Marquette’s Removal of Mural Featuring Assata Shakur Creates Buzz

May 20, 2015

By Karen Herzog at Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel

A Gender and Sexuality Resource Center created after Marquette University drew fire for rescinding a job offer to a lesbian candidate for a dean’s position is grabbing national headlines of its own after a mural it displayed was swiftly removed by campus officials, and the center’s director either resigned under pressure or was fired.

Marquette officials on Wednesday declined to discuss the nature of the director’s sudden departure, saying only that Susannah Bartlow no longer is employed there and it’s a personnel matter.

“We will work with the Center’s advisory board to search for a new director so that we can continue to grow the important programs in the Center,” the university said in a statement.

“Every situation is unique,” Marquette University spokesman Brian Dorrington said Wednesday of the university’s decision to remove the mural Sunday, within hours of it being blasted by a conservative blogger.

“When our leadership team is presented with difficult decisions, we must act on the facts,” Dorrington said. “The facts in this instance are clear: A mural of a convicted murderer has no place here.”

The mural had been on display since late March on the fourth floor of the Alumni Memorial Union inside the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center. Marquette officials said they were unaware of it because it was “in a remote area of campus.”

The mural depicted Assata Shakur, an African-American activist convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper in 1973. She escaped prison, fled to Cuba, and became the first woman on the FBI’s Most Wanted list under her birth name, Joanne Chesimard.

She is considered a domestic terrorist by some, and a wrongly accused folk hero by others who say she was targeted by authorities for her involvement in the Black Liberation Army and for being a Black Panther. The mural at Marquette depicted a grainy black-and-white photo of Shakur and two quotes, one that started, “No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them.”

One of Marquette’s most vocal critics, John McAdams, heard about the mural and flagged it to his conservative audience in a blog post Saturday night as “yet another case of the extreme leftist agenda” of the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center.

McAdams, an associate professor of political science, was suspended late last year for publicly criticizing a graduate student teaching assistant on his blog for how she handled a discussion of gay marriage in her class. He faces possible termination.

In his blog post over the weekend, McAdams condemned the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center for “glorifying a black militant cop killer”

The blog post in turn drew the attention of conservative media personalities, from frequent Fox News guestMichelle Malkin to WTMJ-AM talk show host Charlie Sykes.

Since the weekend, the mural has grabbed headlines in the Washington Post, YahooNews and FoxNews. Twitchy.com featured a story under the headline: “Marquette University honors ’70s cop-killer, prison escapee Assata Shakur with mural.”

A student government leader who coordinates a Diversity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Committee said Wednesday that students and others within the Milwaukee community were mobilizing to protest the university’s “actions against its Gender and Sexuality Resource Center” because they view the actions as “taking a step back on its initiatives surrounding inclusion.”

“This center, and its staff, have been responsible and successful in creating a campus environment of inclusivity, respect, and acceptance,” said the leader, Joshua-Paul Miles.

The Gender and Sexuality Resource Center was created in response to recommendations from Ronni Sanlo, a former professor at UCLA commissioned by Marquette University to report on the climate of LGBT issues at Marquette. The report was made after the university rescinded a job offer to Jodi O’Brien, a lesbian professor who has published scholarly work on gender and sexual orientation.

The center offers LGBT students and allies a common space where they can seek counseling and find shared resources. It is also designed to address issues of sexual violence on campus.

McAdams referred to the center in his blog post over the weekend as “a sop to the campus gay lobby” in the wake of the O’Brien controversy.

The Gender and Sexuality Resource Center two years ago drew fire after giving the green light to a 12-week, student-led FemSex workshop on female sexuality. University leaders reviewed the workshop outline after receiving a complaint from a former student, and found that “aspects fell outside the center’s stated purpose.”

The workshop was modeled after courses at the University of California-Berkeley and Brown University to engage students in “the exploration of social forces through the lens of female sexuality.”

Among the workshop activities that critics found objectionable: coloring anatomical images of vaginas, referred to by a reappropriated feminist term that many consider offensive. And, creating “an anonymous piece of erotica exploring fantasy and desire.”

Campus officials pulled the university’s sponsorship and forbid the workshop from being held at the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center.

Marquette in March made the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s fourth annual list of the “Top 10 threats to free speech on campus” published by the HuffingtonPost, citing the university’s handling of the McAdams controversy.

The latest controversy at Marquette also is on the foundation’s radar, said Peter Bonilla, director of the foundation’s Individual Rights Defense Program.

“There’s plenty of reason to have questions for Marquette,” Bonilla said Wednesday. “This mural apparently was in place about two months and Marquette didn’t seem to have any issue with it until it attracted some complaints and negative press.”

Said Bonilla: “From what we’ve seen of them lately with John McAdams, there’s a sense that commitment to free speech ends where bad PR begins.”

Schools: Marquette University