Letter from FIRE to University of Alaska-Anchorage President Mark Hamilton

By on January 30, 2001

January 30, 2001

President Mark R. Hamilton
University of Alaska
P.O. Box 755000
Fairbanks, AK 99775

Re: Professor Linda McCarriston

Dear President Hamilton,

As you can see by our Directors and Board of Advisors, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, legal equality, freedom of expression, and, in the case of Professor Linda McCarriston of the University of Alaska-Anchorage, academic freedom on America’s college campuses.  Our webpage, www.thefire.org, will give you a fuller sense of our identity and of our activities, although the great majority of our appeals to the spirit of liberty and legal equality are successful without public contention.

FIRE is profoundly concerned about the rights of Professor McCarriston and about the chilling communications sent by both Ronald Spatz, Chair of Creative Writing and Literary Arts, and by Edward Lee Gorsuch, Chancellor of the University of Alaska-Anchorage, in explicit support of Ronald Spatz’s letter.  These letters were sent to students and others who had written to the Creative Writing and Literary Arts program with complaints about Professor McCarriston’s poetry.

There are historically and morally defining moments in the defense of liberty and academic freedom, when an individual simply must be “a man for all seasons.” With your service to your nation, you know that reality more deeply than most individuals.  This is one of them, and there is absolutely nothing that will make it go away.  What you do now will determine the shape of academic freedom and truly liberal academic administration in Alaska.  I appeal quite simply to your sense of moral duty and your sense of right and wrong in matters of freedom and coercion.  Do not let liberty be abandoned and permanently threatened on your watch.

As I am sure you know well, because your own remarkable poem appeared in the same number, Linda McCarriston published a poem, “Indian Girls,” in the Winter Solstice 2000 issue of Ice-Floe: International Poetry of the Far North.  Her poem, though this is entirely beside the point, is exquisite and sensitive in its rightful expression of the pain of sexual child abuse.  Your poem is a striking creation of “Okvik Madonna,” mixing religious and tribal imagery in its piercing invocation of “Earth mother, first mother,/Seal child born without blood or brooding.” No Christian objected to your haunting poem, although I know many who wrongly might have; no one threatened or abused your liberty, or subjected you to investigations and resolutions of what is, in fact, your absolute human, constitutional, and academic liberty in this matter.   Several Native American students, however, objected to Linda McCarriston’s poem, and her human, constitutional, and academic liberty has been imperiled by individuals who work for the university of whose liberty you are the steward.

In response to those objections, Ronald Spatz, Chair of Creative Writing and Literary Arts, wrote (I hold a copy of the letter in my hands), among other things: “I have forwarded your message upward to the College of Arts & Sciences Associate Dean Kerry Feldman, the person in charge of resolving such matters. There is nothing to resolve, however, and there is no hierarchy to an illegitimate enterprise of the chilling of academic freedom.  Linda McCarriston wrote a poem, a freedom for which many have been willing to die; others objected to it, as is their right.  No university has a “person in charge of resolving such matters.” No investigation of someone’s poetry and soul is appropriate at the universities of a free society.

Mr. Spatz continued: “I have requested that the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences report back to those who have contacted us about what actions the College of Arts & Sciences will take.” Imagine that someone had objected to a professor’s denial of the divinity of Jesus Christ or to a professor’s lawful political affiliation.  Imagine that an administrator replied that the complaint had been forwarded upward…to the person in charge of resolving such matters, assuring the person who complained about someone’s Judaism, or socialism, or conservativism, that he or she would be informed “about what actions the College of Arts & Sciences will take.” The forwarding is categorically chilling of freedom.  The investigation, whatever its outcome, is categorically chilling of freedom.  The intent to seek resolution, whatever its outcome, is categorically chilling of freedom.  Individuals in a free society—let alone professors at the universities of a free society—are not investigated for their beliefs and protected expressions.  Those beliefs and expressions are inviolable.

The Chancellor of the University of Alaska-Anchorage, Edward Lee Gorsuch, however, writes to these complainants by e-mail of January 8, 2001 (1:44 PM), a copy of which I also hold in my hands, that “I immediately discussed the issues raised with Professor Spatz…and I concurred with and support the response he shared with you and others who have written.  Dr. Feldman…is now actively dealing with the issues and events involved and is working toward a positive and appropriate result.” Again, whatever one’s status, whatever one’s awards, whatever’s one’s past service, one has no right to investigate or administratively support the investigation of what is beyond investigation: the poetry and lawful expression of a member of the faculty.  These are the products of rights beyond administrative power, because they are rights that adhere, inviolably, to the individuals of a free society and a free academic community.

No one wishes these matters to become the subject of national scandal, but the issue simply will not go away.  The University of Alaska has constitutional, academic, contractual, and moral obligations to the rights of its faculty.  The administrative process described by Professor Spatz and Chancellor Gorsuch obliterates these rights.  You currently have a professor who lives in insecure possession of what should be her common human, civil, and academic rights as a member of a great university.  It is doubly indecent that this should be occurring in a program devoted to creative writing, no less.  Let me assure you that individuals and organizations devoted both to academic freedom and to free expression are watching with acute attention the chilling of such freedom under Chairman Spatz and Chancellor Gorsuch.   In the name of liberty and honor, it is imperative that you, as president of this great university, publicly acknowledge the rights, freedom, and dignity of Linda McCarriston; that you order an immediate cessation of all administrative inquiry into her poetry; and that you inform those who have chilled her freedom and rights of the impropriety of their action.  

Please reassure Professor McCarriston in open communication that, consistent with the University of Alaska’s own moral duty, its own policies, and its obligations under the Constitution and under the canons of academic freedom, she is free to write without fear or threat of administrative harassment, administrative penalty, or administrative retribution.  I am not being melodramatic when I remind you that this is truly a defining moment from which there is no shelter save unequivocal and forthright expression of what you know to be correct.  Your poem was superb; so was hers; and both of you should be in administrative peace.  These issues must be addressed directly.  Liberty is in peril, and you are on watch.

Sincerely,

Alan Charles Kors

cc.

Edward L. Gorsuch, Chancellor, University of Alaska-Anchorage
Ronald Spatz, Chairman, Creative Writing and Literary Arts
Theodore L. Kassier, Dean of Arts and Sciences
Kerry Feldman, Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences
Linda McCarriston, Professor of Creative Writing and Literary Arts

Schools: University of Alaska Fairbanks Cases: University of Alaska: Investigation of Protected Speech