By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Bulletin: College kids like sex. Bigger bulletin: College kids like to outrage their elders. Super-bonus bulletin: Some adults know how to deal with this, and some do not.
At the University of Maryland last week, the school's top brass faced a classic test of their allegiance to the ideals of open inquiry, freedom of speech and academic independence. They flunked big time. When state legislators got wind that the theater at the student union in College Park was selling tickets to a showing of a porn flick titled "Pirates II: Stagnetti's Revenge," conservatives in Annapolis saw a dandy weapon to wield against those libertines of academia. The lawmakers huffed and they puffed and they threatened to take away all $424 million of the university's state money and make the college sit in the corner.
So what did U-Md. President C.D. Mote Jr. do? He caved, completely. Canceled the movie. His vice president for student affairs, Linda Clement, even told reporters that the college was okay with the legislators interceding in a college matter: "I think state legislators have the right to weigh in on many, many issues regarding state agencies," she told the Baltimore Sun.
The movie looks to be totally lame -- the trailer looks like a promo for a standard pirate flick with actors recruited from a low-end high school theater -- but that's hardly the point. The real issue here is craven acquiescence to lawmakers who have no business poking around in a college's daily operations.
For a look at how to handle this sort of seamy business in a classy and intellectually honest fashion, you need only cast your eyes across the Potomac and south a couple of hours, to the College of William and Mary, another state institution in what is generally assumed to be a more conservative state than Maryland. Yet here, college president Taylor Reveley decided to let an annual Sex Workers Art Show -- a student-sponsored live event featuring strippers, prostitutes and other such characters doing their thing and talking about why they do it -- go on, despite vehement opposition from some politicians, alumni, donors and conservative commentators.
Reveley didn't like the show and made that plain, but in a statement to the college community, he stood tall for what he called "the Jeffersonian notion that the free play of ideas is the best route to truth." Just as he had defended the right of a white supremacist to speak on campus (he also insisted that the speaker not get "a free kick" -- that is, that his appearance must include an open and freewheeling debate), he gave the sex show a green light. The university sponsored an open forum for folks of all ideologies to debate the content and wisdom of the show.
Reveley's decision was even braver than it might appear; it was in part the controversy over the sex show that had led to the ugly departure of his predecessor, Gene Nichol, just last year.
But Reveley used his office as a bully pulpit, pushing organizers of the sex show to open themselves to criticism, just as he urged those who found the show degrading to step forward and make themselves heard. Organizers of the sex show "need to provide means for a serious discussion about pertinent issues, conducted with the intellectual rigor and civility characteristic of William and Mary," the college president said.
Reveley said that's simply the William and Mary way: "We let this process run its course, even when it results in controversy, rather than try to play the censor. As most efforts at censorship have shown, they're hard to run -- endless lines must be drawn in the sand, many controversies must be waged and a lot of energy gets diverted from matters of greater importance. For practical as well as philosophical reasons, I will not play the censor."
Too bad the folks in Maryland didn't have half that understanding of the business they're in.