year — $17,000 by USC Upstate for “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio” and $52,000 by the College of Charleston for “Fun Home.”

“One of the things I learned over the years is that if you want to make a point, you have to make it hurt,” Smith said. “I understand academic freedom, but this is not academic freedom. ... This was about promoting one side with no academic debate involved.”

After the dust-up, the College of Charleston sought wider input on choosing reading that it will require of freshmen, a school spokesman said. For next year,100 books were considered, more than double from a year ago, the spokesman said.

State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an Orangeburg Democrat who also sits on the budget committee, said lawmakers are in no position to make moral judgments. She also warned that punishing schools over book choices could hurt economic recruitment.

“Do you think for one minute that some companies are going to look seriously at us?” she said.

Cobb-Hunter suggested some lawmakers should run for college trustee if they want to micromanage what students read. “(We) need to stop running a dictatorship forcing people to believe what we believe. This is a wide, wide world.”

Criticizing Reagan

USC has become fodder on national conservative news websites and Fox News this week over a textbook in a social-work class.

“They would have us believe there’s nothing wrong with this,” Fox anchor Megyn Kelly said Tuesday night of the university’s explanation of the book.

The textbook, “Introduction to Social Work & Social Welfare: Critical Thinking Perspectives,” says Reagan was sexist and disdained the poor, said USC sophomore Anna Chapman, secretary of the College Republicans, who said she took the class to learn more about social policy.

“A lot of people don’t keep up with politics, and they will buy what is written in the book,” the Florence native said. “If I wasn’t in the class, no one would have questioned this.”

When her complaints started to generate some buzz in conservative circles, “I predicted Fox News would pick it up,” Chapman said.

Chapman said she appeared on Kelly’s show because of the appeal on where the controversy was taking place — in the South. “If this is going on in South Carolina, I can’t imagine what’s going on in more liberal places,” she said.

In a statement, USC officials said of the book: “Our faculty and academic programs are free to select texts for their courses and our students are encouraged to raise questions, challenge convention and develop their own ideas.

“We are pleased to see this class has inspired a lively conversation, much like President Reagan did when he spoke to a crowd of 9,000 on our Horseshoe (in 1983).”

Constitutional questions

Whether USC is failing to teach the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, as required by state law, was raised by junior Broggi, who says the university can find room to teach classes about the country’s founding documents.

“We’re the greatest country in history of the world because of the principles of what we believe,” said the Beaufort native, whose brother is in the Marines.

At least two S.C. public schools, Coastal Carolina University and Winthrop University, say they follow the requirements of the law.

Broggi said he met with lawmakers after he could not convince USC officials to follow the law. Three state senators went to USC president Harris Pastides to ask why the state’s flagship university was not teaching classes on the documents.

Pastides wrote back saying the law needs updating. One section of the law requires a student prove his or her loyalty to the United States before receiving a degree. That might prove unconstitutional.

The state attorney general’s office has been asked for an opinion on the law. Solicitor General Bob Cook said his first reaction is that the law is “constitutionally suspect and problematic. The loyalty provision is very difficult to enforce.”

And laws must be enforced in their entirety, he added.

The almost 100-year-old law also says the state superintendent of education will oversee the collegiate program, including choosing books. However, colleges now are regulated by the Commission on Higher Education.

Cook, a 36-year veteran in the attorney general’s office, said he was not aware of the law before hearing about complaints this year.

In his letter to legislators, Pastides also said requiring a year-long course in the country’s founding documents could cause an “academic logjam” that could delay graduation for some students.

The president said 60 percent of full-time students already take one of three courses at USC where the country’s founding documents are taught. But he promised to work with the General Assembly on a solution.

Smith, the Greenville state representative, introduced a bill at the start of session this year to modernize the law, though no action has been taken on it.

“It’s totally a win-win situation,” he said. “People will be able to understand what our country is all about, but it also will increase their participation in the democratic process.”

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