Lawmakers to S.C. colleges: Choose freedom or funding

ashain@thestate.comMarch 15, 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. legislators are trying to teach the state’s public colleges a lesson in a way no one can recall being done before.

Last week, S.C. House members blocked efforts to restore nearly $70,000 taken away from two colleges for assigning gay-themed books to freshmen. However, a lawmaker withdrew a more onerous proposal – to keep $1 million from each public school in the state until they banned “pornographic content” in classes.

Now, as the debate over academic freedom versus political reality moves to the state Senate, worries are spreading that S.C. schools could face more penalties in the future.

“This is a new frontier, and one I find particularly chilling,” said state Rep Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg. “It always starts with a little thing. But small things become big things.”

State Rep. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Georgetown, said legislators walk a “thin line” when involving themselves with what colleges teach.

But “Fun Home,” the graphic memoir about the author’s struggles with her family and sexual orientation that was assigned by the College of Charleston, was too much for Goldfinch. He supported removing $52,000 from the school’s budget next year.

“This is an example where intervention is necessary,” said Goldfinch, whose wife is on the College of Charleston board. “There are times either side can trample on freedoms of anybody. This book trampled on freedom of conservatives. It would been the same if it was an anti-Muslim book or an anti-Semitic book. Teaching with this book, and the pictures, goes too far.”

School leaders say they need to educate some lawmakers about the critical thinking skills that colleges teach students. But they heard the message from the state budget debate.

“I think that possibly (in the future) we will be somewhat more sensitive in the text we select,” said Thomas Moore, chancellor at the University of South Carolina-Upstate, which lost $17,000 in funding next year over its freshman reading assignment, which House conservatives also found too gay-friendly. “But that doesn’t mean things won’t happen where someone will find content they think is inappropriate.”

Questioning colleges

What S.C. public universities are teaching – or not – has become the target of legislators in recent months.

USC students caught the attention of legislators with their demands that the state’s flagship university teach the Constitution under a 90-year-old state law that is unenforceable. Another USC student went on national television to complain that one of her assigned textbooks portrayed former President Ronald Reagan negatively.

But several longtime lawmakers and college leaders say they cannot remember a time when the General Assembly has punished colleges for assignments like they did when they took away the cost of the freshman-reading programs at the College of Charleston and USC-Upstate.

USC trustees chairman Gene Warr said lawmakers complain on occasion about campus issues to board members, whom the General Assembly elects. But conflicts, including those involving the classroom, normally don’t escalate like they have in the past month.

“We might not always agree about everything that is taught and not taught,” Warr said of USC’s trustees, “but we allow those teaching to have freedom in teaching.”

Still, colleges must be sensitive to what happens in the State House.

While public funding of higher education was slashed during the Great Recession, state universities still rely on taxpayer money from the Legislature and state-regulatory permission to move ahead with construction projects – even those paid entirely from alumni donations.

But universities are coming under increasing pressure from some budget hawks, especially House Ways and Means chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, for increasing tuition while adding debt to construct or modernize buildings.

Challenging students?

The amounts the House proposes taking away from the two colleges is only a tiny fraction of their state budgets.

But the House’s action was damaging to priceless ideas, school leaders said.

“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,” College of Charleston president George Benson said in a statement.

Still, the College of Charleston said it would seek wider input on reading choices for freshmen next fall.

USC Upstate’s Moore said some lawmakers might not fully understand his college’s intent of challenging students with the reading assignments.

“We are not promoting an agenda,” he said. “Being exposed does not mean agreeing or being converted.”

Ed Madden, a USC English professor who was an editor of the essay book assigned at USC Upstate, “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio,” said students headed into a diverse world need exposure to diverse thinking.

“I always tell my students that the classroom is a safe place for discussion, but that does not mean it’s a comfortable place,” he said. “Sometimes, we learn best when we are uncomfortable. Isn’t one of the points of college to learn how to participate in a reasoned way in a difficult conversation?”

A third of the “Out Loud” essays, about people dealing with being gay in South Carolina, come from college-age students, making it perfect for a freshman reading program, Madden said. “They’re reading essays by people their own age.”

‘Dangerous precedence’

After living almost 20 years in South Carolina, Madden said he sees more openness and understanding about gay issues. But, he added, the reaction to the books shows, “Gay and lesbian issues are still very difficult in South Carolina.”

Efforts to reach state Rep. Garry Smith, the Greenville Republican who led the efforts to eliminate the funding over the books, were unsuccessful. But, last month, he said: “If you want to make a point, you have to make it hurt.”

Smith has said the colleges failed to act responsibly in just presenting one side of an issue.

Democrat Cobb-Hunter said some Republican lawmakers, who control the House, are just “convinced their perspective is the only perspective that ought to matter. And they have the power over us and there’s nothing you can do about it. ... I hope the Senate will have the courage to restore that funding.”

Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, a Richland Republican who heads the Senate’s higher education budget panel, said he has not been asked by the schools to restore the money. Courson said he will wait until the Senate’s budget deliberations before deciding his next move.

“I’m not sure the Legislature should be involved in censorship,” he said. “These are decisions that should be left to the (college) presidents and academic leaders, not the General Assembly.”

Faculty senates at Clemson University and the Medical University of South Carolina passed resolutions last week asking the State House not to interfere in classrooms.

“This sets a very dangerous precedent,” Clemson faculty senate president Kelly Smith said. “This is a direct threat to academic freedom, using their financial power to threaten universities. We’re not talking about middle-school kids. We’re talking about adults.”

The College of Charleston student government also passed a resolution asking the General Assembly to restore the $52,000 taken from that school’s budget.

“This is the United States of America,” said Chris Piedmont, the college’s student government vice president. “Some things are supposed to be respected.”

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