Education
2:43 am
Fri May 9, 2014

Books With Gay Themes Put S.C. Colleges' Funding At Risk

Originally published on Mon May 12, 2014 2:26 pm

House lawmakers in South Carolina have voted to slash funding for two of the state's largest public colleges in retaliation for the introduction of books with gay themes into the schools' freshman reading programs.

In February, the South Carolina House of Representatives voted to cut $70,000 — the entire cost of the programs — from the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate.

The Senate is debating the state budget this week, and multiple efforts to reinstate the funds have thus far failed.

The College of Charleston had assigned incoming students to read Fun Home, a graphic novel about the author's struggle with her family and sexual orientation that includes illustrations of lesbian sex. The University of South Carolina Upstate selected Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio, a compilation of radio stories about being gay and lesbian in the South, for a similar program.

Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel, was also developed into a Pulitzer-nominated off-Broadway musical. Last month, the New York cast of the play traveled to Charleston to perform it in support of the students, striking back at lawmakers who voted for the cuts.

One lawmaker who took offense was Republican Rep. Garry Smith. "Any freedom, including academic freedom, comes with responsibility," Smith told NPR. "You can't run into a crowded theater and shout fire when there's no fire."

Smith says the college failed to present multiple perspectives about the novel. "You need to discuss it from a true academic debate standpoint, which looks at all aspects of it. That was not done," he says.

Students, for their part, have organized demonstrations and phone banks urging the governor to block the threatened cuts.

Some College of Charleston students also see the move as part of a larger effort to control political discourse at the school. They say that, in addition to the funding cuts, the GOP-controlled Legislature recently handpicked one of their own to run the college.

South Carolina Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, a conservative Republican, was recently selected to become the college's next president. Media reports suggest that the college's governing board chose him under pressure from lawmakers, and against the advice of a search committee.

"It just reeked of insider dealings, backroom political maneuvers and political and economic pressure being put on the board of trustees," says student Matt Rabon, who has been protesting the appointment.

McConnell spent more than 30 years in the state Senate. And he's known for his affection for Civil War history and the Confederate flag.

McConnell did not agree to an interview with NPR. But he has the support of at least one well-known Democrat, longtime Charleston Mayor Joe Riley. "He's a good guy. And a very nice, hardworking person," the mayor says. "I think he'll be an excellent college president."

Political writer Andy Brack, who runs the website Statehouse Report, says state lawmakers likely see in McConnell an opportunity for more control of the college. He says choosing McConnell may be the price the college was willing to pay for a stronger relationship with the Legislature.

"It's tough being a college president these days," he says. "And one might think that a reason McConnell was hired is that he understands state budgeting and the relationships with the Legislature, which has a big control over the universities in this state."

While McConnell's selection prompted students to stage a sit-in, he'll assume his new role as president of the College of Charleston at a quieter time on campus, on July 1, when most students are away.

Copyright 2014 Georgia Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit http://www.gpb.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. In South Carolina some state lawmakers want to cut funding for two public colleges. At issue here are gay and lesbian themed books in student reading programs. Sarah McCammon of Georgia Public Broadcasting visited one of the schools, the College of Charleston.

SRAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: The College is nestled in downtown Charleston, among Victorian row houses and sprawling live oak trees draped in Spanish moss. The campus is packing up to go home for the year, and inside a modern-looking student center, a half-dozen students are gathered, cell phones in hand, operating a phone bank.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE BANK)

MATT RABON: OK. I just wanted to urge Governor Haley to come out in support of academic freedom.

MCCAMMON: Philosophy major Matt Rabon is asking South Carolina's Republican Governor, Nikki Haley, to block the state legislature from cutting funding to their college.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE BANK)

RABON: I understand that the funds that were punitively removed from our operating fund...

MCCAMMON: In February, the South Carolina House of Representatives voted to cut $52,000 - the cost of a student reading program. Members did this because they objected to the choice of the graphic novel "Fun Home." The award-winning memoir by Alison Bechdel includes illustrations of lesbian sex. It also became an off-Broadway musical.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "FUN HOME")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Caption: My dad and I both grew up in the same Pennsylvania town, and he was gay, and I was gay. And he killed himself, and I became a lesbian cartoonist.

MCCAMMON: Last month, the New York cast of "Fun Home" traveled to Charleston to perform the play in support of the students, striking back at lawmakers who voted f or the cuts, like Republican Representative Garry Smith.

REPRESENTATIVE GARRY SMITH: Academic freedom comes with responsibility.

MCCAMMON: Smith also says the college failed to present multiple perspectives about the novel.

SMITH: You need to discuss it from a true academic debate standpoint which looks at all aspects of it. That was not done.

MCCAMMON: Can you give me an example of a book that would have provided an opposite point of view?

SMITH: I'm sure the university probably could have come up with one, but off the top of my head I can't give you one, but I'm sure that they're out there.

MCCAMMON: Students aren't just worried about lawmakers interfering with what's read and discussed on campus. They're also concerned about the GOP-controlled legislature hand-picking who runs the college. The state's Republican Lieutenant Governor, Glenn McConnell, was recently selected to become the college's next president.

Media reports suggest the college's governing board chose him under pressure from lawmakers, and against the advice of a search committee. That sparked protests from students like Matt Rabon.

RABON: It just reeked of insider sort of dealings, backroom political maneuvers and political and economic pressure being put on the board of trustees.

MCCAMMON: McConnell spent more than 30 years in the state Senate. And he's known for his affection for Civil War history and the Confederate flag. McConnell did not agree to an interview with NPR, but he has the support of at least one well-known Democrat, Charleston's longtime mayor, Joe Riley.

MAYOR JOE RILEY: He's a good guy and a very nice, hardworking person. I think he'll be an excellent college president.

MCCAMMON: Riley says McConnell, as a graduate of the college, will be a strong ambassador for the institution. Political writer Andy Brack says state lawmakers likely see in McConnell an opportunity for more control of the college. He says choosing McConnell may be the price the college was willing to pay for a stronger relationship with the legislature.

ANDY BRACK: It's tough being a college president these days and one might think that a reason that Glenn McConnell was hired is that he understands state budgeting and understands the relationships involved with the legislature, which has a big control over the universities in this state.

MCCAMMON: While McConnell's selection prompted students to stage a sit-in, where they wore tape over their mouths in protest, he'll become the president of the College of Charleston at a quieter time on campus. He takes over July 1st, when most students are away. For NPR News, I'm Sarah McCammon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.