A professor at a prestigious art institute has resigned after he said a troop of “militant LGBT students” turned his classroom into something closer to a “police state than a place where academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas is valued.”
Michael Bonesteel has taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as an adjunct for 14 years and is an internationally recognized expert on the 20th-century Chicago artist Henry Darger.
He announced his resignation after three students, in two separate incidents, filed harassment complaints against him for the discussion of sensitive materials in his classes and the way they were presented.
The administration responded by overhauling his curricula and reducing his teaching hours to the point where he would no longer qualify for health insurance, Mr. Bonesteel said in an interview with the Chicago Reader.
The first incident occurred Dec. 12 in a class called “Present and Future of Outsider Art,” when Mr. Bonesteel posited that the prevalence of little girls with penises in Darger’s art might be linked with childhood sexual abuse.
A transgender student took issue with the theory.
“The student said there was no proof that Darger was sexually abused, and therefore I was wrong in proposing the theory,” Mr. Bonesteel told the Chicago Reader, adding that there is no definitive proof, but many Darger scholars think it’s likely.
On the advice of a diversity counselor, Mr. Bonesteel wrote an apology for his “insensitivity” and posted it to a school website, attaching a research article with background on the theory he proposed.
SAIC Dean of Faculty Lisa Wainwright later sided with Mr. Bonesteel in the student’s complaint, but determined he needed sensitivity training on how to talk about “identity-related material” in his curricula.
Two days after the first incident took place, in a different class called “Comic Book: Golden Age to Comics Code,” Mr. Bonesteel said a student launched into a “long diatribe about perceived anti-Semitic attitudes” in the work of an author they were reading, Gerard Jones.
The session turned into a heated debate, and Mr. Bonesteel said the student went on to criticize “SAIC’s policies toward minorities and transgender students specifically, leveling accusations of racism and homophobia toward me in particular.”
The student also complained about the lack of a trigger warning during a discussion about an implied rape in “Batman: The Killing Joke,” a comic book by Alan Moore.
“When I said the word ‘rape,’ the complaining student yelled, ‘Hey, where’s the trigger warning?’ ” Mr. Bonesteel said in an interview with Raw Vision. “A little exasperated by that point, since I had already received a long tongue-lashing [from] this student, I remarked, ‘Really? You want a trigger warning for the word “rape”?’ “
In response to a complaint over that incident, the dean of faculty determined “it is more likely than not that your conduct in relation to this student constituted harassment based on gender-identity in violation of the School’s Policy Against Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation.”
Months later, a second student from the comic book class filed a complaint against Mr. Bonesteel on the basis of having been “troubled by the incident.”
The administration later told Mr. Bonesteel that he would no longer be allowed to teach courses on comics or set the curricula for his classes on outsider art, Mr. Bonesteel said. The school also reduced his teaching hours for the next academic year to the point where he would be ineligible for benefits.
Mr. Bonesteel said “to be punished by refusing to let me teach three comics courses in which I had invested twelve years of time and effort and love, and in the process take away my insurance benefits, these were the conditions that I found unacceptable.”
In his June 12 resignation letter, Mr. Bonesteel protested against what he called an “abuse of Title IX protections.”
• Bradford Richardson can be reached at email@example.com.
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