University of Iowa President Mason Vows To Foster Environment ‘Open To All Points of View’

December 18, 2014

By Vanessa Miller at The Gazette

After receiving widespread criticism for its handling of a Ku Klux Klan-likened sculpture that an artist installed on campus without permission earlier this month, the University of Iowa on Thursday reaffirmed its commitment to free speech and also promised changes.

In an “end of semester message,” UI President Sally Mason said her administration after winter break will take steps to clarify procedures around use of public space for public expressions on campus. And, she said, administrators will review orientation procedures for new and visiting community members — like the faculty member behind the statue — to “better acquaint them” with policies.

“The university must foster an inclusive educational environment,” Mason said in the statement, “one that is open to all points of view, and one in which people from all backgrounds are welcomed and respected.”

Mason’s comments come after students, faculty, community members, and experts criticized the university’s response to the KKK-robed statue, which involved removing it for not having appropriate permissions and calling the artwork “deeply offensive.”

The university’s initial statement said it considers “all forms of racism abhorrent” and there “is no room for divisive, insensitive, and intolerant displays on this campus.” Mason went on to apologize “for failing to meet our goal of providing a respectful, all-inclusive, educational environment.”

The artist, assistant UI professor and Grant Wood Art Colony Printmaking Fellow Serhat Tanyolacar, released a statement the same day the statue went up, explaining that it was robed in screen-printed articles from U.S. newspapers depicting the “horror and violence” of racist ideology and was meant to spark meaningful and positive dialogue as racial tensions flared nationally.

Tanyolacar told The Gazette on Friday that the university’s response to his piece was “humiliating” and he would like an apology.

“With the first two statements, I was no one,” Tanyolacar, 38, said. “I was nothing. I was a racist, prejudiced individual.”

Tanyolacar said no one with the university reached out to him after taking down the statue to discuss the public-use policy and required permissions and to better understand the nature of the artwork. Instead, Tanyolacar said, he proactively released a statement explaining himself publicly, and he requested a meeting with Mason through the provost’s office.

Tanyolacar said he has met with someone in the provost’s office but has not received a response from the president’s office.

“They are ignoring anything I say because I am a temporary visiting professor, and I will be gone,” Tanyolacar said. “But an academic system shouldn’t look like this. We, as educators, should be valued.”

Joe Brennan, UI Vice President for strategic communication, said the president’s office has not received a request to meet with Tanyolacar but confirmed that the artist has spoken with senior level administrators in the provost’s office.

“And I’m sure the administration would be happy to talk to him,” Brennan said.

Among the UI’s free speech critics are the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the National Coalition Against Censorship, which sent a joint letter last week condemning the university’s response. It accused the university of publicly denouncing the artwork, “ignoring its anti-racist intent.”

“The University of Iowa betrayed its purpose as an institution of higher learning by censoring Tanyolacar’s art,” Robert Shibley, senior vice president for the individual rights foundation, said in a statement. “Far from fostering critical thinking, it declared that certain methods of expression are too dangerous for campus, regardless of context, doing a profound disservice both to its students and to the Constitution.”

Mason, in her statement Thursday, acknowledged the critics and said her conversations with student, faculty, and staff leaders “have made it clear to me” that there is more the university can do to support its values of inclusiveness and freedom of expression.

“Our aspirations are high, and I am committed to continuing our efforts to meet our goals,” Mason said.

By taking steps to clarify the campus’ use of public space policy and review orientation procedures, Mason said, “We will develop and implement strategies that will create the community that we all aspire to have.”

Schools: University of Iowa