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“WE’RE ONLY HURTING OURSELVES …”

By Amy Lazenby || The S.C. House of Representatives is set to vote this week on a budget for the 2014-2015 fiscal year that would strip $52,000 in funding from the College of Charleston and $17,162 from the University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg. Those amounts are directly tied to the cost of specific reading programs instituted by the two public universities – programs that should not be controversial, but that have become so after one state lawmaker decided to punish the universities for their choice of reading material.

Rep. Garry Smith (R-Greenville) – who sits on the House Ways and Means committee – has raised objections to the books assigned to incoming freshmen. Smith objects to “Fun Home” (for CofC students) and “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio” (for USC-U students) because they deal with homosexual subject matter. In “Fun Home,” the author discusses coming out as a lesbian, while “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio” is an account of South Carolina’s first gay and lesbian radio show.

Unfortunately, the majority of Smith’s House colleagues on the Higher Education Subcommittee and the Ways and Means Committee have voted to include the cuts in the budget, which will soon receive a full vote by the House.

One notable objection was raised by former Clemson University professor Rep. B.R. Skelton (R-Pickens), who called out the funding cuts for what they are – blatant censorship. Skelton proposed an amendment to restore funding for the programs, but that proposal was voted down 13-10 in committee.

“I have serious problems with censorship,” Skelton said. “We don’t need to go down that slippery slope of taking retribution for content.”

Smith has made no bones about the fact that removing money for the programs from the upcoming budget is indeed a reprimand.

“One of the things I learned over the years is that if you want to make a point, you have to make it hurt,” he said in proposing the funding cuts. If it accepts the proposed budget that includes these cuts, the House will be admonishing two institutions of higher learning in South Carolina for their choice of literature by taking away the money these schools use to purchase those particular books.

This is a clear example of ideological suppression by state government.

Universities are – supposedly – bastions of free thought, places where young adults are exposed to new and diverse ideas and subject matter. Academic freedom demands that students be able to openly debate topics that, yes, may make them feel uncomfortable. The point of higher education is not merely to confirm the beliefs students bring to campus; it is meant to challenge those beliefs. It is only by objectively examining their assumptions that young people can make informed decisions about whether the conclusions they have reached about certain topics at 17 or 18 years of age are final. We send students to college to learn how to think, not what to think.

When legislators begin allocating resources to public universities based on whether they agree with the subject matter taught in certain courses, we have undermined not only the very definition of higher education, but also our state’s commitment to open scholarship. If South Carolina’s universities are to retain their credibility as institutions of true higher learning, we must not go down that road. If we follow Rep. Garry Smith’s line of thinking, the “point” we will be making is that South Carolina’s schools are nothing but reinforcers of dogma, and the people who will get “hurt” are South Carolinians as we lose our human capital – our best and brightest students – to schools in other states, and as we fail to recruit new young talent to the Palmetto State.

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Amy Lazenby is the Associate Opinion Editor for FITSNews. Contact her at amy@fitsnews.com and follow her on Twitter @Mrs_Laz.