Linda McCarriston’s Letter to FIRE

By 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 imagination—and a poem of mine that was published in
December—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 year—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.

Sincerely,

Linda McCarriston

Professor

Schools: University of Alaska Fairbanks