There was an interesting situation that arose on our campus in the last 48 hours. Last evening, I left our Multicultural Greek Council meeting around 7:40 p.m. It was a good ending to a long day and a long semester of council meetings. The Panhellenic council just installed their new officers and I was walking and talking with the new Secretarial Affairs officer. We walked by an academic building and sitting there was a 6’x6′ plywood board painted in all black. There was a hole cut out near the top large enough for someone to stick their head through. However on this black background was what instantly looked like robe and hood for a Ku Klux Klan member. There was no one near the stand-up. I had to do a quick double take to make sure that I saw what I saw. The student with me turned and looked at me and we instantly thought the same thing, “WTF?”
I went back to my office and checked to see if there was a space reservation that would provide some more information as to what was going on. There was nothing in the university reservation system. The next logical step was contacting our Police and Parking Services to make sure that they were aware of what was outside. The dispatcher was just as surprised as I was and sent an officer over to the location. I received a call from the dispatcher about an hour later to inform me that the display was an art installation for the next day and that there was a memo that was sent out.
This morning was slightly chaotic to say the least. Our Conferences and Event Services (CES) was in quite a stir over the display. Many people were calling and coming in to complain about the pieces of art. Along with the Ku Klux Klan cut-out was a map of Japan made into a cornhole board that people could throw bean bags at representing the bombs the US dropped during WWII. There were two other displays that also highlighted controversial events in the past of American culture. Obviously these images evoke an emotional response in anyone who would see them. After the critique occurred, the pieces were taken down and removed from campus. Later in the day, the VPSA sent out an email explaining the event and it contained comments from the professor as well.
From what I heard, the professor and the student did not intend to offend anyone with the art. I guess that I am a little confused about that. I find it hard to believe that they had no idea that someone would not find these images offensive. To me, that is being completely irresponsible and naive. It does not take away from the student’s ability to display these images but to assume that no one would be offended is just asinine. Also, most campuses have an area specifically designated for displays of freedom of speech. It would have been more appropriate for the student and faculty member to inquire about this space based on the subject matter of this particular project. Finally, there should have been something near the project itself indicating that it was affiliated with an academic course. Again, this does not change the overall impact but would have helped in providing some context as to what was occurring.
The outcome of the display has been event more interesting. This has sparked conversations around freedom of speech, academic freedom, and even common sense for students, faculty, and staff. There have been professionals who have found themselves on both sides of the fence about the appropriateness of the display versus the constitutional right of the student. It has brought into question current university practices and policies regarding information sharing and space reservations. I am hoping the dialogue this display has started will continue to impact how the university operates and approaches issues like this in the future.
Until next time…