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HCC professors host academic freedom forum

April 26, 2002|BY ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

The images of art popping up on the screen were increasingly disturbing, and that was on purpose.

At a forum on academic freedom Thursday, Hagerstown Community College professors David Warner and Mike Harsh tested their audience's bounds of tolerance.

Figure drawings of a nude woman. A photograph of a shirtless boy standing before a priest whose face was blurred.

A cartoon of a Middle Eastern terrorist raping the Statue of Liberty. Harsh said the most obscene aspect was the tourists falling from the statue, a gruesome reminder of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

During a free-flowing lecture called "The Right to be Offended," Warner and Harsh prodded the audience to respond.

Can community college administrators demand that impolite art be hidden? Should academic halls be free of unpleasant drawings?

Is the right of expression absolute? What is art's purpose?

About 50 students and faculty members gathered in the library to ponder the possibilities. Many sat around tables, drinking wine, punch or coffee, as candles burned in water-filled vases.

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Comments came from all angles. Some defended a college's right to control its image. Others said taste should be left to the individual, who can always look away.

Warner and Harsh drew on provocative quotes to tie art, education and their "in-your-face" roles on campus.

Warner said the forum was "a dry run" for a presentation he and Harsh will give at a National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development conference in Austin, Texas, in May.

In December, when Warner got a letter inviting him to take part, he turned to Harsh.

"I said, 'Let's send a proposal.' We drafted it in 30 minutes," Warner said.

The presentation is an offshoot of Warner's 2001 book, "Opinions of Administrators, Faculty, and Students Regarding Academic Freedom and Student Artistic Expression."

For the book, Warner looked at controversial art at Maryland community colleges and the reactions of administrators, faculty and the public.

The colleges weren't named, so Thursday's audience didn't know that one example mentioned took place at HCC.

A woman who took her young daughter to the school one day objected to figure drawings of a nude man.

Mike Parsons, who was dean of instruction at the time, said he was asked by HCC's president to talk to the faculty about moving - not removing - the art.

The main problem, said Parsons, who was in the audience Thursday, was that the college doesn't have a gallery, where people could choose to see edgy art instead of being forced to see it.

The drawings weren't moved and the woman didn't follow through on her complaint, said Parsons, who now teaches at the college.

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