What Smithsonian Chief G. Wayne Clough Learned About Censorship at Georgia Tech

What Smithsonian Chief G. Wayne Clough Learned About Censorship at Georgia Tech
Much ink has been spilled condemning Smithsonian chief G. Wayne Clough for his decision to pull a video by revered East Village artist David Wojnarowicz from the "Hide/Seek" show at the National Portrait Gallery following protests by Republicans and conservative Christian groups. One place where he is still a hero, however, is at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Clough served as president of the Atlanta school before being tapped to lead the Smithsonian in 2008, and Georgia Tech plans to honor its former leader by building an $85 million G. Wayne Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons "in recognition of his significant commitment to undergraduate education," according to a school Web site. This tribute, and Clough's particular brand of commitment to education, provides telling context to his swift and total capitulation to the religious right in the Wojnarowicz case.

Ironically for a man who has essentially been in hiding ever since ordering the removal of Wojnarowicz's "Fire in My Belly" from the gay-art-themed exhibition at the NPG — a move he initially tried to deflect on others — Clough was thought to have brought in "an era of openness" at Georgia Tech when he arrived in 1994, according to the Technique, Georgia Tech's campus paper. Clough was also known as a fund-raising dynamo. However, it was not a completely smooth ride for the career administrator, and the most noteworthy controversy that dogged his tenure involved a confrontation with the religious right over freedom of speech.

In 2006, members of the college Republican club sued Georgia Tech with the help of the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal association that describes itself as being dedicated to pushing "religious freedom, sanctity of life, and marriage and the family." According to Inside Higher Ed, the students claimed to have been unfairly disciplined after holding an "affirmative action bake sale" — a right-wing stunt that involves selling baked goods at different prices to students based on their race and sex, with the idea of mocking affirmative action — and protesting a 2005 staging of Eve Ensler's feminist play "The Vagina Monologues." They also objected, among other things, to Georgia Tech's "Safe Space" program, which aimed to make a hospitable environment for LGBT students on campus, arguing that this policy discriminated against religions promoting anti-gay views and favored religions that preached tolerance.

The college swiftly yielded to the Republican students' demands that the school's Student Code of Conduct and Community Guide be changed — actually collaborating with the Alliance Defense Fund in drafting an amended policy. Language that could be used to discipline students who attempt harassment against "a person because of race, religious belief, color, sexual/affectional orientation, national origin, disability, age, or gender" was eliminated from the code, while a proscription on "direct verbal threats" or "intimidation" directed against students because of their race, gender, or sexuality was dropped. In effect, following the changes, only direct physical harm was forbidden, and mention of discrimination was dropped from key clauses.

Despite the school's collaboration with the Alliance Defense Fund, the conservative students continued to pursue their lawsuit, with Clough and four other administrators named as defendants. "Sklar v. Clough" — as the case was called — was finally resolved in the courts in April 2008. The right-wingers trumpeted the final ruling as a victory when it was handed down, though it did not require Georgia Tech to pay any damages or make any new changes. (The school had already amended many of its disputed policies during the course of the litigation.) In the letters page of the Technique, one of the plaintiffs, Orit Sklar, boasted that the results set a nationwide example for universities with regard to policies toward LGBT students.

It is an example that Clough, at least, seems to have taken to heart. Does his previous tangle with anti-gay religious groups and Republicans explain his hasty — but unwavering — decision to censor Wojnarowicz, an openly gay artist whose work was accused of offending religious sensibilities?

Georgia Tech's Clough Commons is set to debut in fall 2011. In response to a call to give the new facility a nickname, at least one campus wag has taken to the pages of the Technique to propose calling the new facility the "G-Spot," in honor of its namesake, G. Wayne Clough. This moniker, however, seems a bit daring. Something that emphasizes the building as a monument to cowardice might be more appropriate.