'Sexual Depravity,' Student Fees and the Student Press

The column, “Sexual Depravity,” was, by most people’s standards, pretty offensive (and if you think it might offend you, you might consider skipping the next paragraph).

February 6, 2009

The column, “Sexual Depravity,” was, by most people’s standards, pretty offensive (and if you think it might offend you, you might consider skipping the next paragraph).

After outlining the steps he takes to determine the level of a woman’s sexual depravity (“What I mean by this is that I ask basic questions like: ‘So...umm....if you caught me fucking your twin sister...would you be angry, or join in?’), the undergraduate writer ends the piece by asserting, “Oh, and for those of you who are thinking, "I would never sleep with you...you're crazy' or 'You're gross,' you don't have to. You don't have to because if this bothers you, I probably wouldn't want to fuck you anyway. Well....unless you're unconscious.”

The controversial column appeared last spring in The Flip Side, a biweekly "alternative" student publication at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire that makes a policy of printing everything submitted to it (unless, the editor-in-chief explains, it’s illegal, plagiarized or advertising content).

This fall, the English department, the publication’s then “administrative home,” voted unanimously to sever its ties to Flip Side, citing, in a statement, interest in “fostering the responsible use of free speech and the mutually respectful community envisioned by the university’s Centennial Plan.” The move left Flip Side in a precarious position in terms of renewing its university funding until Monday, when a new adviser – a geology professor – stepped in.

“That very controversial article that was in the Flip Side, it definitely led to conversations and very strong debate on this campus,” said Kent M. Syverson, the new adviser. “I look at that article and it was juvenile, it was profane, I’m offended by it. I wish he would keep his sexual fantasies to himself, quite frankly, because I’m kind of old school that way. But then when the English department pulls their support for Flip Side because they want Flip Side to exercise ‘responsible use of free speech'.... What responsible use of free speech means to them, and to most people, is 'You’re going to say what I agree with.' And I don’t think that’s a very good model for the modern public university.”

Flip Side's future wasn't in jeopardy because anyone threatened to shut it down per se, but because it lacked the university support to continue receiving significant student activity funds. The funding situation was this: Flip Side has been largely dependent on funds from student activity fees distributed by the Student Senate. In fiscal year 2007, it received $4,000. In fiscal year 2008, it received $6,863, and in fiscal year 2009, $7,200.

However, in order to receive any sum greater than $750, the publication needed both an adviser and an administrative home, explained Mike Rindo, executive director of university communications. “This is a student government issue,” he said. “And in Wisconsin, by statute, student government has the authority to distribute allocatable segregated fees. These are segregated fees paid by the students for student activities. Once these are allocated they become state funds, which is why we need to have an administrative home” – to ensure they can be audited and are distributed according to proper procedures, Rindo explained.

“It should not be portrayed as something that is an administration issue,” Rindo stressed. “Because, as I said, the students have authority over these funds and they have bylaws governing how they distribute the funds.”

Syverson, the new Flip Side adviser, referenced, however, ambiguity in the Student Senate bylaws. And he said he was more generally troubled by the English department’s rationale in withdrawing its sponsorship for the publication -- not just the department's use of the word “responsible” to modify “free speech,” but also the citation of the university’s strategic ("Centennial") plan and its call for mutual respect. The plan states, for instance, “[O]ur goal is to model the habits of mutual respect, civility, and care we want our students to emulate as citizens of the world.”

“I voiced concerns that this [sort of] language might be used as a hammer to stifle First Amendment rights on campus, and this is the first attempt I’ve seen to use the Centennial Plan as a hammer, so to speak,” Syverson said.

The chair of the English department, who originally issued the statement, did not respond to e-mail and phone messages Thursday. However, Bob Nowlan, an associate professor of English who was Flip Side’s original adviser, did. (The publication formed in 2003).

Nowlan explained in an e-mail: “I’ve had little interest in, and no involvement with, the Flip Side since the time I stopped advising the publication. The English Department faculty and staff voted unanimously last semester to end our association with the Flip Side because the paper, in practice, represented values we strongly opposed (in particular, pro-rape and sexual violence, as well as refusal to accept that words have consequences, maintain a material weight and impact, and that what you in practice do does represent an ethical and political position, not a disinterested position of neutrality versus all possible positions out there). In short, the way the staff conceived of language and discourse runs fundamentally contrary to how we conceive, and teach, it -- as well as runs counter to the fundamental values this campus is committed toward representing, supporting, and advancing (including as reaffirmed in our recent University ‘Centennial Strategic Plan’).

“It was always an entirely mutually voluntary association to begin with, between the English Department and the Flip Side, and, as far as we are concerned, they are most welcome to seek another sponsor which supports their values," Nowlan said.

Administratively, Flip Side's new home is the University Centers, an umbrella-like entity for many student services. In an e-mail, the student editor-in-chief, Sara Ann Adams, said the only change to the publication’s editorial policy has been to clarify that it will not print illegal material and that it will attach a disclaimer to potentially controversial pieces.

“The Flip Side attempts to serve as an open forum for student thought and opinion; the only agenda that we have is dialogue about whatever it is that students want to speak up about," Adams said. "At times, this dialogue is more stimulating for some groups of people then others. Not surprisingly, this has often meant that the value of the articles that are submitted to us is sometimes disputed by the powers that be, who can't believe that writers who don't [necessarily] buy into their values and ideologies are still managing to be published. The English department, for example, believes that they have a handle on what material is acceptable and worthwhile, and they and others would like the rest of the university to be forced to adhere to that. I believe requiring such unanimity is dangerous. Sometimes people will say to us, derisively, that we will 'print anything.' When they say that we have no standards, however, what they really mean is 'How dare you not have the same standards that we do?' "

Adams, a senior, said the publication has requested $7,900 for its annual allocation from the Student Senate, and expects to receive $5,200. “This year we've made about $400 in ad money, which is very good for us.”


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