S.C. to College of Charleston: We’re Docking Your Allowance

Running a public university is a perilous proposition these days. Cash-strapped states don’t need much reason to pull back on the support they give to their flagship educational institutions, even as private schools charge undergrads more and more. The relationship between a state and its schools can feel like the tug of war between parents and adolescents, as embodied today by the conflict between South Carolina and the College of Charleston:

The serene campus is now the site of regular demonstrations by some of its more than 11,000 students. The Faculty Senate has decreed that it has no confidence in the college’s governing board. And in Columbia, the capital, certain conservative lawmakers speak openly of reducing the college’s budget.

Charleston effectively dyed its hair and got a third piercing when it suggested students check out Alison Bechdel’s terrific graphic memoir Fun Homelately adapted into a perky musical. South Carolina replied by taking away the keys to the car.

The selection angered religious conservatives. The Palmetto Family Council condemned the work as “pornographic,” a characterization its author disputes, and a state legislator, Garry R. Smith, ultimately led an effort to cut the college’s state budget allocation by $52,000. (Mr. Smith also targeted the University of South Carolina Upstate for a smaller reduction because of a different book selection.)

No matter how fraught the relationship gets, schools and states need each other. It will be interesting to see how Charleston responds. Will it insist, politely but firmly, on its right to academic freedom? Will it make certain concessions to the power of the purse? We’ll see. For now it is in its room with the door closed, refusing to come down for dinner, while a suspicious-smelling smoke wafts out from under the door.

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