Why did the University of Michigan withdraw an invitation to Alice Walker?
Walker is an author best known for The Color Purple, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1983. That work and others by her are widely taught at many colleges. Walker is also a political activist and her criticism of Israel has been condemned by many groups supportive of Israel. She supports the boycott of Israel and the Anti-Defamation League said her book published this year, The Cushion in the Road, contained an “80-page screed against Israel and Jews” in which she repeatedly compared Israel and Nazi Germany.
The University of Michigan apparently invited Walker because of her literary reputation, but she says she was disinvited because her politics offended donors.
She had been invited to speak at an event marking the 50th anniversary of the university’s Center for the Education of Women. On her blog, Walker posted an e-mail from her agent telling her that the university had rescinded the invitation.
The agent’s e-mail said: “I’m saddened to write this because I’m a proponent of free speech and have been brought up to allow everyone to have their say. But I also realize that there are other considerations that institutions are faced with. This afternoon I was contacted by the University of Michigan instructing me to withdraw their invitation due to the removal of funding from the donors, because of their interpretation of Ms. Walker’s comments regarding Israel. They are not willing to fund this program and the university/Women’s center do not have the resources to finance this on their own.”
Walker titled her blog post about the incident “In Case You’ve Ever Wondered How It’s Done: Censorship by Purse String.”
She wrote that she hoped the situation would prompt reflection. “I so appreciate the tone of the agent’s letter, alerting my assistant and me to this situation. It isn’t hard to imagine how he feels, having been so enthusiastic about getting me to come to help the women celebrate a major milestone in their many struggles for education and equality,” she wrote. “But there is a bright side: Such behavior, as evidenced by the donors, teaches us our weakness, which should eventually (and soon) show us our strength: women must be in control of our own finances. Not just in the family, but in the schools, work force, and everywhere else. Until we control this part of our lives, our very choices, in any and every area, can be denied us.”
Gloria D. Thomas, director of the Michigan center that invited Walker, posted an announcement on its website in which she acknowledged rescinding the invitation, but denied that donors had pressured her to do so. “I want to apologize for how we handled our invitation to author Alice Walker,” Thomas wrote. “Upon further research, I decided to withdraw our invitation because I did not think Ms. Walker would be the optimum choice for the celebratory nature of our 50th anniversary event. Donors had no bearing on this decision. Our 50th anniversary funding is completely assured. All donations, for this and other events, are accepted with no provisos or prohibitions regarding free speech.”
Thomas added that, in the future, “I do hope that we will be able to co-sponsor a lecture by Ms. Walker, where the forum would be focused on a more substantial discussion of human rights issues.”