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Michael Bonesteel, well-known in the art world as a professor specializing in comics and outsider art, has resigned from his position at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago amid tensions between the institution, his students and himself. The resignation is one more example of the ongoing debate between academic freedom and issues stemming from teaching controversial or offensive subject matter.

The culture at SAIC, from Bonesteel’s point of view, “feels more like a police state than a place where academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas is valued,” he told The Chicago Reader, an alt-weekly. Bonesteel’s subject matter deals with work where prejudice and violence are portrayed regularly, but, recalling the complaints he received before his separation from the college, he said he was unfairly maligned.

SAIC officials, on the other hand, called Bonesteel’s account “problematic” and “misleading,” though spokeswoman Bree Witt declined to comment on the specifics of the case, citing a policy against speaking on personnel matters.

“What I’ve been hearing through [the College Art Association], through our members … there has been on certain campuses, an environment which, in some cases, has made faculty members or students feel that their ability to discuss issues which might otherwise be seen as controversial, but open to discussion, the ability to discuss has been constrained,” said Hunter O’Hanian, executive director of the association, speaking broadly about issues with academic freedom in the current political climate.

“SAIC has been around for over 150 years -- we do not shy away from controversial issues,” Witt said. “Academic freedom is the core of what we do.”

According to Bonesteel’s account in the Reader, a transgender student objected to a theory Bonesteel lectured on about Henry Darger, a reclusive Chicago artist whose work didn't gain prominence until after it was discovered just before his death in 1973. The work in question featured what appear to be female children with penises. Theories on Darger’s background -- some say he was an oppressed gay man, others say he was abused as a child -- vary, but the student took offense to Bonesteel proposing the theory of child abuse.

"The student said there was no proof that Darger was sexually abused, and therefore I was wrong in proposing the theory," Bonesteel told the Reader. Indeed, there is no proof that Darger was sexually abused, but Bonesteel, who has written a book on Darger, said it’s a theory endorsed by a number of scholars. Other theories on Darger range from positing that he was a troubled, closeted gay man to him being mentally ill, though it largely remains a mystery.

Regardless, Bonesteel met with a diversity counselor and posted an apology on the art college's website. Reviewing the complaint by the student, the institution ruled that no rules were violated, but Bonesteel needed training on “identity-related” material.

Two days later, according to Bonesteel’s telling, another student took issue with perceived anti-Semitism in the assigned text, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, by Gerard Jones. The student also leveled accusations of racism and homophobia at both Bonesteel and SAIC. Bonesteel said he tried to ask for patience but the conversation “heated up.”

After the resulting complaint -- which was reportedly followed by another student saying they were troubled by that particular incident -- officials found Bonesteel’s conduct “constituted harassment based on gender identity,” in violation of school policy. His comic courses were scrapped, bringing down his hours to a point where he wouldn’t have health insurance coverage, and his outsider art classes were to be revamped.

“To be labeled discriminatory and charged with sexual harassment because I got into a heated debate with a hostile student who happened to be transgender, and for that student's accusations of sexual harassment to be credited -- and for my account and those of several other student witnesses to be discredited -- seems entirely unfair,” he told the Reader. Bonesteel did not respond to a request for comment from Inside Higher Ed.

"Then, to be punished by refusing to let me teach three comics courses in which I had invested 12 years of time and effort and love, and in the process take away my insurance benefits, these were the conditions that I found unacceptable," he said. “It is my contention that I have been unfairly vilified and demonized by [a] small cadre of militant LBGT students with an authoritarian agenda."

Lisa Wainwright, dean of faculty, called Bonesteel’s accusations of SAIC impinging on his academic freedom unfounded.

“This simply is not the case, and frankly, would be anathema to our pedagogy,” Wainwright said. “As a rigorous institution of art and design education, we embrace curricula that challenge prevailing norms, push boundaries and expand how we understand the world around us through visually symbolic means.”

Witt said that the institution has a thorough process to investigate student complaints and speaks to all parties involved in a complaint before making a decision. The student handbook has a four-page section on harassment, discrimination and retaliation, and a five-step section on resolution. The faculty policy on harassment, discrimination and retaliation is another seven pages.

SAIC’s student handbook on harassment, discrimination and retaliation reads as follows:

The determination of what constitutes illegal harassment varies with the particular circumstances, but it must be so severe, persistent or pervasive that it affects a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from an educational program or activity; or creates a hostile or abusive educational or working environment.

“We’ll talk to the student [making the complaint], but we’ll also talk to other students in the classroom who are relevant to whatever the complaint is,” she said. “It’s thorough. It’s not something like, someone complains one day and then the next day actions are taken.”

The institution doesn’t have a uniform policy on trigger warnings, Witt said, and leaves decisions on that to individual professors (the student in the second complaint also took issue with Bonesteel’s lack of trigger warnings). Witt also said she was confident in SAIC’s mission to create a climate of respect on campus.

“We’re an incredibly diverse school, we welcome all types of students and we want to make sure our environment is welcoming,” she said. “We definitely have policies in place that help us foster a welcoming and inclusive environment.”

O’Hanian, of the College Art Association, speaking broadly, said he’s sometimes seen breakdowns on both sides of a conversation, from both students and professors, although the details in this case seemed hard to parse out. Regardless, there’s a concern about how debate -- and subsequently, learning -- is taking place at large.

“The problem comes when certain students feel challenged by hearing opposing ideas, or faculty members are challenged by hearing those opposing ideas, and they don’t hear them as simply another point of view, but they hear them as trying to force another point of view,” he said. “If people aren’t safe to have a conversation on a college campus, then I don’t know where they are able to be safe.”

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