USC Upstate Chancellor Tom Moore said two programs at the university dealing with homosexuality have been taken out of context from the rest of student life on campus.
Moore said he believes both controversies, which have been covered by national media in recent months, have been more of an issue off campus than on.
"I've been surprised by what seems to be a narrow view of the role of higher education by some in state government," Moore said. "Some in the General Assembly see higher education as intended to serve their concept of state interest, their idea of what is appropriate."
Republican Sens. Lee Bright, R-Roebuck, and Mike Fair, a fellow Republican from Greenville County, said in a statement last week that they voted in opposition to all candidates for reappointment to the University of South Carolina board of trustees, who were unopposed, because of recent decisions allow "left-leaning" books and performances with gay themes.
Leigh Hendrix was scheduled to perform a one-woman show called "How to Become a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less" during USC Upstate's "Bodies of Knowledge" conference this week, but the show was cancelled due to opposition from lawmakers and the community, school officials said in a statement last week. The conference is continuing as scheduled this week, minus Hendrix's performance, which organizers said was intended to be comedic satire, not a how-to on becoming gay.
For Lisa Johnson, director of the Center for Women's and Gender Studies at USC Upstate, the controversy over the performance, which was planned a year ago, isn't surprising.
"Women's and gender studies programs — and events related to sexual orientation — often draw attention and misunderstanding, especially from politicians and some conservative constituents," Johnson said. "Holding an event on LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual and questioning) issues represents one among many ways that women's and gender studies as an academic field fulfills its commitment to the study of marginalized populations. Students at Upstate are very interested in this opportunity to explore the question of what counts as normal in our society."
Topics to be discussed during Bodies of Knowledge, which continues through Friday, include LGBT suicides, transgender issues and the lives of gays in the Bible Belt.
Bright and Fair both likened Hendrix's scheduled performance to indoctrination and recruitment of lesbians and gays among Upstate students. Fair said in a TV interview this week that Upstate students needed to be exposed to gay-themed materials and programs like "they do skinheads and radical Islam. They don't need to be exposed to it."
The state House recently approved a $17,142 cut to USC Upstate due to a book assigned to all freshmen this year called "Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio," which includes essays on gay experiences such as coming out, being bullied or being shunned by friends or family because of their homosexuality.
"I think we've got their attention," Bright said about USC Upstate administration and faculty Thursday. "Folks in Spartanburg aren't looking for that kind of bent at their local college." Bright, a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Lindsey Graham, said the Legislature needs to have a greater discussion about higher education funding.
"There may be across-the-board cuts," Bright said. "We continue to increase spending at these universities, but they need to do something to control costs. Maybe they have some resources they're not in need of. People pay more attention to how many football games the university wins rather than the exact details of the education being provided. I don't think people are paying close enough attention."
Chancellor Moore said he also believes the legislators are not acting independently of their constituents' beliefs, and knows that their feelings are grounded in religious perspective. "I can understand that," Moore said.
However, the chancellor said, the idea that USC Upstate is assigning readings or scheduling performances to indoctrinate or recruit gays is a misinformed position. Moore said there are 14 student religious groups on campus, and a variety of other campus organizations on a variety of viewpoints, including Republican and Democrat groups and an anti-abortion group.
"LGBTQ issues are part of any campus life," Moore said. "As a public university, it's our charge to equip and empower students to live engaged, authentic lives and be responsible citizens. Each student has to define each of those things for him or herself. We can't do that if we exclude some part of the population. We must be a safe place for those who come to us."
When asked if he would intervene in curriculum assigned by faculty, Moore said, "Absolutely not. That's a line I will not cross. I support the faculty's role and responsibility for the curriculum." The attention to USC Upstate has sparked rumors of budget shortfalls and a decline in applications to the university. Both are untrue, Moore said.
While officials are tightening their belts due to a drop in applications in 2013 and a smaller reserve fund, no professors have been laid off or programs cut. Of the 3,538 freshmen applications for 2014, 1,732 have been accepted, an increase of about 50. Transfer applications for 2014 are at 988, an increase of 100, with 513 being accepted. Applications for returning housing students went from 217 in 2013 to 305 for 2014, according to officials.
Moore said five focus groups are working to clarify institutional priorities at Upstate, and he's looking forward to the results of those and an upcoming leadership retreat. "This is the most optimistic I've been since I got here," Moore said. "We're positioned to take off and really excel."
USC Upstate senior Daniel Francis said students have remained mostly quiet about the controversy and the legislature's decision to cut university funding. He said he believes legislators like Bright and Fair are not well informed about campus life and the curriculum at Upstate.
"I'm very against this movement to restrict student events based on topic," said Francis, who has been in several leadership positions at Upstate, including as a peer leader for freshmen and a senator for the Student Government Association. "I think it's the start of a very dangerous snowball effect. First and foremost, the issue at hand is that legislators are trying to restrict our academic freedom. I think this is very bad for not only the Upstate, but for South Carolina. I think this is going to affect us economically. People are very against South Carolina right now because of this."