College of Charleston students and faculty members, still reeling from the school's budget being slashed $52,000 over a book assigned to incoming freshman, are worried that the Board of Trustees and administration might want the power to veto future book selections.
Members of the state House last month cut the school's budget the amount of The College Reads! program because they thought the selected book, "Fun Home," by Alison Bechdel, was inappropriate for college freshmen.
In "Fun Home," which Bechdel has written and drawn in comic-strip form, she describes her childhood with a closeted gay father, who was an English teacher and owner of a funeral home; the trial he faced over his dealings with young boys; his possible suicide; and her own coming out as a lesbian.
Lynne Ford, the college's associate provost, said that in the past, a committee comprising faculty members, administrators, staff and students chose the book after gathering recommendations from the campus community and the public.
She said that she and professor Christopher Korey facilitated the work of the most recent committee, which in December chose David Finkel's "The Good Soldiers" as the freshman book for the 2014-2015 school year. The book is about young veterans who served as Army infantry soldiers in the 2007 Iraqi surge.
After the book was selected, she said, the provost's office ordered books and drew up a contract with the author for a campus visit. Those are the standard steps that have been followed in previous years, Ford said.
But unlike previous years, the book was not quickly announced by school officials, and a stop-payment order was issued for the books, leaving in limbo the 4,000 books that already had been delivered. The committee received no explanation for those actions.
"To be honest with you," Ford said, "I have no idea why the check was stopped. It's been characterized as (a decision by) senior management."
In The College Reads! program, each incoming freshman is given a copy of the book to read, and the author comes to campus in the fall to talk to students about it. Many faculty members also base lessons on the book throughout the school year.
President George Benson late Friday sent a campuswide email announcing "The Good Soldiers" as The College Reads! selection for the 2014-15 school year. "The individual members of our Board of Trustees have now had the opportunity to provide input to me regarding David Finkel's 'The Good Soldiers,' the book recommended by the College Reads! committee for next year," Benson stated in the email. "I am approving 'The Good Soldiers' as the College Reads! selection for 2014-2015."
Ford said the reading program is back on track for the next school year. but she's not sure how book decisions will be handled in the future, and that concerns her. "I hope there's a way to protect the campus' prerogative to choose appropriate academic materials," she said.
Board of Trustees Chairman Greg Padgett said the board will hear a presentation on the program at its Academic Affairs Committee meeting Thursday. After discussing the issue, "the board will figure out how to go forward."
Padgett said that the board, at its August meeting, decided it wanted input on the next book selection before the decision was final. That decision is not recorded in the minutes of the August meeting.
Padgett said the board is committed to academic freedom, and board members know that "the board's role as governing body is to not interfere with curricular choices."
The selection of the book "Fun Home" came under fire in July when the conservative Christian group Palmetto Family raised concerns about whether the book was appropriate for college freshmen.
In February, the House cut the cost of the program from the college's budget.
At the time, Rep. Garry Smith, R-Simpsonville, said the book "goes beyond the pale of academic debate. It graphically shows lesbian acts."
He also said the college was "promoting the gay and lesbian lifestyle," and that if it was going to assign the book, it should also have given students another option.
Chris Piedmont, vice president of the Student Government Association, said he's happy that Benson approved "The Good Soldiers." But he hopes the board and administration don't try to change the process for selecting books. Academic freedom is important, Piedmont said. And The College Reads! is "a vital program for the college."
History professor Richard Bodek said the next book is especially timely because it is about conflict, and the country is about to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I and the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II.
It also is important because most of the students who attend the college are between the ages of 18 and 22, similar to the ages of many of the soldiers profiled in the book. "Our students who opted not to go into the military should understand what their fellows have gone through," he said. "The book gives a good, honest picture of what it means to be an American soldier in the 21st century."
Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.