Linda McCarriston's Letter to FIRE
April 9, 2001
April 9, 2001
Dear Professor Kors:
It has not been long since Thor Halvorssen of FIRE phoned my university office and found me alone and very frightened in a cinderblock building at the darkest time of the Alaska winter. Perhaps you can imagine my near disbelief that a voice so named, and with so much purpose, would arrive from the City of Brotherly Love (where my Irish family landed not long ago, fleeing sectarian persecution), promising help!
As I wrote almost immediately, that was the first night I had slept more than fitfully since my thought, teaching, and writing had been attacked dramatically, in and around my classroom, by a student who erroneously believed that a literature class presenting poets of the political imaginationâ€"and a poem of mine that was published in Decemberâ€"were racist. She advised all those to whom she e-mailed her interpretation of both my poem and my teaching to contact my direct supervisor, Ronald Spatz, as well as the University Chancellor and the press, calling for an investigation into my thought and a challenge to my position as a tenured full professor in the Department of Creative Writing and Literary Arts.
In the name of the University, Professor Spatz, with Chancellor Gorsuch's concurrence, responded immediately with a statement of concern and a promise that the issues would be "sent upward" through the College of Arts and Sciences for resolution. Demands for my "public re-education" flew about the campus and in the press. Promises were made to the complainant in order to regain control during exam week. The office of Kerry Feldman, Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, became the focal point of conflict and, sadly, the empty chair in which principle ought to have been seated.
Though University President, Mark R. Hamilton, and countless Alaskans from every path phoned, e-mailed, or wrote in a press forum to support my work, U.A.A. made only the most tepid defense of First Amendment rights to free speech, suggesting that my not having been fired was a bold enough response. Had the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education not intervened when and as it did, I have little doubt that I would have been delivered to the "public forum," in which I was to learn the proper "role of the poet in the community."
Once you had appeared on the horizon, subtle changes began to occur. The dean's office grew visibly less active in questioning my students about the class. The dean's office grew less active in its supervision, demands, and admonitions of me. A lull developed in which the scrutiny of the dean's office seemed to recede.
By then, of course, you were conversing with the President directly, apprising him of the situation with information not available to him from my campus. When he made the public statement demanding, unequivocally, institutional protection of rights to free speech, faculty, students, and the city itself cheered. This very significant moment in the history of Alaska's state university would not have taken place without your determination, deep and painstaking involvement in the case, and irresistible suasion on behalf of the Constitution.
Painful and frightening, these malicious assaults on me and my liberty continue, but these attacks have roused students to speak publicly about the climate of fear and self censorship that has existed here for some time. The Taliban of academic post-modernism has made writing a dangerous activity on this college campus. Ever shrinking parameters of politically permissible thought and expression have contributed to what's being called the "Stalinizing of English." In graduate programs for writers, no less! Had you not become involved, this case would have ended by now as another did last yearâ€"a Dorothy Parker would be forced to share their works hand-to-hand in a new American Samizdat. In the name of diversity, a profound intellectual repression has been loosed, a conformism that even liberals have begun to call "Left Fundamentalism."
The First Amendment, most basic and precious ground of democracy, underlies the very possibility of education, but on my campus and nationwide, the criminalization of thought and speech is a fait accompli. There is no more important work to be done today on American campuses than your work. I cannot thank you adequately for your vision and courage.