Earlier this week, Marquette University painted over a mural in its Gender and Sexuality Resource Center (GSRC) depicting Assata Shakur (also known as Joanne Chesimard), a woman who escaped from prison and fled to Cuba after her conviction for murdering a New Jersey state trooper in 1973, earning her a spot on the FBI’s most wanted list. Now the university has stated that the director of the GSRC, Susannah Bartlow, is “no longer an employee with Marquette University,” leading media to presume she was fired because of the controversial mural.
Although the mural had been on display in the GSRC for several months, it only recently received increased attention and criticism—including from professor John McAdams, whom Marquette is currently trying to fire for his protected expression. (FIRE has written to Marquette to explain why that move is inconsistent with Marquette’s stated commitment to free expression and its own policies promising due process.) Claiming in a statement that the mural was in “a remote area of campus” (it was, in fact, in the Alumni Memorial Union building practically in the center of campus), Marquette subsequently took speedy action to remove the mural—and possibly to remove Bartlow. Current and former members of the Marquette community have circulated and signed a petition to reinstate Bartlow.
The university’s chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority helped create the mural, and the sorority’s communications chairman, Leona Dotson, said that the university had already approved the mural before it was painted. Marquette is free to change its mind about what kind of art it wants on its walls, but its eagerness to flip-flop at any hint of disapproval from the public should disturb anyone who values free and open debate. Unfortunately, however, this is all too common—colleges’ extreme fear of controversy too often leads them to, for example, punish students for speech that is clearly protected under the First Amendment.
Marquette also has the leeway to fire administrators for how they perform in their job functions. But if this incident in fact prompted the university to fire Bartlow not only as director of the GSRC but also as a women’s and gender studies professor, that would be wholly inconsistent with principles of academic freedom—just like in McAdams’s case. Given Marquette’s treatment of McAdams and its previous hostility towards certain viewpoints, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that perhaps Bartlow’s sudden departure wasn’t voluntary. Absent evidence to the contrary (such as a clear statement from the university that the decision was unrelated to the mural), faculty speech is likely to be chilled at Marquette, as faculty members will conclude that their involvement with controversial speech could end their employment at the university in just a matter of days.
FIRE will watch the case for clarification on Marquette’s actions; check back to The Torch for updates.