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Tolerance and a Reading Selection

April 14, 2006

Like a growing number of colleges, Ohio State University at Mansfield has decided to ask all freshmen to read a common book, in the hope of creating a more unified intellectual experience for new students.

But the effort over the last month to pick a book for the next group of new students hasn't exactly been a unifying experience. The suggestion of one member of the book selection committee that an anti-gay book be picked angered many faculty members, some of whom have filed harassment charges against the person who nominated that book. The faculty members in turn are being accused of trying to censor a librarian -- and a conservative group is threatening to sue.

Whether the debate at Mansfield is about faculty members standing up for tolerance or displaying intolerance all depends on whom you ask.

At the center of the debate is Scott Savage, the head reference librarian at Mansfield. He did not respond to messages seeking his comment for this article, but a conservative legal group backing him in the dispute provided e-mail messages he had sent -- as well as copies of the complaint filed against him and numerous e-mail messages that had circulated among faculty members and others at the university.

Savage volunteered this year to serve on the committee that would pick the book for next year's freshmen -- the first to participate in the common reading experience program. Donna L. Hight, the chief student affairs officer, led the committee and she said she didn't specify any type of book or any subject matter, but encouraged committee members to think about books that could relate to many issues and that might inspire a lot of discussion. Much of the committee's work was done via e-mail, and Savage's ideas became controversial when he said that many of the books under consideration were "ideologically or politically or religiously polarizing." The books he cited that were then under consideration were by authors such as Jimmy Carter and Maria Shriver.

As an example of a non-ideological book, Savage suggested Freakonomics. But his comments to the group against picking an ideological book struck some the wrong way. Then one committee member sent an e-mail saying that a controversial book would get more students engaged and debating. The university, he wrote, "can afford to polarize, and in fact has an obligation to, on certain issues."

With that invitation, Savage offered his own suggestions on books that might fit the bill, including new books by Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican who is much loved by social conservatives, and by David Horowitz, the conservative gadfly who has pushed the Academic Bill of Rights, which is derided by faculty groups as taking away their rights. But the suggestion that created the furor was another one: The Marketing of Evil: How Radicals, Elitists, and Pseudo-Experts Sell Us Corruption Disguised as Freedom, by David Kupelian.

While the book has many targets, gay people rank high as a source of problems, with frequent implications of a gay conspiracy hurting society. Publicity material for the book blasts the gay civil-rights movement for changing "America's former view of homosexuals as self-destructive human beings into their current status as victims and cultural heroes" and says that this transformation campaign "faithfully followed an in-depth, phased plan laid out by professional Harvard-trained marketers."

Almost immediately, fellow panel members (and soon others at the university) not only objected to the book (which never seems to have been in serious contention for freshmen to read), but to the idea that it would be offered for consideration. It was called "homophobic tripe" in one e-mail, and others noted the book's lack of scholarly rigor, the statements in the book about gay people and others that have been widely debunked, the impact that reading such a book would have on gay people at the university, etc. As these e-mails escalated -- with many of them circulating on the entire campus -- the Faculty Senate considered filing formal charges of harassment against Savage. In the end, two faculty members charged him with harassment based on sexual orientation. The complaint said that gay faculty members were made to feel unsafe by Savage's advocating the book as a reading assignment, and others questioned whether they would feel comfortable sending gay students to the library or encouraging any student to research gay-related topics, in light of Savage's role there.

The Alliance Defense Fund has now warned Ohio State that it may sue on Savage's behalf if charges aren't dropped and if the university does not state in public that Savage is not guilty of harassment. The fund, which focuses on the rights of religious people, has recently started focusing more attention on higher education. Savage is a member of a conservative Quaker group known as "plain Christians." As such, he avoids much modern technology, according to the fund, using a horse and buggy for transportation, for example. But he does use e-mail extensively for his work.

David French, senior legal counsel at the fund, said, "It is shameful that OSU would investigate a Christian librarian for simply recommending books that are at odds with the prevailing politics of the university." French added that this case demonstrated that "universities are one of the most hostile places for Christians and conservatives in America."

Ohio State administrators said that they were studying the fund's charges and had no comment on the situation.

A number of faculty members were reluctant to speak publicly, and some who strongly objected to Savage's recommendation of a book for freshmen also objected to the idea of charging him with harassment -- particularly given that the move would somewhat predictably be used by conservatives to attack academe. Several also said that the fund was exagerating the threat to Savage. They noted that he has been charged with harassment based on sexual orientation, not sexual harassment, as the fund's press release states. They also noted that Ohio State has made no findings in the case.

One professor who was willing to talk on the record was Christpher Phelps, an associate professor of history who has not played any role in the complaint.

He said of Savage's nomination for the freshman book: "It was a ludicrous book to select and the idea that a chief reference librarian would be proposing a book full of homophobic nonsense was deeply disturbing to the faculty." Phelps said it was important to remember that there are relatively few out gay faculty members at the university and that they face hostility in the region.

Added Phelps: "If the book he had proposed was a Klan title promoting the inferiority of African-Americans, would anyone be questioning the anger of the faculty?"

In the fall, freshmen will not be reading The Marketing of Evil. The book selected by the committee was The Working Poor, by David K. Shipler.

 

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