Caught with Gay Books: South Carolina Punishes Colleges for Freshman Reading Choices

Ashley Thorne

On February 19, the South Carolina legislature voted 13 to 10 to approve budget cuts to two state colleges. The cuts came in response to two books assigned as freshman reading and some related programming at the colleges. The College of Charleston assigned Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, and the University of South Carolina-Upstate assigned, Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio edited by Ed Madden and Candace Chellew-Hodge.  

Both books offer first person accounts by gay authors of the trials and tribulations of being gay in America.

The South Carolina legislature cut $52,000 from its nearly $20 million contribution to the College of Charleston’s $235 million budget. It cut $17,142 from its $9.1 million contribution to the University of South Carolina-Upstate’s $92.2 million budget.   

The legislature’s action raises some important and difficult questions. Was it an act of censorship? Or was it an act of stewardship? Were the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina-Upstate acting within the spirit of academic freedom? Or were they engaged in political advocacy at the expense of their students? What is the proper role of a state legislature in overseeing the actions of public colleges and universities?

Beach Books

I can throw some light on this controversy because in the last four years I have been tracking and publishing reports on common reading programs at colleges around the country. These annual studies have been published by the National Association of Scholars as Beach Books.

Common reading programs typically take the form of the colleges assigning a single book to first-year students or to the college as a whole. They have become popular in the last decade or so, partly to offset the lack of a core curriculum. Last year over 300 colleges and universities had common reading programs. As my colleagues at the NAS and I have examined these programs, we have built up a rich picture of the kinds of books, subjects, and authors that dominate; how the books are picked; and the controversies that are sometimes sparked by the choices.

At some colleges, including USC-Upstate, the common reading is part of a freshman seminar or is required in some other way. At my alma mater, The King’s College, the entire student body takes a comprehension test on the book. But at many colleges, including the College of Charleston, students and faculty members are merely “invited” or “encouraged” to read the book. The encouragements range from mild to strenuous.

College of Charleston: Fun Home

The College of Charleston in selecting Fun Home as a voluntary reading edged towards the strenuous approach. It sent copies to all its incoming students and full-time faculty members and encouraged them to read it, “as it will be connected to the academic curriculum and campus activities throughout the year.” The College explained that the book had been chosen by “a large committee composed of faculty, staff, administrators and students,” and that the criteria were “a manageable length, with a living author, with relevant themes and intellectually stimulating topics that will generate meaningful dialogue and engage the campus community in a variety of ways.”

Fun Home is a “graphic memoir” in comic book style, about author Alison Bechdel’s relationship with her father. Bechdel’s story hinges on a few key events. She wrote that at age 19, when in her first year at Oberlin College, she told her parents she was a lesbian; soon after that she learned that her father was gay. Four months after she came out to her parents, her father was hit by a truck and died. Though the family treated his death as an accident, Bechdel believes it was suicide. Her dark, introspective memoir is laced with dead-pan humor but also with showy references to Greek myth, Camus, Proust, Tolstoy, and Joyce. One scene from the Oberlin days is a drawing of four feet in a bed, with the caption, “Joan was a poet and a ‘matriarchist.’ I spent very little of the remaining semester outside her bed. This was strewn with books, however, in what was for me a novel infusion of word and deed.” Other pictures include genital nudity.

While the college made Fun Home an optional, “encouraged” reading, it especially encouraged new students to read it. Faculty members were invited to a separate reading group, “The College Colloquium,” in which they read books on higher education such as Jeff Selingo’s College (Un)Bound and Bill Bennett and David Wilezol’s Is College Worth It?. The College programming for “The Campus Reads!” included a talk by Bechdel and a lecture on “Same Sex Marriage and the Courts,” given by a pro-gay-marriage Harvard historian who testified in the Proposition 8 case in California. There were no readings or speakers opposed to same-sex marriage.

The College provided a reading guide that encourages students to “identify” with Fun Home and to think about “gender roles and sexual identity” within the context of “shifting cultural norms.” Study questions include, “What does Bechdel suggest we risk by denying our erotic truth?” The guide also includes a glossary of the authors referenced in the book, including Colette and Oscar Wilde.

Why the College of Charleston chose Fun Home is unclear. The college’s statement simply describes its general criteria for selecting common readings and mentions that Fun Home was picked from a list of more than fifty books that had been recommended by members of the campus community. The selection committee, however, could not help but be aware that it was putting a spotlight on a contentious issue. The gay marriage debate has been a prominent national topic for several years. South Carolina does not recognize gay marriage, and in 2006 South Carolina voters by a 78 percent majority passed Amendment 1, which added a Constitutional prohibition on both same-sex marriage and civil unions.

This did not end the matter, particularly because some same-sex couples went out of state to get married in other jurisdictions. In August 2013—well after the book selection committee had picked Fun Home—a lesbian couple filed a suit on U.S. District Court challenging the South Carolina ban on same-sex marriage.

In picking Fun Home as a common reading, the College of Charleston clearly chose to step into a public and highly political controversy in the state. And it appears to have done so with favor to one side of the debate.

USC-Upstate: Out Loud

Over at USC-Upstate, the freshman reading program, Preface, is more integrated into students’ required courses. Its webpage says, “During this program, first-year students read the Preface text in English 101 and most University 101 courses and attend related events in both English 101 and 102.”

English 101 and 102 are required general education courses, and University 101 is an elective for incoming freshmen and appears to be a euphemism for remediation. As at the College of Charleston, Upstate’s Preface is a campus-wide program, though geared especially toward new students. It is sponsored by the department of Languages, Literature, and Composition.

The stated goals of the common reading are “to help USC Upstate first-year students make connections to each other and to the University, to practice skills that contribute to success in college, and to discuss how a deeper understanding of a shared reading can inform the way we make personal decisions and influence public policy today.” The University does not state on its website how the book is chosen each year, though in one year’s announcement a “Preface committee” is mentioned.

Out Loud is a compilation of radio segments from the program Rainbow Radio: The REAL Gay Agenda, which broadcasts on Sundays at 8:00 a.m. from Columbia, South Carolina. Each segment is a personal story told by an LGBT Southerner. The stories include “Sheila Gets a Shave,” about a little girl who visits her grandfather’s barber shop and gets a make-believe trim; “Torn,” about a lesbian teenager and her mother; and “The Bridge That Has Fallen In,” about a gay man wishing he could go home for Christmas and be at ease with his family.

USC-Upstate’s fall 2013 events related to the Preface reading were required for freshmen. These events included a Constitution Day lecture by NPR game-show host Peter Sagal; a keynote address by Out Loud editor Ed Madden; a speech about the first openly lesbian Miss South Carolina contestant; and a talk by a leader of a South Carolina “GLBT civil rights organization” on “104,362 reasons to support equality in South Carolina.”

The book selection raised eyebrows early on, and Faculty Senate minutes from September 2013 show the Senate deciding upon a statement in the wake of unspecified “criticism of the first-year reading selection.” They chose to say: “USC Upstate’s Faculty Senate reaffirms its support of the PREFACE program and its selections, the academic freedom of our faculty to require course readings that promote critical thinking, and the USC system’s commitment to equality regardless of sexual orientation.” The next item on the Faculty Senate agenda was an announcement about the Pride March on September 14.

Again, while I don’t have access to the internal discussion that prompted USC Upstate to choose Out Loud, it is evident that the university understood the surrounding controversy over gay marriage and went ahead with programming that weighed into that controversy decisively on one side of the debate.

Emblematic Choices

Neither Fun Home nor Out Loud are popular as common reading choices. Brandeis University picked Fun Home for its New Student Forum in 2011, but other than that neither book has been selected by any of the 300-some colleges and universities NAS surveyed in our three annual Beach Books studies to date. Nor has homosexuality been a leading theme among the books chosen. Three years ago the University of Buffalo at SUNY chose a book about the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard, but by far the dominant trends in book selection overall have been themes of multiculturalism, environmentalism, human rights advocacy, American poverty, and food.

Controversy over common reading choices, however, is not new. In recent years both of the South Carolina colleges have chosen books that occasioned dispute. The College of Charleston selected Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea in 2010 (this book was the third most popular common reading choice that year). The next year, after Mortenson’s tales of building schools in Pakistan were exposed as untrue, no colleges picked books by him for common reading. In 2011 USC-Upstate chose How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? by Moustafa Bayoumi, which was hotly contested the year before when Brooklyn College assigned it to incoming students. The controversy was over the book’s preferential treatment of Muslims and portrayal of America as oppressive and racist.

Such controversies about these books tell us that the public cares about what colleges ask students to read, even if it is not required. That is because when a college assigns just one book as an introduction to the institution and to the academic year as a whole, that book may rightly be taken as emblematic of the college’s values. The choice of a certain book may not mean that the institution necessarily endorses the viewpoints expressed inside, but it gives clear hints as to what the administration holds as important and as worthy of community-wide discussion. Colleges acknowledge this when they give rationales for their common reading programs.

Legislating Common Reading

When the question of penalizing the two colleges came up in the South Carolina legislature, the representatives were divided between those who wanted to curb one-sided ideology and those who were wary of censorship. B. R. Skelton, the representative who introduced the motion to reinstate the money to the College of Charleston and USC-Upstate, said, “I didn’t think it was appropriate for us to begin funding institutions on the basis of which books are assigned.”

There was some inconclusive discussion among the representatives as to where the money would have gone if the colleges kept it, and whether the readings were mandatory. After the vote ended the motion, Mr. Skelton introduced a new one that would require the committee to approve all book choices for the state’s public colleges.

Amid laughter around the long table, Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter spoke up, saying, “This is not a joking matter to me…What we did yesterday opened the door for this kind of censorship.” She then excoriated the thirteen who had voted against the motion, saying that they should leave these questions to boards of trustees and not try to press their personal beliefs on colleges. She went so far as to suggest that those thirteen would, when one day they reached “the pearly gates,” have to turn around and go “straight back down” as a consequence for their narrow-mindedness. “That’s where you’re going to end up because you don’t treat people right; you’re intolerant.”

Several others echoed Ms. Cobb-Hunter’s assertions that the legislature was overstepping its role. Rep. Joseph H. Neal said, “I’m just uncomfortable with the idea that we know better than the professors or the trustee boards.” He said that instead of cutting the schools’ budgets, the legislature should have written to the boards of trustees to request a review. Rep. James M. Merrill agreed and suggested that there are probably “books very similar to those books at all the other universities that just haven’t got the publicity.”

Rep. Rita A. Allison responded that after she received complaints from her constituents (USC-Upstate is in her district in Spartanburg, South Carolina), she called the chancellor and sat down and talked with him, along with a number of her constituents. She said, “We were promised that the selection committee and the process of selecting books would be looked at.” Her chief concern was that the book was assigned for a course and tied to a grade without any alternative choice for students who felt the book violated their personal beliefs. It would be “fine if they want to read that book but don’t mandate the book for a grade,” she said. Ms. Allison said she also thought that similar books were being assigned across campuses nationwide and that these two were simply the ones that “just happened to get caught.”

What We Learn

The conversation around the long table in the South Carolina legislature is illuminating in several ways. First, there was a healthy tension between the desire to respect academic freedom (several legislators used the term) and the sense that there might be a legitimate problem with exposure to one side of an ideology at the very beginning of college. We should respect faculty members’ competence to shape the content of the curriculum. We should also raise questions when that curriculum excludes an important side of a debate. As several of the state representatives observed, the universities’ boards of trustees properly bear responsibility to ensure the integrity of the curricula. That does not necessarily preclude a role for the legislature but legislative intervention in higher education is fraught with concerns about politicizing what most agree should be academic decisions.

That complication, for example, has also emerged recently as some state legislatures have responded to the American Studies Association’s (ASA) boycott of Israel by introducing bills that would cut state support to colleges and universities that support the ASA.

The complication is further tangled by the willingness of many faculty members and college administrators to avow that there really is no significant difference between “academic” and political decisions. The increasingly widespread view on campus that “everything is political” may serve as justification for picking common readings that advance a politically activist agenda, but it can just as easily serve as a warrant for legislators to say, in effect, “We agree. Everything is political, and our politics trump yours.”

In South Carolina who is inappropriately imposing on whom? The colleges on their students, or the legislature on the colleges?

In my view, the answer is probably both. Budget cuts may be a way of getting peoples’ attention, but what we really need is a different spirit among colleges and universities: a determination to choose books based on criteria such as imaginative power, literary merit, and historical significance. Colleges in general need to make better choices, and they need to improve the process for choosing. The National Association of Scholars has recommendations for both:

50 Recommended Books for College Common Reading Programs >

12 Recommendations for Selecting Books for Common Reading > (see page 36-37)

Third, the notion of the two colleges “getting caught” is telling. These are the two where people complained about the reading. It isn’t as if there is a nationwide accountability system scanning colleges looking for things to “catch,” that somehow failed except in these cases. By and large, common reading programs are too bland to occasion any outrage. Many of the books are simply meant as inspirational stories. Though a number of selections are heavy on PC themes, with some exceptions they are not very political or contentious. Then there’s the problem of having to say why a book seems like a poor choice for college common reading. With the two books on homosexuality, the issue is clearer. But if someone objected to, for instance, the most popular common read, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a story about a black woman’s stem cells, the complainant could be accused of racism. Indeed, it is hard to say that anything is really wrong with the books that colleges choose for common reading.


So why do some people still have the feeling that Eating Animals and The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, while not bad books, are not the best choices for these college reading programs? Perhaps because some of us can think of better choices.

The National Association of Scholars promotes common reading programs: they get students reading in preparation for college, and they give students some intellectual common ground in a time when they may not get that community, based on shared reading, anywhere else. Why not use this unique opportunity to introduce students to some of the best there is in literature, to the ideas that have shaped our nation and civilization? Instead of providing a glossary explaining who Tolstoy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Oscar Wilde were (as the College of Charleston did), why not have students read the original texts and experience them firsthand?

I would like to see reform in this direction in how colleges approach common reading. I don’t see it happening soon, because there are incentives to follow the crowd and choose recent, easy, trendy books. I also don’t think that legislating common reading will work. Rather than acting in any way that might invoke accusations of censorship (which only makes the books seem more exciting), I think for now, the thing to do is continue to make positive suggestions and to promote better options. NAS is here to help. The NEA Big Read book list also has some good selections. In the meantime, we will continue to document the books colleges and universities do choose, to follow the trends closely and publicize them.

Maybe I can give the last word to Oscar Wilde, from whom Alison Bechdel took inspiration. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde remarks, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written."


Update 3/11/14: The discussion and votes by the South Carolina legislature, addressed in this article, refer to a House Ways and Means Committee meeting on February 19. On March 10, the House as a whole voted to approve the budget cuts endorsed by the Committee.

Image: Wikipedia

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