University Rejects Calls to Fire Camille Paglia

Students and others demand her dismissal because of statements on Me Too and on transgender people.

April 17, 2019
 
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Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia has long been a controversial figure in and out of academe -- best known in the world of scholarship for Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (Yale University Press). She is also a professor at the University of the Arts -- and some students there are urging that she be fired. Paglia is a target because of her statements criticizing some women who bring charges of sexual assault, and because of her comments about transgender people.

Her comments won't surprise those who have watched her career, but they have led to more controversy on campus than she has faced in the past. The university's president, without naming her, issued a strong statement defending academic freedom -- a statement that Paglia is praising as a model of the way college leaders should respond to demands that faculty members be fired for their statements.

Paglia's comments on the Me Too movement came in a recent YouTube video.

In the video, she criticizes "girls" who are "coached" about complaints they bring, and she focuses on college students and those who bring a complaint of rape months after an incident over "a mistake they may make at a fraternity party." She said bringing complaints in this way "is not feminism" but is part of a "bourgeois culture of excuses."

Critics also point to comments Paglia made in a 2017 interview with The Weekly Standard in which she touched on transgender issues.

"It is certainly ironic how liberals who posture as defenders of science when it comes to global warming (a sentimental myth unsupported by evidence) flee all reference to biology when it comes to gender. Biology has been programmatically excluded from women's studies and gender studies programs for almost 50 years now. Thus very few current gender studies professors and theorists, here and abroad, are intellectually or scientifically prepared to teach their subjects," she said. "The cold biological truth is that sex changes are impossible. Every single cell of the human body remains coded with one's birth gender for life. Intersex ambiguities can occur, but they are developmental anomalies that represent a tiny proportion of all human births."

Paglia has said that she supports equal rights and does not object to people defining their sexual orientations and gender identities as they wish -- including in ways frowned upon by traditionalists. But she has defended the right of scholars to question some of the stances taken by some who support transgender rights. Via email, she said that she identifies as being transgender -- and that she regularly talks about the great contributions made to art and society by people who cross gender boundaries.

The petition demanding her ouster says that "in recent interviews she has blatantly mocked survivors of sexual assault and the #MeToo movement, and in classes and interviews has mocked and degraded transgender individuals."

Further, the petition says, "Camille Paglia should be removed from UArts faculty and replaced by a queer person of color. If, due to tenure, it is absolutely illegal to remove her, then the university must at least offer alternate sections of the classes she teaches, instead taught by professors who respect transgender students and survivors of sexual assault."

And the petition criticizes David Yager, president of the university, saying that he should apologize "for his wildly ignorant and hypocritical letter."

That letter was distributed as students started urging the dismissal of Paglia, but made no mention of her or her statements.

"Unfortunately, as a society we are living in a time of sharp divisions -- of opinions, perspectives and beliefs -- and that has led to decreased civility, increased anger and a 'new normal' of offense given and taken," Yager wrote. "Across our nation it is all too common that opinions expressed that differ from another’s -- especially those that are controversial -- can spark passion and even outrage, often resulting in calls to suppress that speech. That simply cannot be allowed to happen.

"I firmly believe that limiting the range of voices in society erodes our democracy. Universities, moreover, are at the heart of the revolutionary notion of free expression: promoting the free exchange of ideas is part of the core reason for their existence. That open interchange of opinions and beliefs includes all members of the UArts community: faculty, students and staff, in and out of the classroom. We are dedicated to fostering a climate conducive to respectful intellectual debate that empowers and equips our students to meet the challenges they will face in their futures."

And the letter added, with reference to the mission of the University of the Arts, "I believe this resolve holds even greater importance at an art school. Artists over the centuries have suffered censorship, and even persecution, for the expression of their beliefs through their work. My answer is simple: not now, not at UArts."

Paglia said via email that she considered the protests against her "a publicity stunt" by people who do not understand her ideas.

She praised her university president's "eloquent statement affirming academic freedom [as] a landmark in contemporary education." And she said she hoped other colleges would view the statement as a model for how to "deal with their rampant problem of compulsory ideological conformity."

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