The decision of the University of Wyoming to destroy a work of art after receiving complaints from influential contributors and politicians was far from the first time it exhibited a penchant for censorship. Don’t blame President Buchanan. Unlike most institutions calling themselves a university, censorship is deep in U-dubb’s DNA.
Historian Phil Roberts chronicled the time our university sought to censor textbooks. It was 1947. After being told economics professors used books espousing a “clearly Communists doctrine” that budget deficits were not evil, the board of trustees appointed a committee to “read and examine” textbooks to determine if they were “subversive or un-American.” The law school dean was appointed chair of the witch-hunt.
When faculty members cried that academic freedom was at stake, one member of the board responded that “academic freedom” was being used as an excuse for “practicing subversion.”
Criticism came raining down. Arthur Schlesinger called it a “crude” investigation by “ill-informed trustees.” The St. Louis Post Dispatch called it “an insult to the good sense and patriotism of the faculty” and “an affront to the intelligence” of the students. Newspapers in 20 communities followed suit, heavily criticizing the trustees. But the book-burners would not be moved. Eventually a compromise was struck. A committee of 15 was appointed. They read 65 books and assured the trustees they found nothing subversive.
During this time it was alleged some of the trustees actually hired students to take notes during the lectures of a popular history professor, hoping to uncover “anti-American statements” that could lead to his dismissal. That professor was Gale W. McGee, who was later elected to the U. S. Senate, serving from 1958 until 1977.
The University’s next infatuation with censorship and the denial of civil rights was the Black 14 incident. It was 1969 and most of the nation was slowly moving forward on civil rights. Not so fast in Laramie. African American players at Wyoming had tired of the treatment they received when playing ball at Provo, Utah. BYU fans allegedly taunted them with racial slurs. It was claimed they turned on sprinklers after one game to “wash away the demons.” Black players said they weren’t permitted to stay in some Provo motels.
Rather than protect their players from that kind of treatment, UW sided with BYU when 14 members of the Cowboy football team said they planned to wear black arm bands during the 1969 home game with BYU. It was a soft, subtle protest, but far too much for a school with Wyoming’s legacy of censorship. The coach dismissed the players from the team. Everyone from the board of trustees to the governor sided with the coach and against the players. The incident destroyed the image of Cowboy football for a generation.
Next stop was a late Viet Nam war protest. When four students were killed at Kent State in 1970, a small group of Wyoming students wanted to protest. UW asked the governor to send in National Guard and state patrol to protect the university from these opinionated students. Some alleged UW even hired ag students to infiltrate the protesters.
More recently the school was “academic-freedom-challenged” when Bill Ayers was invited to speak on the campus. The GOP establishment had already cast him as evil in the 2008 campaign. Large contributors demanded the university cancel Ayers’ speech. They did as they were told. A student filed a 1st Amendment suit. Instead of examining the law, the university trashed the student. UW lost the suit just as any first-year law student could have predicted. But they had taken their stand for big contributors and influential alum and against civil rights.
And now the school has once again sold itself out to the highest bidders. By destroying a work of art to which mining corporations and the legislators who serve their interests objected, the University of Wyoming has carried on a tradition as important to them as “Ragtime Cowboy Joe.”