UI Missed ‘Teachable Moment’ In Response To Art, Some Say

December 17, 2014

By Jeff Charis-Carlson at The Iowa City Press-Citizen

Several members of the University of Iowa community say the university administration missed a “teachable moment” in its initial responses to the display of a Ku Klux Klan effigy on the Pentracrest earlier this month. They are still waiting to see, however, whether UI’s long-term response will find a balance between respecting freedom of speech and ensuring the safety and security of its students.

When UI law professor Lois Cox first read the notification from UI administrators Dec. 5, she said she, like many other colleagues, assumed that a racist piece of art had been displayed on campus.

Through later emails and conversations, she learned the situation was more complicated.

The artist — UI visiting art professor Serhat Tanyolacar — had placed a seven-foot Ku Klux Klan effigy on the Pentacrest to raise awareness of the continuing existence of racist ideology. To the faculty, students, staff and others passing by the unmarked sculpture on that Friday morning, the figure was, at best, an enigma, and, at worst, an offensive threat.

After about four hours — and after UI administrators received multiple complaints from community members — UI police asked Tanyolacar to remove the sculpture because he hadn’t received proper administrative permission to display it on the university’s most recognizable public space.

Administrators then sent out an initial statement explaining that:

“There is no room for divisive, insensitive, and intolerant displays on this campus.”

“UI respects freedom of speech, but the university is also responsible for ensuring that public discourse is respectful and sensitive.”

Two days later, UI President Sally Mason issued an apology to the UI community for the university’s delay in removing the statue. Mason has since held a meeting with many of the students most critical of the university’s response to discuss how to strengthen UI’s cultural competency and implicit bias training.

Cox said she can empathize with the students and other community members who were startled, frightened and angered at seeing a large Klan statue standing on the very spot where hundreds of students had stood the night before protesting police violence.

“I get that,” Cox said.

But Cox said UI officials were wrong to imply “that there is no room in a university for this kind of discourse. This is the very place for it.”

Cox — who previously has served as a UI ombudsperson and an assistant dean for student affairs — said she is pleased that Mason has met with the students, and she hopes those conversations will continue among the administration. She also has been impressed that so many of the offended students have recognized that the “best remediation for bad speech is more speech” and “have been engaging in dialogue” through several forums on campus and in the community.

“But the university missed a teachable moment,” Cox said. “We are having it despite the university’s response.”

Leo Eko, a UI professor of journalism, said the UI likewise missed an opportunity to “educate faculty, including visiting professor Tanyolacar, that the First Amendment is not absolute.”

Freedom of speech “is subject to certain time, place and manner restrictions,” Eko wrote in an email to the Press-Citizen. “That means the authorities can tell speakers when, where and how they can exercise the right of free speech without infringing on the content of speech.”

Eko, who was born in Cameroon, said that the university needs to have First Amendment and academic freedom workshops for administrators, staff and students to stress how the law applies to public spaces. It’s important for all students, he said, to know that the “freedom of expression is the first freedom.”

“UI has rules but this crisis shows that the administrators are not familiar with them, let alone the students,” Eko wrote.

Similar concerns about free speech and academic freedom were echoed in a Dec. 12 letter to UI administrators sent jointly by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the National Coalition Against Censorship.

In an email Tuesday, UI Vice President for Student Services Tom Rocklin said that had Tanyolacar requested permission to display his sculpture, it probably would have been granted.

“And we would have had a conversation with him about how he intended to create context for viewers,” Rocklin wrote. “We may also have discussed ways to make it possible for people to decide whether or not to view the piece, including siting or advance notice.”

Rocklin also said that organizers of the protest against police violence, which took place the night before the sculpture’s display, had not requested the required permission to hold the rally on the Pentacrest.

“We were not contacted by the organizers, and we would have liked the opportunity to approve it advance,” Rocklin said. “We certainly would have approved it, since it was in the evening and wouldn’t interfere with teaching and learning or administrative work, and that space was not reserved by another group.”

Kayla Wheeler, a UI graduate student who organized the protest Dec. 4 protest against police violence, said the lesson UI has to learn has less to do with free speech and more to do with the university responding more directly to the concerns of its students of color.

During a Dec. 9 meeting of the UI African American Council, Wheeler said that, in the days following the display of the statue, she had experienced nightmares about the KKK and about her unsettling interactions with Tanyolacar in person and through social media. Wheeler also was disappointed that UI officials, citing that chalking is not allowed on the Pentacrest had removed the rebuttal messages students had written on the sidewalk the day after the sculpture’s display.

Why should any artist’s right to free speech trump the rights of hundreds of students right to not be threatened, Wheeler asked after the meeting. She also described Tanyolacar’s installation of the sculpture — and some of his later interaction with UI’s black community — as the equivalent of yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.

The council meeting ended with the councilors recognizing that there wasn’t enough time to come up with a coordinated list of long-term goals before the end of the semester. With the winter semester beginning with the Martin Luther King Day of Service and Human Rights Week, the councilors encouraged student groups, such as the Black Hawkeyes and the UI NAACP, to ensure that the current conversations continue after break.

Claire Rudison, chairman of the Iowa Commission for the Status of African Americans, said last week that he would like to see the members of the Iowa state Board of Regents — who oversee Iowa’s three public universities — get involved and “speak to UI’s African-American student population.”

Rudison, who describes himself as a “child of the south” who grew up in the early 1960s, said the descriptions of the sculpture brought to mind Ralph Ginzburt’s book “100 Year of Lynching.” And he hopes the conversations surrounding the sculpture will focus on the fact that Iowa’s small number of black residents make up a grossly disproportional number of the people arrested for marijuana possession, incarcerated in the state’s jails and prisons, and living in poverty.

Rudison, who has lived in Iowa for the past 20 years, mentioned the recent ranking byTheRoot.com in which Iowa was listed as one of the five worst states for black people. He also cited Bloomberg Businessweek’s ranking earlier this year of Iowa as the worst state in the country for minority-owned businesses.

Rudison also said that if Gov. Terry Branstad were to appoint a person of color to fill a current opening on the Board of Regents, “it wouldn’t hurt at all.”

“Just because they are a person of color doesn’t mean they will be mindful of the diversity issue,” Rudison said. “But as my great-grandmother used to tell me, ‘Momma chickens don’t take care of baby ducks.’

Higher education reporter Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at 319-887-5435 orjcharisc@press-citizen.com.

Artist explains motivation behind sculpture

Since placing a Ku Klux Klan effigy on the University of Iowa Pentacrest earlier this month, artist and UI visiting professor Serhat Tanyolacar has sent out multiple public explanations/apologies for the motivation behind the controversial sculpture.

Within the same 24-hour-period Dec. 11, Tanyolacar sent two, column-length accounts of the message he was trying to convey through installing the sculpture.

In the first explanation, published by the Press-Citizen as a guest opinion, Tanyolacar described the installation as a public art failure in terms of not realizing that his artwork would offend the very people who he was attempting to express solidarity with.

He acknowledged: “Due to my thoughtless action, I caused pain and I am ready to listen to the black community’s voice, move forward and be a strong ally.”

Later that same day, however, Tanyolacar sent out a second statement saying that “the content of the art work is open to various interpretations, dependent upon demographics, geo-political locale, current events, and viewer access.”

He wrote that there is no such thing as a piece of public art that “offends no one.” Tanyolacar wrote that he recognizes the risk of displaying art outside a museum or gallery space, but he said all public art — including his sculpture — “intends to trigger awareness about our society; it aims to open and develop dialogues about issues we usually avoid in our daily lives.”

Ryfe discusses social media storm over comments

David Ryfe, the new director of the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication, found himself to be the center of a short-lived social media storm last week after an article in UI’s student newspaper, the Daily Iowan, quoted him as saying, “If it was up to me, and me alone, I would follow the lead of every European nation and ban this type of speech.”

Ryfe said that the DI reporter had quoted him accurately and in context. His statement, via email, had come in response to the question, “Do you feel as though an art piece whose topic is the KKK should be allowed First Amendment protection?”

After receiving some scathing emails from alumni — and after seeing a sudden increase in his Twitter notifications — Ryfe decided to post the entire interaction with the reporter on his personal blog, www.davidryfe.com and own up to the mistakes that he, as a media scholar and journalism school director, definitely should have known not to make.

“I read the question too quickly and responded too glibly,” Ryfe explained on his blog. “I don’t believe ‘art’ should lose constitutional protection. I do believe, however, that a serious case can be made that hate speech deserves less protection.”

Ryfe said not only did he fail to clarify his views in the interview itself, but he also simply hadn’t realized how much of a volatile issue the presence and removal of the sculpture would become on campus.

“I’ve watched media storms around issues build before and this had all the makings of one,” Ryfe wrote. “But there I went blithely typing away.”

Schools: University of Iowa