Twenty-First Alexander Meiklejohn Award
Molly Corbett Broad, president of the University of North Carolina, was the recipient of the twenty-first Alexander Meiklejohn Award for Academic Freedom at the Eighty-ninth Annual Meeting of the AAUP in Washington, D.C. The award is given to an American college or university administrator or trustee, or to a Board of Trustees as a group, in recognition of an outstanding contribution to academic freedom. The Faculty Assembly of the University of North Carolina nominated Broad because of her resistance to demands to cancel the assigned reading of a book on the Koran for incoming students at the Chapel Hill campus. Richard Veit, who was president of the Faculty Assembly at that time, introduced Broad at the meeting.
In 1969, I was teaching English at a Catholic girls' high school in Cleveland. For a twelfth-grade class in world literature, in addition to plays and novels by Greek, German, Russian, Japanese, Indian, and South African authors, I also chose to assign The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Although neither a foreign work nor a work of fiction, the book, I believed, nicely complemented the other readings in contributing to a goal of the course-introducing students to, and helping them understand, cultures, experiences, and worldviews different from their own.
A few days before our discussion of the book, an irate parent phoned me at my home, very unhappy about what his daughter was reading. His concern was not surprising. In the book, Malcolm detailed his past experiences as a thief, a pimp, and a prison inmate; he was disdainful of Christianity; and he believed, at least until an epiphany at Mecca in his final years, that whites were devils. In talking with the parent, I explained the goals of the assignment and the importance of our understanding other people with whom we share our planet. I attempted to explain the difference between indoctrination and analysis, between a textbook used for instruction and a reading subject to critical examination and discussion. I told the father that I would be leading that discussion, that his daughter was grounded and mature enough to make prudent judgments, and that I hoped he would trust us both.
Not fully convinced, he told me he wanted to be present in the classroom when the book was discussed. I said he would be very welcome-with only one condition-he first had to read the book. Not only that, but I hoped he would join in the discussion. I never saw or heard from him again.
The conversation between that father and me a third of a century ago has taken place again and again, in various forms, before and since, as it did with considerably more publicity this past year in North Carolina. For a summer reading program for incoming first-year students, the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill assigned the book Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations, by Michael A. Sells, a professor of comparative religion at Haverford College. To the Chapel Hill faculty, the logic of the choice seemed incontrovertible. After September 11, 2001, when encounters between the West and the Islamic world dominate the news, when those encounters have momentous and potentially catastrophic consequences for the entire planet, it is absolutely essential for our two cultures to understand each other. A book introducing students to the Islamic scriptures offered to give students insights into the thinking of that other world and promised as well to supply a basis for lively discussion among students largely steeped in Judeo-Christian traditions.
The first indication of trouble came on July 5, when James Yacovelli, a spokesman for the Family Policy Network, a Christian organization headquartered in Virginia, denounced the assignment on the Fox talk show Hannity and Colmes. According to Yacovelli, the book "didn't portray Islamic culture in a true light," and the assignment was "a veiled coercion to get students to accept …
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Publication information: Article title: Twenty-First Alexander Meiklejohn Award. Contributors: Not available. Magazine title: Academe. Volume: 89. Issue: 5 Publication date: September/October 2003. Page number: 89. © American Association of University Professors Nov/Dec 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.