The debate over gay-themed subject matter on S.C. public college campuses took two dramatic turns Tuesday.
The University of South Carolina Upstate eliminated the center that sponsored a gay culture symposium this spring as part of $450,000 in cost cuts for next year. School leaders said that sponsorship did not lead to the 15-year-old center’s demise.
Meanwhile, state senators voted Tuesday to require Upstate and the College of Charleston to spend nearly $70,000 to teach the Constitution and other U.S. founding documents. That is the same cost as the colleges paid for gay-themed books that they assigned to freshmen last fall.
State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, said his budget amendment was a censure of the schools for assigning what he called “pornography.”
“We spoke to the fact, ‘You did something wrong,’ ” Grooms said. “This is a way of making amends.”
Opponents of the amendment said the state needs to move forward from the debate over homosexuality, which has frozen the Senate’s budget debate for almost a week.
“You can wish away homosexuality all you want,” said state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg. “It’s been around for eons. ... It’s time for us to move into the century we live in.”
The Senate approved the amendment on a voice vote.
A Senate budget panel had restored the nearly $70,000 that the House cut from the two colleges in its version of the budget that takes effect July 1. Some senators also wanted to cut money – $52,000 from the College of Charleston and $17,142 from Upstate.
The full Senate voted to require the schools to use the money to teach provisions and principles of the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Federalist Papers as well as “the study of and devotion to American institutions and ideals.”
The budget amendment mentions an outdated state law that requires colleges to teach the founding documents for a year and graduates to prove loyalty to the United States before receiving a degree. The S.C. solicitor general has called that 90-year-old law “constitutionally suspect and problematic.”
Grooms said he wanted the two schools to teach the founding documents required in that law after hearing opponents of the House funding cuts call for academic freedom in allowing the gay-themed books.
Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, a former state senator who will become the College of Charleston president in July, said he would have voted against Grooms’ amendment.
“It chills academic freedom,” said McConnell, R-Charleston, who presides over the Senate. “Just because you disagree with people is not a reason to penalize them.”
The budget amendment also allows students – “based on a sincerely held religious, moral, or cultural belief” – to receive an alternative required-reading assignment or skip a mandatory lecture or seminar that is not part of a class.
The House and Senate will have to reconcile their differing spending plans in a conference committee.
The College of Charleston declined comment on the Senate’s action. But USC Upstate’s leader said he would examine the Senate amendment.
“We will pursue ways to use the $17,000 to teach the founding documents and study American institutions and ideals,” USC Upstate chancellor Tom Moore said. “It seems (other) sections ... could empower students to select their own curriculum and co-curricular activities. We will monitor how this moves through the rest of the budget process.”
Ryan Wilson, executive director of the SC Equality gay-rights advocacy group, said he looks forward to students – and some lawmakers – hearing more about equal protection and freedom of expression.
“We all could learn something here,” he said.
The decision to close Upstate’s Center for Women’s and Gender Studies on July 1 was not related to sponsoring a symposium this spring that examined “New Normals, Old Normals, Future Normals in LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) Community,” chancellor Moore said. The symposium scheduled a play, called “How to Be a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less,” that was canceled after an outcry that extended from the book debate.
Cutting the center will save $45,000 a year, a school spokeswoman said. The center’s director will return to the school’s full-time faculty.
“Not only is this decision not punitive or a response to external pressure, it is part of an effort to be consistent and systematic across academic affairs in how we administer and support various programs,” Moore said.
Women’s and Gender Studies is the only interdisciplinary minor at Upstate that has a dedicated center, the school said.
The $450,000 USC Upstate is saving represents a fraction of Upstate’s $92 million-a-year budget. The 5,445-student school said it wants to trim administrative costs to put more money into academics.
“It’s a sad day for USC Upstate,” SC Equality’s Wilson said.