Columbia, SC — On April 21, the College of Charleston hosted a special performance of “ Fun Home: The Musical.” With only a week’s notice, 1,500 seats were sold for two shows.
This performance was such an unprecedented event — with the author, playwright and composer participating — that it drew reporters from all over the country, including from The Washington Post and The New York Times. This performance escalated the threats the state Legislature has been making toward the college since February.
For nearly three months, state representatives and senators have been attacking the award-winning graphic novel Fun Home, the book we offered to students for this year’s College Reads! program. National reporters have been astonished at what legislators are saying and threatening; some of the conversations I’ve had with them are simply their efforts at confirmation: “An elected official said that? Are you serious?”
The answer is yes. For instance, Rep. Garry Smith called Fun Home “blatantly pro-homosexual and pornographic propaganda,” and Rep. Stephen Goldfinch called it “obscene pornography.”
But often the reporters’ larger focus is academic freedom — and with good reason. They’re recognizing that the attacks on Fun Home are larger than the College of Charleston. This isn’t a phenomenon confined to this Southern backwater; instead, it has implications for places like Washington, New York and Madison, Wisc.
Academic freedom is the belief that free inquiry by faculty members defines academic scholarship, and the meaning of a college or university. South Carolina is facing threats to academic freedom that are extreme, in part because the Legislature continues to threaten our funding. In March the House voted to cut $52,000 from our budget, the amount that the College Reads! program cost. Symbolic, but significant. After the college brought the production of Fun Home to campus April 21, Sen. Larry Grooms threatened even more, saying that “lessons weren’t learned over there” and that members of the Senate want to “fix the deficiencies at the College” — the deficiencies being offering books and productions that the Legislature doesn’t agree with.
While this isn’t book banning, it’s clearly an effort to affect our curriculum. Rep. Bill Whitmire was explicit about this in his February interviews with Board of Trustees members being reappointed. He asked each person a question about Fun Home, saying, “Seems to me this (College Reads!) committee kind of wants to do their own thing. They have to do what the Board of Trustees expect.” Most members of the Board of Trustees responded as Trustee Joe Thompson did: “This book was a mistake. Shouldn’t have happened.”
The Legislature is attempting to control the Board of Trustees, and the board is in many ways cooperating.
The College of Charleston is responding to these threats in the correct way: We aren’t rolling over, as other university administrators have done on other college campuses in South Carolina and elsewhere in the country. We aren’t backing down or apologizing for offering the book. Students, faculty, even our administration are coming together, offering unanimous votes of no-confidence against the board, creating various forms of activism and adamantly supporting academic freedom.
My hopeful interpretation of legislative attacks on Fun Home is that our nation is in a moment of significant change. Rights and recognition of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals as valuable human beings is happening nationwide, and S.C. legislators are resisting this change, and attacking the curricula of colleges that embrace all populations.
Dr. Piepmeier is director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the College of Charleston; contact her at PiepmeierA@cofc.edu.