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Public Engagement Under Attack
May 20, 2014 - 9:16pm

The latest post in our on-going Scholars Strike Back series comes from guest blogger Alison Piepmeier, Associate Professor at the College of Charleston. Piepmeier examines the link between challenges to academic freedom and academics’ engagement in the public sphere, especially when that engagement is deemed “controversial.”

On Monday, May 12, the interim Senior Vice Chancellor at the University of South Carolina Upstate informed Merri Lisa Johnson, faculty member and director of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, that the school was closing the Center.  This incident seems like yet another painful piece of evidence that for many of us in Women’s and Gender Studies (and this spring particularly in South Carolina), the academic work we do intersects the public world, and vice versa.

In the fall USC Upstate offered the book Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio, and in the spring semester the South Carolina House began the process of cutting the college’s budget (along with the budget of the College of Charleston, which had offered Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home to its incoming students).  South Carolina legislators expressed repeated, unapologetic homophobia in public statements, fundraising letters, and even informal emails and Twitter conversations with undergraduates.  As the semester progressed, things got worse:  the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies hired comedian Leslie Hendrix to perform her show How to Be a Lesbian in 10 Days or Less as evening entertainment at their annual Bodies of Knowledge Symposium.  At that point state legislators representing that part of the state became increasingly furious, which led to the administrators at the campus canceling the performance.  Then in May, the administration closed the Center.

These legislative attacks, and the responses of USC Upstate administrators, have demonstrated how powerfully public responses can affect academic decisions.  This has led to an environment in which Upstate faculty feel professionally threatened. The idea of USC Upstate being a hostile work environment was denied—with what seemed to be legitimate surprise—by Senior Vice Chancellor John Masterson, who had closed the Center, and Chancellor Tom Moore.  They truly seemed baffled that this would be a realistic description of their university.  And yet a number of the faculty I spoke with used that very term in describing their jobs at Upstate.

Almost every faculty member who talked with me had tenure, and tenure is supposed to be the ultimate form of protection, the security no other profession offers.  If you have tenure, you’re supposed to be free to say what needs to be said, no matter how controversial it is.  But this isn’t necessarily true, particularly if you’re a faculty member addressing and supporting marginalized populations.  In those cases, public engagement can be dangerous.

I broke the story of the Center’s closing on May 13 in the Charleston City Paper; USC Upstate didn’t offer its press release until the next day.  It’s entirely possible that I was able to get the information so quickly, and that I’ve been able to talk about these issues openly, because I’m connected to some of the faculty who are involved, and they know that I’m trustworthy.  They know that I won’t reveal their identities, nor will I make arguments that endorse the homophobia of our legislature and the potentially ignorant homophobia and sexism of the Upstate administration.

And this leads to another challenge of responding to and attempting to challenge some of the public intersections with the academy:  academics often aren’t comfortable writing for the public.  We’re generally trained to speak only to other scholars trained in our discipline. These elite voices don’t help us speak to the public. Although I was certainly trained that way, I’ve had the opportunity to become more of a public writer, starting with a personal blog, then with work with the OpEd Project that helped me to write op-eds and columns for online spaces like the NYTimes “Motherlode.”  My public pieces led to an invitation to become a columnist at the Charleston City Paper, and in these public venues I’ve had the opportunity to develop a broader voice.  Indeed, even my academic work these days is moving toward accessibility to a broader audience—a thoughtful mainstream audience interested in the issues I’m addressing.

In the wake of this spring’s public/academic debacles, I’ve been doing extensive (and let’s admit, exhausting) public writing.  Virtually every week—and sometimes twice a week—the offensiveness has become so visible and toxic that I’ve had to speak out.  This is part of my academic work, and the fact that administrators at my college have not challenged this writing is, of course, essential to my ability to keep doing it. I’ve never wanted to be a scholar who only spoke to the elite, and I don’t feel that I have to play that role.  I’m allowed to be a scholar whose scholarship connects with activism, whose feminist training provides very useful expertise, and whose attention to the public world may lead to meaningful change.

Alison Piepmeier directs the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the College of Charleston. She is the author of several books, including Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism. You can read more of her work on her blog.

If you are interested in participating in our Scholars Strike Back series, please contact assistant editor, Gwendolyn Beetham.

 

 

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