The University of Iowa has urged faculty members to let students miss or re-take tests if they were upset over some campus art that was SUPER RACIST (because it addressed racism). Apparently some students were so broken up over either the artwork itself — or the controversy surrounding its removal by the university — that they simply couldn’t get their schoolwork done. Letting students ignore their assignments because they had really strong feelings about a work of art strikes us as maybe a bad idea?
So, back in December, the University of Iowa had a bit of a freakout over an art installation depicting a 7-foot tall KKK figure made out of “robes” that, on closer inspection, were simulated newspapers featuring headlines about racial violence. After the statue appeared one morning on the university’s “Pentacrest” common area, the University initially issued statements calling it “deeply offensive” and assuring the community that the school had “no tolerance for racism.” The guy who made it, an assistant professor named Serhat Tanyolacar, came forward to say, no, it was an anti-racism piece, intended to condemn the Klan, not praise it. Even so, the piece was removed after about 4 hours, sparking an ongoing campus argument about race, censorship, art, and free speech. University officials say they removed the piece not because of its content, but because Tanyolacar hadn’t gotten the required permissions for putting up an art installation.
And in all the fuss, some students got so caught up in either condemning racism or censorship (not to mention protesting the other protestors) that they didn’t finish papers or study for tests:
“A very small number of students requested assistance with academic courses because the display impacted their ability to fully engage in classes at that time,” said Jeneane Beck, senior director of UI News Media Relations.
Chemistry professor Christopher Cheatum wasn’t inclined to grant a do-over requested by one of his students, and emailed administrators, saying that “being involved in a protest, however important or meaningful that protest may be, is not sanctioned by either the university or the college as a reason for missing an exam.”
Cheatum said one student missed a makeup exam at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 5 — about eight hours after the statue in question was dismantled and more than an hour after meeting with administrators on the topic. That student emailed a professor just before midnight Dec. 5 to report he had missed classes and “was not in my right mind to be able to think about chemistry concepts tonight.”
“This student, by his own admission, had 1.5 hours after the event(s) in question were over to gather himself and prepare for the exam,” Cheatum wrote in his email to administrators. “If we were to allow an exception in this case, we would then set a precedent that being involved in some protest or political action is a legitimate basis for missing an exam, which we might then have to accommodate for other protest situations, to which we would not be so sympathetic.”
The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences guidelines on make-up work allows students to be granted extensions or to retake tests due to “illness, religious obligations, authorized university activities, or unavoidable circumstances. Such circumstances could include jury duty, family tragedy, or a car accident, according to the policy.” Faculty members have the discretion to grant the request or not. Ultimately, Cheatum decided to let the student re-take the test, after the Associate Dean for the college advised that faculty allow student requests for accommodations.
“I certainly wouldn’t want students to get the idea that this a mechanism to take a makeup exam — to protest something and get caught up in it,” he said. “But this was an unusual event on campus and, as faculty, we should be compassionate when we can be in response to things that come up.”
So yay for Doc Cheatum (who really sounds like a character in a Western) both for being nice and recognizing that This Sort Of Thing Could Get Out Of Hand. Yes, it was upsetting art (art often is!), and yes, the protests over censorship were also very intense, but come on, kids, you’re college students, too, and neither an upsetting art installation nor a protest about its removal is a car crash or a death in the family. For heavens sake, we couldn’t sleep after the finale of M*A*S*H in 1983, but we certainly didn’t try to duck out of any exams, even though it wasn’t a chicken, it WAS A BABY!
As for the Art Itself, we generally take a pro-free-speech view. We don’t think students should get to decide that a university should remove art that makes them uncomfortable — no, not even if it’s a realistic sculpture of a homely guy sleepwalking in his underpants, and that makes Wellesley students feel sad.
Art is sometimes upsetting! And sometimes it is oil pastels of children frolicking at the seashore! In this case, we’d say “KKK is bad” is not actually a sentiment that should ruin your whole day!
And no, you can’t get an extension on your essay because you were overcome by the banality of it all. Or because the name “Pentacrest” makes you worry that the U of Iowa is satanic.