It's been a little more than a month since artist Mariano Gonzales removed his installation, "Please Remind Us... Why Are Americans Still Dying in the Middle East?" from the ConocoPhillips Gallery at Alaska Pacific University's Grant Hall.
Its run overlapped with a youth theater production, also in Grant Hall. At the time the installation was removed, Ann Hale, director of university advancement, told me APU's decision to relocate the installation was based on "concerning language" in the written public comments that were a significant component of the exhibit. Visitors were encouraged to answer the installation's question on sheets of paper along the gallery wall. The responses ranged from poetic to antagonistic, and a few -- six, by my count -- contained a four-letter word beginning with the letter F.
"We just didn't want to expose the children to that," Hale said.
"Please Remind Us..." wasn't the first artwork on an Anchorage university campus to be removed, rearranged or rethought out of concern for "the children." Since the mid-1990s, local media have reported on at least a half-dozen art controversies at APU and the nearby University of Alaska Anchorage in which complaints were based on concern about exposing children to adult themes -- usually nudity or sex. Sometimes the artists have removed their own work; other times, at least at APU, the administration has ordered art taken down. On one occasion, parents removed a sculpture themselves, damaging it in the process.
In this most recent incident, APU directed Gonzales to move his installation -- which had been approved by the gallery curator, but not, apparently, the university's administration -- to another gallery. Gonzales decided his piece would seem disrespectful in the new space -- which he described as "a lounge" -- and opted to remove it.
To Gonzales, a professor of art at UAA, the protect-the-children argument rang a bit false. He points out that APU president Doug North had already posted his own comments on the gallery wall, branding the installation "more a facile piece of guerilla theater than art." There was a fair amount of public criticism of Gonzales' installation -- as well as public support -- and even some vandalism. Local artists and other observers wondered if the problem had less to do with "the children" than with the installation's controversial nature.
"It was, I think, a very convenient way of asking me to take it down early," Gonzales said. "Really, I think that a university is the administration. In the case of APU, I think a lot of it is Doug North."
I don't know whether North's objection was based on his own feelings about the piece, some of the negative public reaction to the show, or legitimate concern for "the children." North's office hasn't returned the four phone messages I've left with administrative assistants and university advancement over the past six weeks. I would have liked to ask North how APU walks the line between being a marketplace for ideas and a community center.
University of Alaska president Mark Hamilton, however, was willing to talk about the challenges of balancing a university's dual -- and sometimes dueling -- roles.
Hamilton said he once read about a survey in which 97 percent of Americans said they support freedom of speech.
"I don't believe that statistic," he said. "I believe 100 percent of Americans believe in freedom of speech 97 percent of the time."
Everyone's offended by something, Hamilton said.
"I do think you need to be aware of potential offenses," Hamilton said. "How much you modify is really the question. There's a huge spectrum of things that will offend somebody."
Hamilton said freedom of expression is so important to him that he's gone as far as to advise the chancellors of University of Alaska campuses that he won't support them if they attempt to limit expression on campus.
"It's the only thing I can imagine where I do not have your back," Hamilton said he told chancellors.
Of course, there's a significant difference between UAA and APU when it comes to free expression: UAA, a public university, is legally bound to recognize student and faculty First Amendment rights. As a private institution, APU has no such responsibility; the administration can allow or disallow expression as it sees fit.
Associate professor of art Hugh McPeck, who teaches at UAA, said that might be part of APU's appeal to some students.
"It's APU and that's a private university, and a lot of people go there because they feel safer," McPeck said.
Still, McPeck has had brushes with censorship during his time at UAA. A few years ago, he said, a church group using the Fine Arts Building took issue with some student sketches -- nudes. McPeck came in on Monday morning to find the bulletin boards in the first-floor hallway covered with paper.
"I thought, 'What the hell?'" McPeck said. He took the paper down. "I said no, this is an art building. And actually, that's what held true." The church group, McPeck said, had cited concern for its younger members in covering the sketches. McPeck wasn't so sure.
"I think as adults, they also had that closed mind," he said. The church group was only supposed to be using the recital hall, but "they were trying to censor the whole building."
In 2002, when parents visiting UAA moved and damaged a phallic sculpture, it was McPeck's student, Anson Tsang, who felt censored. Tsang, McPeck said, had made the sculpture as a "comical piece" in response to a phallus trend that had seemed to dominate UAA's sculpture room for a few semesters.
"It ended up being a game," McPeck said. "It wasn't like somebody going into the Sistine Chapel and covering up all the little nude cherubs."
Still, he said, it raised an important question.
"At that time, people had to decide whether this was an art building or this was a rental hall," McPeck said. "It's the beginning of censorship. What's it telling our students? You should only do this in a bathroom. You should only do this in a private studio. It's a gallery here. The halls are a gallery. You don't want to expose your kids to it, don't let them go down there."
Based on what I'd heard from McPeck and Hamilton, it seemed as though the primary difference between the two schools is that at APU, administrators are willing to skirt controversy by removing art, while at UAA, when art has been censored, it's been the decision of an employee or group acting in opposition to the tone set by UAA leadership.
Professor of history Stephen Haycox, who has taught at UAA for more than 40 years, says free speech issues can be problematic for public and private universities alike.
"(The solution) is going to be political," Haycox said. "It's going to be driven by how outraged (people are) and how much community outrage they feel they can stand."
And then there's a more practical issue: money. Private universities want to avoid alienating their donors, and public universities have to think about how controversy may come back to haunt them when they appeal to their state governments each year for funding.
"It's hard to keep everyone happy," Haycox said.
Still, he added, a university should be a place where ideas flow freely and the right to freedom of expression is honored.
"I think (a university's) first responsibility is to champion as free an expression of all points of view as it feels it can stand and it feels the community can stand," he said. "Its principal responsibility is to push the envelope."
Haycox said he was "disappointed" in North's response to the Gonzales installation, which Haycox felt was "kind of innocuous."
"I don't know why Doug North felt he had to respond the way he did," Haycox said. Particularly, he added, since the president is on his way out; potential replacements are on campus for interviews this week.
Haycox (along with McPeck and Gonzales) seemed to feel Hamilton walks his talk when it comes to freedom of expression issues.
"Mark Hamilton has been very, very outspoken in his support of academic freedom," Haycox said.
To many UAA faculty members, Hamilton's stated commitment to freedom of expression was cemented in 2001, when an Alaska Native graduate student, offended by one of creative writing professor Linda McCarriston's poems, accused McCarriston of racism. Hamilton issued a statement to his chancellors, stating in no uncertain terms that the University of Alaska "acknowledges and espouses the right to freedom of speech."
"Opinions expressed by our employees, students, faculty or administrators don't have to be politic or polite," Hamilton wrote. "However personally offended we might be, however unfair the association of the University to the opinion might be, I insist that we remain a certain trumpet on this most precious of Constitutional rights."
Hamilton's letter was "uncompromising" and "pretty critical" of the chancellor, the dean and the department head, Haycox said. Federal civil rights investigators later cleared McCarriston of the charges. The graduate student, Diane Benson, would go on to run for Congress against Rep. Don Young. And the incident earned Hamilton a reputation as a defender of the First Amendment.
That reputation hasn't been spotless; lately, Hamilton has been taking flak for the controversy unfolding around the resignation of University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Rick Steiner. Steiner resigned last month after the university rejected a union grievance protesting the withdrawal of his Sea Grant funding, which he lost after he accused Sea Grant, a federal university research network, of pro-oil industry bias.
Hamilton said he wanted to accept Steiner's invitation to debate the issue ("Talk of Alaska" host Steve Heimel offered this week's show as a forum) but had to decline; not only is it a complex personnel issue involving unions and lawyers, he said, but it would have been boring. He said he and Steiner are on the same page when it comes to freedom of speech. One of the problems, he said, is that Steiner violated the terms of the Sea Grant agreement.
"It says specifically, 'you may not take a side on these issues,'" Hamilton said. "I say don't even take a grant that says that."
UAA history professor Haycox said he thinks more attention should be paid to the conflict between the university and Steiner. Haycox doesn't agree with everything Steiner says, but, he said, there's a more important message that's gotten lost in the controversy.
"You can't criticize the oil industry when you're in Alaska," Haycox said, summarizing the issue he says Steiner's situation has highlighted. The university is funded by the state, and the state's money comes from oil production. "How comfortable will the chancellor and the president be with some thoroughgoing criticism of the oil industry?"
While Hamilton has set a high bar for First Amendment rights systemwide, Haycox said, in reality the university has, on occasion, been willing to compromise. He thinks the university should have more vigorously defended composer and adjunct faculty member Philip Munger in 2004, when Munger canceled the scheduled premiere of his controversial cantata "The Skies Are Weeping" after student musicians received threats.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which uses a red, yellow and green traffic light-themed system to rate public universities' free speech policies, classifies UAA as a "red" school -- one that "has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech." FIRE's concern with UAA, however, appears to be not that the university has any troubling track record of limiting free speech, but that the school's sexual harassment policy could potentially be used to abridge free speech.
Haycox, who subscribes to the FIRE listserv, said he definitely wouldn't classify UAA as a red school.
"I would say that it's somewhere between yellow and green," he said.
FIRE doesn't rank private schools, but something tells me moving or removing art out of concern for "the children" would contribute to a red-light rating.
Of course, as Hamilton pointed out, it's easy to talk in bold terms about the First Amendment. It's a little tougher to figure out how to handle it when you're offended yourself. So what's the pro-free speech parent to do when they bring Junior on campus for a ballet recital or a handbell choir concert and come face-to-face with pictures of naked people?
"What I would do, with one of my kids, if they were really interested in talking to it, I'd explain it to them," McPeck said. "There's nothing to be ashamed of. It's just a piece of art."
Furthermore, he added, learning to draw human figures is an important part of an artist's education.
"If you can draw the figure, as an artist ... you can draw anything," he said. "It's probably and traditionally the most beautiful form we have in nature."
The bottom line, Hamilton said, is that a university is a place for learning and expression -- and sometimes that means expressing images and ideas not everyone likes.
"This is a building for the fine arts," Hamilton said. "The fine arts explores these things. It's a university and these are the things that happen at universities. Don't go to Las Vegas or New York. You can see some of these things in person."
For his part, Gonzales said he didn't want to turn his show into "a First Amendment thing."
"The original message was important, and I wanted to keep it there," he said. "I'm surprised that it became an issue with the university. Especially in this day and age ... I suspect that sometime in the future, there will be some kind of First Amendment issue with me, but this wasn't it."
Contact Maia Nolan at maia_alaskadispatch.com.