No felons, period

“In recent months, the University of Akron public relations department has been under attack. With reports of multiple felons living in dorms popping up in national headlines, UA has done everything in its power to keep the bad press at bay. With a recent decision, however, several faculty members believe the administration has gone too far.”

In recent months, the University of Akron public relations department has been under attack. With reports of multiple felons living in dorms popping up in national headlines, UA has done everything in its power to keep the bad press at bay.

With a recent decision, however, several faculty members believe the administration has gone too far.

Each year, a panel of UA professors on the Common Reading Committee meets to select a book for the summer reading program for incoming freshmen. The author of the selected book is then invited to campus to speak about the book.

At the end of the fall semester, the committee had yet to select a book, but they had narrowed the selection to two: A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca and An Ordinary Man by Paul Rusabagina.

However, UA administration deferred the use of Baca’s book until 2008 because Baca is a felon.

Lori Reinbolt, director of new student orientation, explained the decision in an e-mail to members of the committee.

The committee’s recommendation for ‘A Place to Stand’ by Jimmy Santiago Baca has been deferred to 2008, Reinbolt said in the e-mail. This means that the university administration does not support the use of this book at this time due to recent campus events involving students with criminal records residing in the residence halls and the media coverage of those events.

Several UA faculty members and members of the committee have expressed discontent with the move. English professor and director of English composition Bill Thelin is one of them.

First, the incident of felons living in the dorm is simply an excuse not to use a book that for whatever reason offends the sensibility of the powers that be, Thelin said. When the objections were first raised to using Jimmy Santiago Baca’s book, no mention was made of the dorm room scandal.

According to Thelin, Baca’s book was being considered last year, even before the unfortunate suicide of Charels Plinton. He believes the decision to defer the use of the book is not simply a public relations decision.

A few committee members and, from what I understand, administration, felt the book was too gritty and graphic, he said. As one committee member told me confidentially, administration did not want to invite ‘a person like Baca’ to our campus.

Associate provost Karla Mugler defended the administration’s decision in a memo to Reinbolt.

Due to the publicity, which the university received this fall regarding individuals with criminal records residing in UA residence halls, I would not support the recommendation to bring Jimmy Santiago Baca to campus in fall 2007, she said in the memo. However, I think that he could be scheduled in fall 2008. Clearly, he turned his life around and those who have heard him speak were impressed with him.

In conferring with some other administrators, they also feel that it would be prudent to delay our invitation to Mr. Baca until 2008.

Regardless of whether the idea of using the book was denied, or simply deferred, Thelin believes the decision to intervene in the committee’s selection process is bad for UA. It’s a symptom of a greater problem, he said.

It’s a denial of what our campus is, Thelin said. We are a working class, urban university. There’s no shame in that. It’s one of our strengths. But we’re not the Ivy League or Big Ten that perhaps our administration would like us to be.

Deborah Johanyak’s book Behind the Veil is now being considered along with Rusabagina’s An Ordinary Man. Johanyak is an English professor at the Wayne campus and her book is published by the University of Akron Press.

Reinbolt, whose job is to oversee the selection process, tried to put things in perspective.

I think that it is important to note that there are two sides to every story, she said. You have been provided information about the selection process from one side, the side that favors the Baca book. From this perspective, you believe that the administration is trying to dictate the selection.

However, there were several members of the selection committee that had serious concerns about ‘A Place to Stand.’ There were also concerns raised about ‘An Ordinary Man.’

Thelin admits that Johanyak’s book, at first glance, appears to be a good read. He, along with several of his colleagues, still admonishes the administration’s intervention in the matter.

The university’s priority is image. Unfortunately, the ethos that invaded Student Judicial Affairs maintained a conservative, hard-line stance. Why else would a clearly innocent person be found responsible for possession of drugs? Thelin said, in regard to Charles Plinton.

The university was more concerned with presenting an image of the ivory tower than it was with justice. Truth took a back seat. Reality took a back seat. So it is with the so-called deferring of Baca.

The committee will make a final decision regarding the selection of the book in the coming weeks, Mugler said.