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UArts students protest professor Camille Paglia for comments on transgender people, sexual assault survivors

In an email to the university community, the school president affirmed his commitment to free speech and academic freedom.

Camille Paglia in an art installation outside The University of the Arts. Her new book is “Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars."
Camille Paglia in an art installation outside The University of the Arts. Her new book is “Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars."Read moreMichael Wirtz

It was probably only a matter of time before the campus free speech debate landed in Camille Paglia’s lap. Again.

The University of the Arts professor and social critic, known for her critiques of modern feminism, last week had a lecture targeted by protesting students and alumni angry at comments she made in a YouTube video, posted in January about the #MeToo movement, that they contend perpetuates rape culture. They also were critical of comments that they call transphobic.

Now, a petition that’s garnered more than 800 signatures is demanding that the school remove her from the faculty and stop giving her a platform to speak.

“I had a concern that she would be able to speak, and her fans were allowed onto our campus, into our main classroom building, where there will be trans individuals and sexual-assault survivors,” said Joseph McAndrew, a UArts student who organized the protest. “We’re giving a space for her following to come into our safe space that we pay to be in.”

In an email sent to students and faculty on Wednesday, school president David Yager didn’t name Paglia but said the school is “committed to the exercise of free speech and academic freedom."

“Artists over the centuries have suffered censorship, and even persecution, for the expression of their beliefs through their work," he wrote. "My answer is simple: not now, not at UArts.” Yager also noted that while “opinions with which we disagree” are generally legally protected, “we strongly affirm the importance of respect for others and the value of civil discourse.”

In an email, Paglia said Yager’s “eloquent statement affirming academic freedom was a landmark in contemporary education.” She said she hopes “it will be a turning point in how American colleges and universities deal with their rampant problem of compulsory ideological conformity.”

She described the protest and petition as “a publicity stunt without academic merit or import” and wrote that “the people involved evidently do not read books (I’ve written eight) but get their information from garbled social media.”

“It is categorically untrue that I have ever imposed any ideology whatsoever in my classes, where I constantly affirm free thought and free speech for every individual,” she wrote.

Paglia is one of a handful of local academics whose views have won them intense opposition. At Drexel University, there was George Ciccariello-Maher, who left in December 2017 after making a number of controversial remarks on Twitter. In March 2018, the Black Law Students Association at the University of Pennsylvania organized a campaign to get law professor Amy Wax fired after she spoke negatively about black students’ performance in her class. And in December, Temple University’s board of trustees condemned professor Marc Lamont Hill for remarks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In each case, the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has sided with the professors. Will Creeley, the group’s senior vice president of legal and public advocacy, said he hopes Yager’s email to the university community “represents the end of the institution’s commentary on it, and they continue to protect academic freedom.”

“Faculty members are entitled to have opinions about the world in which they work and live,” he said. “Absent any showing the professor has harassed a student, she is absolutely entitled to voice her opinions, as her critics are entitled to voice theirs.”

Paglia, a tenured faculty member who has been at UArts since 1984, has in the last several years been critical of “the plague of political correctness and assaults on free speech.” In 2016, she delivered a talk at Drexel about free speech on campus, arguing that “the entire college experience should be based on confronting new and disruptive ideas.”

And in a 2017 commentary for Time magazine titled “Blocking Campus Speech is Anti-Democracy and Anti-Feminist,” she described her own “dissident brand of feminism” and stood by a date-rape manifesto she wrote in the early `90s that “remains the most controversial thing I have ever written.” The essay, in which Paglia argues that “the only solution to date rape is female self-awareness and self-control,” led to protests outside lectures she delivered on campus.

Since then, Paglia — who has characterized herself as libertarian — hasn’t shied away from the provocative.

During the recorded interview about “victim mentality and #MeToo" posted in January, she said it’s “ridiculous” college students expect authority figures to address “a mistake that they might make at a fraternity party and then they regret six months later and a year later.”

“It’s ridiculous ... that any university ever tolerated a complaint of a girl coming in six months or a year after an event,” she continued. “If a real rape was committed, go friggin’ report it to police.

“To me, this is not feminism,” she said. “This is just a bourgeois culture of excuses.”

Organizers of opposition to her have also circulated comments she’s made about transgender people.

“I am highly skeptical about the current transgender wave, which I think has been produced by far more complicated psychological and sociological factors than current gender discourse allows,” she said in a 2017 interview with the Weekly Standard, a conservative political magazine.

McAndrew, a UArts junior who is nonbinary and has been sexually assaulted, organized the protest at Paglia’s lecture Tuesday evening — titled “Ambiguous Images: Sexual Duality and Sexual Multiplicity in Western Art" — after trying for about two weeks to get it moved off campus.

Sheridan Merrick, a UArts senior and another student activist, said that while Paglia has attracted criticism from some students for years, the difference now is the national political discourse and that McAndrew “chose to take a stand.”

“It really reached a boiling point in this political climate, when people’s identities and rights are under attack from the administration on a national level,” she said. “Once one person said, ‘Hey, we’re going to stand up for what we believe,’ everyone else joined in.”

McAndrew and Merrick said about 100 protesters sat in a lobby at Terra Hall, 211 S. Broad St., Tuesday holding signs ahead of the talk. Then, some of those protesting filed in to listen. About 30 minutes into the lecture, McAndrew said, a building fire alarm went off, prompting an evacuation and moving the protest outside, where demonstrators chanted, “Trans lives matter! We believe survivors!”

Paul Healy, a UArts spokesperson, said the alarm was determined to have been intentionally pulled and an investigation into the incident is ongoing. The evacuation effectively ended Paglia’s lecture.

McAndrew said no other protests had been planned. They’re hoping to go to the university president with the petition once it reaches 1,000 signatures. The hope is for a dialogue with Paglia and university leadership.

“I’m not going to be swept aside by an email from the president,” McAndrew said. “It’s almost like a social-justice duty.”