Anti-gay book controversy at Ohio State, Mansfield

At Ohio State, Mansfield there’s a controversial situation shaping up concerning the library. It isn’t being talked about on listservs much, probably because at first glance it might seem to involve a conflict between gay rights and intellectual freedom.

At Ohio State they’re doing the “every reader, one book” idea for incoming freshmen, the idea being to help give them a unified experience. The head of reference there, Scott Savage, is on the book selection committee. I’m a little unclear on the background to this, but according to this article in Inside Higher Ed, it went like this: The book selection committee began by considering some center-left political books for the unifying reading experience, and Savage criticized the idea, saying those choices would be polarizing. The response from committee members (at least some of them) was that this would be healthy, because it would spark debate. To paraphrase Savage, his answer was, “You want debate? I got your debate right here.” He nominated some extreme right wing books, including an anti-gay book. I don’t know whether his nominations were intended facetiously and rhetorically, just to make a point about applying an intellectual freedom argument to an “everybody reads the same book” program, of if he is a real right-winger, but they sparked a storm of protests from faculty members and fellow committee members. Eventually he was formally charged with sexual harrassment for nominating the anti-gay book (the book is The Marketing of Evil: How Radicals, Elitists, and Pseudo-Experts Sell Us Corruption Disguised as Freedom, by David Kupelian). In response to the sexual harrassment charge, a right-wing legal group is threatening to sue the university in defense of Savage, putting their own predictable spin on the case.

The way it looks to me is that if Savage’s suggestion was serious, there is a harrassment issue involved in his attempt to force students to read that book, which not only represents a political extreme but also targets groups of people with hate. Intellectual freedom arguments don’t apply to this situation, because students don’t have the option not to read the book if they don’t like it – it’s mandatory. That’s the idea behind these “every reader, one book” programs in education. The selection of books for these programs is a curriculuar decision, not a collection development decision. Different considerations apply. But that argument doesn’t only go against Savage’s suggestion. It also raises questions about how to think about selecting a book for a “unifying experience” reading program for incoming freshmen. A book about politics from a center-left perspective isn’t hate literature, but in what sense is it unifying? If it is intended to spark debate, then there is no real intention of unifying students to a single point of view, and the unification intended would have more to do with getting students thinking about the same issues, which is a valuable thing to do. However, since the book is an official selection, it does communicate a sense of doctrine for students orienting themselves to the university. I think this raises questions that aren’t easily worked through no matter what your biases. Is it entirely inappropriate or even avoidable for a university, or a department or program, to have an overall political orientation? What is the best way to balance the interest of a unified educational experience with free inquiry in education? What are the limits of community unification and what are the limits of tolerance? It may be that the right-wing extremist books are way out of line and the center-left political books are good choices, but I think there are some serious questions that the planners of the reading program would need to attend to before deciding that that is the answer.

7 comments on “Anti-gay book controversy at Ohio State, Mansfield

  1. Savage wasn’t forcing anyone to read the book — he was suggesting it to the committee. While I would be strongly opposed to that book actually being selected by the committee, to accuse Savage of harassment for merely suggesting it is an overreaction whether he was serious or not. It gives the conservative groups a wonderful forum for making the claim that “the liberals” are stifling conservative voices on our college campuses. Regardless of Savage’s motives, I think that suggesting the book was a dumb thing to do, but the sexual harassment charge makes the university look petty and foolish. If “intellectual freedom” doesn’t protect the right to say stupid things even when they cause outrage among the righteous, what’s the point?

  2. I agree and I also agree with your post. I just thought you might like to know.

    Beyond the titles he suggested which I don’t think were really appropriate for a “one book” program, the professors also questioned his professional competency.

    I read throught all the emails cited by the right-wing legal group and in at least one of them, a professor wrote to the supervising librarian that because of Savage’s defense of the book in light of the professor’s greater scholarly knowledge of the subject of the book, he would not trust Savage enough to send his students to him for guidance on evaluating research sources. This is on page 32 of the PDF.

    I am surprised that no one else has talked about this. I wonder if there will be other consequences now that the harrassment charges are dropped.

  3. You ask a lot of questions. I’m not sure I can even think all these through right now. But your post has left me thinking.

    You ask “Is it entirely inappropriate or even avoidable for a university, or a department or program, to have an overall political orientation?” I was thinking about how the very existence of a public university assumes an underlying politics. It assumes that “public education” is something worth having. Worth paying for. I work at a public university and many librarians work in public libraries. And even though we have this idea of an intellectual commons, where intellectual freedom reigns, where all ideas are able to be expressed, we know that we cannot even exist without some of those ideas having precedence over others.

    I’m really bothered by the approach of this librarian. He hurts the very underpinnings of his public university and of his profession, which has been built on education and service to all. And I don’t buy the argument that service to all means condoning the real bigotry and hate of factions in our different communities. We draw lines all the time in the policies that are enacted in libraries. There are behaviors that are not acceptable. Something seems childish or unprofessional about his tactics. I’m not sure I’ve articulated this well, but I think collectively librarians should articulate why this is so bothersome.

    You make a good point about the difference between including an idea or resource in a collection and promoting or even requiring that resource to be read. As librarians we can say that we want all ideas to be known and included in our collections, but not all ideas to be promoted.

  4. Considering the intensity of the controversy, has anyone here read the book? I haven’t, and before I can make a judgment, I plan to at least read the offending chapter.

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