Lawmakers defund colleges because of bigotry, not for students

The ignorant funding cuts from public universities are a tragedy for higher education.

Trent M. Kays

South Carolina lawmakers voted last Wednesday to remove funding for two public universities. They cut about $70,000 from the University of South Carolina Upstate and the College of Charleston because the universities assigned LGBT-themed readings to incoming freshmen.

It’s not unheard of that colleges and universities assign common readings to incoming freshmen that play a role in the first-year experience. The goal in assigning the reading is to both provide a commonality among an often-diverse population and lay the foundation for first-year curriculums. One of the readings, Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” has drawn criticism before. In 2008, a University of Utah student challenged the school’s inclusion of Bechdel’s text in an English class. The professor subsequently assigned a different reading due to the school’s religious accommodation policy.

Detractors in South Carolina labeled Bechdel’s work as “pornography” last year even though numerous publications have lauded its shocking clarity and moving element of storytelling. However, such praise is of no consequence to some who wish only to see it out of readers’ hands. In this case, politicians are essentially indicating that they will defund a college that assigns a reading they don’t like.

There are many issues at work in this debacle, and it’s representative of the willful ignorance of some political maneuvering. This is especially the case of South Carolina’s Republicans, who led the charge to punish the two state colleges. The leading Republican “scholar” on this issue is South Carolina state Sen. Gary Smith. As a politician, he clearly understands the nuances of education and scholarship: “One of the things I learned over the years is that if you want to make a point, you have to make it hurt.”

The esteemed representative knows how to win the hearts and minds of people. So, I suppose if I make him unhappy, he’s going to make my existence hurt — or something. I’m not sure because I don’t understand people who intentionally “punish” innocent students for no reason except their own bigotry.

Further underscoring his ignorance, Smith argues, “I understand diversity and academic freedom. This is purely promotion of a lifestyle with no academic debate involved.”

Clearly, Smith must be a pre-eminent “scholar” of politics. Unfortunately, he is completely and utterly wrong. This is a violation of academic freedom and the freedom of students to explore complex knowledge. Not only does Smith’s comment reflect poorly on the residents of South Carolina, but it also shows a complete lack of respect for students, teachers and the educational system his state is supposed to support.

While the amount of money stolen from the colleges in question is small, the act of doing so highlights the complicated relationship state legislatures have with state colleges and universities. Smith is effectively sending the message that other colleges and universities should follow the script he outlines — or else.

Unfortunately for Smith, he doesn’t understand why there is no academic debate surrounding the “promotion of a lifestyle.” This sort of language suggests that those who identify as LGBT choose a lifestyle that is counter to others and, therefore, it is wrong. Why doesn’t Smith want schools to shove the LGBT “lifestyle” down students’ throats? Will these readings turn them all gay and hedonistic?

Most telling of this entire episode is that Smith and his ilk would knowingly punish students for readings they have no control over. This seems typical of political stupidity. This is not about inappropriate material for college-age students who are adults and can make their own decisions.

This is about bigotry. This is about conservative fear of the texts turning students into something unacceptable in South
Carolina: gay. Legislators show their disapproval by taking money away from things. It’s one of the few things they actually control that makes a difference. Certainly, not every member of the South Carolina Legislature is a bigot. That would be a silly assertion; however, we know that at least Smith is a bigot, as well as any who support him on this issue.

It’s problematic to suggest that this would stop people from reading the texts that a school has already assigned, or that colleges would suddenly stop assigning LGBT-themed material. Educators don’t like being told what they can and cannot teach, especially when the only reason is discomfort.

Education is about discomfort. It’s about encountering ideas we may feel strongly about and understanding how to navigate those ideas within our own personal ethics. The main evidence that hate, and little else, motivates Smith’s actions is that he hasn’t raised the flag for other works discussed in college that are homophobic, racist, classist and colonialist.

College students read a lot of material that that people could challenge. There is even material I am sometimes uncomfortable with, yet I still engage with it. I would still ask my students to engage with such material. No one has the right to deny students the opportunity to explore sensitive and uncomfortable knowledge in a safe environment, especially a bigoted state representative.