Academic Freedom Grade Report

By Snyder, Martin D. | Academe, July/August 2001 | Go to article overview

Academic Freedom Grade Report


Snyder, Martin D., Academe


FREE SPEECH, WHETHer in or out of the classroom, can offend. It can hurt as well. Indeed, many in the Anchorage community, especially Native women, were outraged and humiliated by the publication last spring of the poem "Indian Girls" by University of Alaska faculty member Linda McCarriston. The poem, an indictment of Native American men who abuse young girls, was decried for its alleged insensitivity and lack of understanding. Some accused the author of perpetuating ethnic stereotypes, others of engaging in racist hate speech.

Whatever the merits of such criticisms, there can be no doubt that the indignation of Native women was real, and that their pride and self-esteem were badly damaged. In calling for the university to apologize and to sanction McCarriston, however, they endangered the author's freedom of speech.

In response to protests from the campus and Anchorage communities, university administrators issued equivocating statements, suggesting, on the one hand, that McCarriston's academic freedom needed to be protected and, on the other, that something was amiss that called for investigation. Far from settling the affair, administrative doublespeak so aggravated tensions that the president of the University of Alaska, Mark R. Hamilton, needed to intervene. In a decidedly unambiguous memorandum, Hamilton called on administrators to be clear in their defense of free speech. "Attempts to assuage anger or to demonstrate concern by qualifying our support for free speech serve to cloud what must be a clear message. Noting that, for example, `the university supports the right of free speech, but I have asked Dean X or Provost Y to investigate the circumstances,' is unacceptable."

Hamilton's vigorous defense of academic free speech is conspicuously unusual these days. Consider a simultaneous controversy at Florida Atlantic University. A campus performance of Terrence McNally's controversial play Corpus Christi prompted some state legislators to threaten retaliation against the school's budget. The play, which opened on Broadway in 1998, reenacts the story of Jesus in modern Texas. In McNally's version, a Christ-like homosexual character named Joshua is killed by a gang of gay bashers. The Catholic League for Religious Civil Rights alerted Florida legislators to the impending production. …

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