A coffin, painted midnight black, sat hauntingly on the ground level of the Administration Building, directly below the office of USF President Judy Genshaft. One mourner, draped in a black robe, fell to his knees and wept. A second mourner, her mouth covered with a thick piece of duct tape, fell across the coffin and began shaking.
Over what fallen friend were these mourners weeping?
Inside the coffin lay the personified remains of academic freedom.
Standing on a bench, pointing a finger at Genshaft’s door, Mary Poole spoke of burying academic freedom.
“We are gathered here today to eulogize and to honor the long life and the many contributions of academic freedom,” Poole said. “For centuries, this great principle has guaranteed that institutes for higher education are conducted for the common good, not to further the interests of an individual or the institution itself.”
Poole is a former USF employee who made news for suggesting that she was laid off because of her strong views against the administration and the war on terrorism. She said academic freedom, the principle by which professors may freely express their beliefs even if they are unpopular and a central issue in the case of controversial professor Sami Al-Arian, is necessary for the proper functioning of the university.
Poole jabbed her finger toward Genshaft’s door and said academic freedom has been under attack in the state and at USF. She said the institution is suffering from a belief by people in power that it is trivial, meant for peacetime and is a luxury in time of war.
“We mournfully bury here academic freedom,” Poole said.
Three women emerged from Genshaft’s office during Poole’s fiery speech. They watched momentarily, smiled, shook their heads and returned inside.
Poole, as the mock funeral came to an end, said to the group that academic freedom must survive by living in each person.
The group’s visit to the administration building was the culmination of a long walk across campus that included stops at the Library and in front of the Phyllis P. Marshall Center. Made up initially of 15 members wearing black robes, the group eventually grew to about 50 people.
Poole said the demonstrators were part of a graduate-level class in the communications department that teaches the idea of performance in social resistance.
At the marchers’ Library visit, two of the rank, Mike Merrill and Chris Carden, jumped up on the wall immediately in front of the entrance and began to banter back and forth about the sanctity of academic freedom. The performance of the two men drew about 100 onlookers, some of whom looked surprised, and others who listened intently.
At the Marshall Center stop, the group brought out a director’s chair labeled with the word “prez” that was occupied by a red-haired director hearing auditions to decide who would speak at an upcoming colloquium.
The skit was an obvious dig at Genshaft, and the title character was horrified at the three auditioners: a minority, a feminist and a “butch” lesbian.
The “prez” cut off the first speaker as he said, “academic freedom lies fallow in the fields of the academy.”
As she introduced the final audition, the “prez” made a biting statement.
“I can see I was right to take a firm hand on this campus,” the “prez” said. “But at last, the final interview. I think I can make the Chamber of Commerce luncheon.”
As the “prez” skit finished, the group headed toward Genshaft’s office.
Genshaft’s reaction to the demonstration was sent via e-mail and through media relations coordinator Marsha Strickhouser.
“As far as I know, the president was not here when the protest happened,” Strickhouser said. “But she has stated repeatedly her commitment to academic freedom.”
As the demonstrators marched around campus carrying their coffin, they chanted in a hymn-like tone. Carden led the chanting, singing comments that included, “The prison guards have silenced the inmates,” “Academic freedom is that bread of life” and “Quench the hunger for knowledge.” Each one of those was answered by a return chant of, “Speak out and change the world.”
Carden said the goal of the demonstration was simple.”I think in one word, enlightenment,” he said.
Carden said he hopes people can express their beliefs against the status quo. He said he believes universities are killing academic freedom and that people need to hear other perspectives.
But is academic freedom truly dead?
“Well, it certainly seems to be in a lull these past few years since (the controversy surrounding) Dr. Al-Arian (began),” Carden said. “Whether you’re on campus or not you should be able to express your beliefs. He did that against popular opinion, and we’ve seen the results.”
“In a way, I would say academic freedom is dead.”