The poetry and other writing of Jimmy Santiago Baca have won him appearances at Harvard and Stanford Universities (among others), top literary fellowships, the Pushcart Prize, and numerous other honors. He is known as well for his work with the disadvantaged and with prison inmates, leading scores of writing programs in prisons and in poor communities. Last week, he was the keynote speaker at a College Board meeting.
This year, however, there's one place he won't be able to go: the University of Akron. A faculty panel picking a book for next fall's freshmen to all read had winnowed its list down to two, and one of the books, apparently the favorite, was Baca's autobiographical A Place to Stand: The Making of a Poet. The book tells the story of how Baca was illiterate until he started educating himself in jail, where he had been sent after a drug conviction and a childhood of poverty and abuse. In jail, he turned to writing, and when he got out of jail, he earned a college degree and turned his life around.
But despite his life story and literary acclaim, university administrators banned his book from consideration because they didn't want him to visit the campus (as the authors of books selected are invited to do). The problem is that Akron has had some controversy involving felons, and officials thought a Baca visit might revive that controversy.
In recent months, Akron has been embarrassed by a series of revelations about felons -- some in their 40s -- living in dorms and sharing rooms with freshmen in their teens. As the Akron Beacon-Journal reported, one freshman was instructed to call his roommate by his jail nickname and another felon was alleged to have committed more crimes while enrolled. None of the felons living in Akron dorms are known to have published volumes of poetry.
Karla Mugler, associate provost at Akron, was presented with the finalists for the freshmen to read and she sent an e-mail message to the committee ruling out Baca. "Due to the publicity which the university received this fall regarding individuals with criminal records residing in UA residence halls, I would not support the recommendation to bring Jimmy Santiago Baca to campus in fall 2007,'' she wrote. She added that she had conferred with other administrators on the issue, and they had agreed that it would be "prudent to delay our invitation to Mr. Baca."
Mugler did add that Baca could be scheduled at some point in the future.
Claude Clayton Smith, a professor of English at Ohio Northern University who organized a visit there by Baca in 2002, said Akron students were losing out on a great experience. Baca's lecture was popular and he also led an in-depth workshop for creative writing students, preparing individual comments on their work in advance of his visit. Smith said he has been teaching A Place to Stand ever since.
Asked if Mugler's decision amounted the censorship, an Akron spokesman said it did not because the committee hadn't yet made a selection and Mugler was just commenting on one book among multiple finalists. "We had several books that were under consideration. His book was never chosen. We did not say we would never invite him to campus or never use his book," the spokesman said.
Baca disagrees, calling the action by officials there "censorship and duplicity."
In an e-mail interview, he said: "It's very sad the students at Akron, Ohio, are dumbed down in such a way, especially by educators.... That dark-age mentality has led us blindly over the cliffs, one following the other into more and more violence, racism, and plain stupidity. Students deserve respect for their intelligence: Treat them like adults, with integrity, eyeing them as leaders of tomorrow, not timid little minions, slaves to ignorance. It's a dangerous time to nurture ignorance when we need, now more than ever, understanding and open-mindedness."