Expelling edgy writers
S.F. art school boots second author of controversial fiction; second teacher on verge of losing job

By Rachel Brahinsky

Just as the embattled Academy of Art University comes under increasing public scrutiny for expelling a student last fall over the content of a short story, another student has come forward accusing the school of kicking her out after she also wrote a piece of fiction that disturbed administrators.

The academy's decision to expel the two students and clamp down on faculty has sparked criticism from teachers, writers, other students, and free speech advocates, who say the university may be infringing on First Amendment rights on campus. Both incidences – one student pushed boundaries by explicitly writing about violence; the other wrote about sex and suicide – have renewed interest in the timeless generational conflict over what constitutes art.

The recently ejected student, who asked us not to use her real name in this story, left her Texas hometown two years ago to attend the school (formerly called the Academy of Art College), where she majored in interior design. Now the waifish 19-year-old, whom we'll call Mara, says she's deep in debt and carries a mark on her academic record that she believes is unwarranted.

In her short story – a bizarre tale within a tale that drifts from the fantastic to the everyday (from masturbating elves to sexual fantasies about her teacher) – Mara wrote that "she would kill herself if she did not get an 'A,' " on the project. On one page there was a red stain, which she wrote was her own blood.

The project is constructed as a meta-tale – a story about writing a story – leaving the reader fairly clear the suicide references are written in jest. "I didn't think that it would cause a huge racket," she told the Bay Guardian. "It was really just playful. It was just supposed to be a joke."

Still, she said she wasn't surprised the school might be concerned. But then the administration demanded that she sign a behavioral contract and call a psychotherapist to understand her "inappropriate behaviors." When she saw that "behavior" was partly defined by the school as "expression," she resisted, fearing that agreeing to the code would mean she was agreeing to censor herself. The contract would have required that she never again write about suicide, "in jest or as a literary device," or "submit papers that contain blood stains." She also objected to the school's restriction on "vulgarity... lewd, indecent or obscene behavior... [including] sexually explicit content" and felt the contract would limit her rights to criticize the administration.

When she refused to sign the agreement, administrators told Mara's lawyer, former district attorney Terence Hallinan, that security guards would keep her out of academy buildings if she tried to attend spring semester classes.

"Her story was pretty far out," Hallinan conceded. "It kind of had shock value. But their reaction – instead of saying, 'Let's talk about this' – was to tell her not to mention suicide again. Why would you say [that]? You should say, 'Come on in; let's talk about it.' "

Academy senior vice president Sue Rowley told us the school administration was worried about Mara. "We did not offer a punitive response," Rowley said. "She refused to get help.... She was dismissed."

Repeat offender

If it weren't for the timing of Mara's expulsion, her story might have never become public. But it came just months after another academy student was expelled for turning in a piece of short fiction laden with gore and brutal rape.

Following a brief interview with a San Francisco Police Department homicide team in his dorm room, the 18-year-old student (who has refused to speak with the press and whose mother asked us not to use his name) was immediately shuttled off to catch a plane back home to Seattle – without an offer of counseling, a hearing, or a second chance.

Soon after, his writing teacher, Jan Richman, a popular instructor who had agonized over how to deal with his bloody story, was told not to return the next semester – apparently because she required her students to read a short story by David Foster Wallace that has been blamed as his literary influence.

Pop culture instructor Alan Kaufman told us he was outraged by Richman's ouster. And when Mara disappeared, Kaufman said he felt compelled to act.

In part, he said, he felt responsible because Mara had written her controversial story as the final project for his Narrative Storytelling class. She had turned in the story at the end of the fall semester, and "When I saw the repeated 'I will kill myself,' I was worried about that," Kaufman recalled. He said that he wasn't worried about the sexual content but that the suicide references concerned him. He said he asked his supervisors for help, but told them he wanted "no police, no FBI, just a phone call to see if she's OK."

It wasn't until he ran into a friend at a bookstore who had met Mara that he learned she'd been expelled. "I'm no hero. My first thought [when I heard about Richman and her student] was, 'I'm angry, this is terrible, but I want to keep my job.' " But after hearing about Mara's expulsion, about which he says he was never consulted, "it felt hypocritical to stand up in my classes and talk about freedom of speech ... when my students are living in a state of repression."

Even post-9/11 and post-Columbine – in an era in which institutions are particularly wary about threats of violence – Kaufman said the academy's actions are extreme. He's been joined in his protest by dozens of internationally known writers, including Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende, Stephen King, Amy Tan, Michael Chabon, and Dorothy Allison, who've condemned the school's actions against Richman and her student (Mara's situation is being publicly revealed here for the first time, whereas the other expulsion was reported in the San Francisco Chronicle March 25).

"The administration abdicated its responsibility to educate in favor of suppression of speech and punishment," Rushdie wrote to the school in an April 5 letter on behalf of the PEN American Center, a national writers' organization. "We are disturbed by the very notion that an arts university would aim to promulgate standards that could include disciplinary action against students or faculty for exercising creative freedom and their First Amendment rights."

Armed with Rushdie's letter, Kaufman has been speaking out against the administration. In defiance of his bosses who have expressed concerns about using class time to talk about the controversy, he conducted a session of his pop culture class as a press conference outside the school's Post Street campus April 7 where he aggressively challenged Rowley. Now, although he hasn't been fired, students in all four of Kaufman's classes have been told they will be refunded their tuition for the classes.

What is art?

The turmoil is having an effect on the student body. Several students told us they feel afraid to produce work freely in the wake of the expulsions. One confronted Rowley during the press conference-class: "What things are we allowed to say before we get expelled?"

Kayvan Ghavim, another of Kaufman's students, also was angry. "I think it's ridiculous. It's not so much the subject matter ... it's that rather than deal with the students they just expel them. That's the really scary part."

At press time some students and faculty said they would participate in a planned walk-out demonstration April 13, which was initiated by Kaufman. And supporters of Mara plan to hold a book burning in the next month, where they will incinerate well-known books that have been censored in the past.

It's the kind of response free speech advocates say is to be expected when students feel speech is being suppressed.

David Greene, an attorney with the Oakland-based First Amendment Project, declined to speak specifically about the academy's case, but said that in order for the school to legally prove a student's actions were threatening, there would have to be a pattern of threatening or harassing events.

"I don't fault a university for trying to help a student," he said. "But I'm concerned that expelling students because they write creatively is going to chill students.... Artistic expression is not inherently threatening."

Not every writing program would have dealt with the case in the same way. We asked Maxine Chernoff, chair of San Francisco State University's creative writing program, how she addresses violent or threatening literature in her program.

"We've had students write all kinds of things, but basically you realize it's fiction," she said. "It sounds like they're being overly cautious in a way that's verging on people's First Amendment rights. We have plenty of students who write out-there, risky material, and that becomes one of the questions of the class. The crime isn't writing about [a crime]." After all, she pointed out, "Jonathan Swift wrote about killing babies and eating them."

Still, Rowley seems to have been gripped by fear that threats revealed in the short stories could be carried out. "We don't feel like it's acceptable to threaten a teacher with suicide," Rowley said of Mara's case.

She wouldn't get into specifics on the other expelled student, but said that after the police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation reviewed the case, she felt the expulsion was justified: "Imagine you are in a post-Columbine era and you have reason to believe there could be a disaster.... To try to avert a crisis, you want to get that young man or young woman home as quickly as possible."

An independent Web site has been set up for students and faculty to improve communication with the academy administration regarding campus concerns: www.academyartstudents.com.

E-mail Rachel Brahinsky

April 14, 2004