Mason Seeks Balance Between Inclusiveness, Free Speech

December 18, 2014

By Jeff Charis-Carlson at Iowa City Press-Citizen

In her end-of-the-semester message, University of Iowa President Sally Mason announced Thursday that, before the next semester begins, UI administrators will take two key steps to ensure a healthier balance on campus between the “intertwined values of inclusiveness and freedom of expression.”

  • Administrators will clarify the procedures that surround the use of public space for public expressions — including the prompt removal of unauthorized displays on campus.
  • And they will review the university’s orientation procedures to identify ways to ensure all students, faculty and staff are aware of the relevant policies.

Mason’s message comes after members of the UI community — along with outside freedom-of-speech organizations — have chided the university for“missing a teachable moment” in its response to a controversial sculpture displayed on the UI Pentacrest earlier this month.

On Dec. 7, Mason sent a campuswide email apologizing to the UI community for how long it took UI officials to realize that UI visiting art professor Serhat Tanyolacar had not received proper permission to place a 7-foot-tall Ku Klux Klan effigy on the campus’s most recognizable public space.

Tanyolacar said he placed the scuplture as a critique of racist ideology, but without any explanatory material posted by the sculpture, many students and community members viewed the object as dangerous, offensive and threatening.

In response to widespread student concerns and complaints, Mason held a closed meeting with students Dec. 10 to discuss how to strengthen UI’s cultural competency and implicit bias training.

In Thursday’s statement, Mason described the proposed steps as “the start of a process that will seek to engage all members of our community in an open and robust discussion.” The initiatives will be led by UI’s Chief Diversity Office, under Associate Vice President Georgina Dodge’s direction.

“We have much to be proud of here at the University of Iowa,” Mason stated, “including our cherished traditions of free speech and open dialogue, as well as our long history of being a welcoming campus. The university must foster an inclusive educational environment, one that is open to all points of view — and one in which people from all backgrounds are welcomed and respected.”

Peter Bonilla, of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said his organization and the National Coalition Against Censorship — which had sent a joint letter to UI last week — were disappointed in Mason’s message.

“The statement from President Mason is an improvement over her previous statement in that it makes mention of the university’s ‘cherished traditions of free speech,’ ” Bonilla said. “… But she focuses too much on how to make it easier for the university to remove unauthorized speech. It’s an opportunity missed.”

Schools: University of Iowa