Controversy over reading selections at a pair of colleges in South Carolina last year has reared its head again, and this time it may result in budget cuts for the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate. The budget committee in the state House of Representatives recommended budget cuts totaling $70,000 for the two schools, which assigned incoming students and others to read literature about LGBT issues last year.
The College of Charleston would take the brunt of the cuts, seeing its budget shorted by $52,000 in 2014. Though the that’s just a fraction of the roughly $19 million in state funding the College of Charleston receives every year, it’s an important symbolic number, as it is the same amount of money the college spends to administer The College Reads! program—though officials pointed out that The College Reads!, which assigns a book for the entire school to read together and creates programming to discuss the work, is funded by a student fee, rather than general funds. Last year, the assigned reading was Fun Home, a graphic novel memoir by award-winning cartoonist Alison Bechdel.
The memoir, which addresses Bechdel’s upbringing by her closeted gay father, as well as her own eventual coming out, raised the hackles of conservative groups in the state over the summer. When budget time came, that ire hadn’t cooled among some members of the state House, including Representative Garry Smith (R-Simpsonville). Smith, who proposed the cuts in the house budget writing committee, told Library Journal that publicly funded universities need to be more beholden to taxpayer concerns. “The universities, when they’re asking someone to pay for something, should be respectful of concerns over what they’re using those funds for,” he said. “When they’re requiring others to pay for what they consider academic freedom, they should respect the concerns of others.”
In a statement made through her publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Bechdel told Publisher’s Weekly “It’s sad and absurd that the College of Charleston is facing a funding cut for teaching my book—a book which is after all about the toll that this sort of small-mindedness takes on people’s lives.”
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund reports that this isn’t the first time that Fun Home has been challenged. In 2006, the same year it was published and won an Eisner Award for Best Reality Based Work, patrons tried to have the book removed from the shelves of Missouri’s Marshall Public Library. In 2008 it was challenged again, this time as part of an English class reading list at the University of Utah.
“Faculty at the College of Charleston are outraged by this,” English professor Lynn Cherry told Library Journal. The controversy has also left the program in limbo, said associate provost Lynne Ford, who sits on the committee of administrators, faculty, librarians, and students who choose the book for The College Reads! every year. While it is geared to freshmen, at the College of Charleston, the program tries to get students from every level of the University involved. The committee “solicits recommendations from the campus, the board of trustees, local authors,” Ford told Library Journal. “The selection process is one of discussion, review, and consensus.”
That process may look different going forward, though. Ordinarily, Ford and other committee members would be distributing copies of next year’s book, journalist David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, to faculty. But someone has pressed pause on that process. “This year, we ordered the books, and it’s not clear who [made it] but a stop payment order was put on the check,” said Ford. Now, those copies of this year’s selection are sitting in a warehouse instead of making their way to readers.
What’s more, the way the college chooses books for the program saw a new level of approval added to the existing process this year. Members of the Board of Trustees have been given copies of the selection and invited to offer their thoughts to university president George Benson, who will have the final say over whether The Good Soldiers is an appropriate title this year. Sources at the College of Charleston familiar with the selection process said they have never been subjected to this level of scrutiny before—one Benson said will only be in place this year in light of the controversy.
While he’s said the board will be invited to offer input on the book selection for The College Reads! in coming years, Benson noted that their involvement should come earlier on in the process, so as to avoid second guessing faculty decisions on student reading. “At the beginning of the process, a recommendation would be appropriate,” Benson said of board involvement in the process going forward. “The selection will be made by the faculty, and not the board.”
Ultimately, it may be too early to tell what changes will appease board members—who, committee members noted, are already invited to offer book recommendations—or how the selection process will be changed by the threat of budget cuts.
While they are rare, challenges to suggested reading for incoming college freshman do crop up from time to time, said American Association of University Professors (AAUP) spokesperson Anita Levy, pointing to a 2003 dustup at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill when legislators threatened to cut the school’s budget over the assignment of journalist Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. Even so, she told Library Journal, “that South Carolina lawmakers have gone as far as to cut the funds is pretty astonishing.”
A budget cut of nearly $18,000 was also proposed for USC Upstate, which assigned the book Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio, a history of South Carolina’s first radio program devoted to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGB T) issues, as reading for freshman. Rather than a committee, the freshman reading at USC Upstate is chosen by English faculty at the school, and is integrated as a reading assignment in the freshman composition class English 101. Despite the cuts, there will be no changes to the way USC Upstate selects its books, said department chair Peter Caster. “It’s not going to color the way we select books at all,” Caster told Library Journal. “We’re not looking for controversy. We’re looking for books that invite critical thinking.”
Encouraging critical thinking is exactly what college reading assignments should do, said Levy, pointing out that simply assigning a book as reading doesn’t mean students have to agree with the ideas presented in it—just that they have to give them consideration. “A classroom should be a safe space for open discussion, disagreement, and learning,” said Levy. “Sometimes you don’t learn if you don’t get out of your comfort zone.”
None of the proposed cuts to either college budget are set in stone yet. The committee suggested cuts could be restored when the full state legislature votes on a budget later this year.