College of Charleston responds to 'Fun Home' book controversy
COLUMBIA - The professor who oversees the College of Charleston's summer reading program said Thursday he was concerned that S.C. House members want to punish the school over a book assigned to incoming freshmen this year.
The school also has changed the process by which it will choose next year's selection.
The illustrated memoir, "Fun Home" by Alison Bechdel, is a critical success and bestseller. It was written and drawn in the style of a graphic novel, exploring the author's upbringing and coming to terms with her sexuality.
The S.C. House budget-writing committee took issue with the book this week, and docked the school $52,000 - the cost of its summer reading program. Those dollars could still be restored when the full House of Representatives considers the budget.
"The (school) committee recognized the book might be controversial for a few readers, but the book asks important questions about family, identity, and the transition to adulthood," said College of Charleston professor Christopher Korey in an e-mail. Korey leads the college's First-Year Experience, which oversees the summer reading program. "These are important questions for all college students."
Korey said he was concerned with House members' decision.
"I'm concerned that some members of the (L)egislature believe their duties include deciding what books should and should not be taught in a college classroom ... I believe that 18-year-olds benefit directly from reading and discussing difficult topics in their courses."
Bechdel, the author, is known for a long-running comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For." She could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Even though the reading was touted as recommended, it was part of the college curriculum, said Rep. Garry Smith, R-Simpsonville, in an interview. He said the college's message for students who did not want to read it was to "shove it down your throat anyway."
"It goes beyond the pale of academic debate," Smith said. "It graphically shows lesbian acts."
Smith said the college was "promoting the gay and lesbian lifestyle." If it was going to assign the book, it should have also given students another option, he said.
The amount of money is a pittance in light of the college's overall $227.6 million budget, which was approved by the committee with about $535,000 in new state funds for an efficiency review and an arts center renovation, budget documents show.
Smith and others agreed to dock the college the cost of the program by a 13-10 vote. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, called the decision an embarrassment to the state.
"We are now in a posture where individual moral compasses and beliefs are being pushed down on our institutions of higher education," Cobb-Hunter, according to the Associated Press. "Do you think for one minute some companies are going to look seriously at us, when they think about their workforce coming to a state like this, with members of a Legislature who believe their job is to pass judgment on colleges of higher learning to dictate what books people are going to read?"
The conservative group Palmetto Family, which works in association with the national groups Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council, had called the book close to "pornography" in July.
College spokesman Mike Robertson responded in an e-mailed statement:
"The College is aware of the concerns expressed by elected officials and members of the community with regard to the selection of Fun Home as the College Reads! selection in 2013," he said. "This year, the College Reads committee expanded its outreach in order to receive broader input into the books reviewed for the program." About 100 books instead of 50 will be considered and more input received on the choice.
USC Upstate was also docked $17,142 by the House committee this week because it assigned "Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio," referring to South Carolina's first gay and lesbian radio show, for a required course for all freshmen, the AP reported.
The American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina said Thursday that it opposes both the political interference with the First Amendment and the discrimination against the state's LGBT community that came as a result of the legislature's actions.
"This kind of censorship not only threatens the core of academic freedom but also inhibits the free exchange of ideas so important to progress," said Victoria Middleton, Executive Director of the ACLU of South Carolina. "The First Amendment was intended to protect all speech - even speech we don't agree with - and politicians shouldn't be in the business of dictating what we think."
The College of Charleston hasn't yet chosen next year's summer reading book.