Betty the Yeti ousts Hamlet in PC university's drama course

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The Independent Online
WHEN Jared Sakren came to Arizona State University four years ago to open a graduate school in theatre studies, he was one of the most respected drama teachers in America. He had worked at some of the most prestigious universities in the country, and his former students included a clutch of Hollywood stars such as Frances McDormand, Kelly McGillis and Val Kilmer.

Last summer, however, Professor Sakren's contract was cut short and he was pushed out of a job. According to the performance reviews written by his superiors, he had fostered "a climate of sexism" that alienated his colleagues and disgusted his women students.

According to Professor Sakren, his main sin was to insist on teaching Shakespeare. Because he refused to subscribe to a narrow feminist reading of literature and rejected modern texts written by women on "politically correct" themes, he went against the prevailing ideology in his department, he believes, and became a threat to his colleagues.

He is now suing the university for breach of contract, hoping to prove that he was dismissed for reasons quite unconnected to his professional competence. As the May court hearing draws nearer, his case is turning into the latest flashpoint in a long-running ideological battle over the soul of American universities - political correctness versus traditional "academic freedom" - and igniting passions far beyond university campuses.

According to the ASU campus newspaper, the purpose of Professor Sakren's department head, Lynne Wright, was nothing less than to "kill off the classics" as part of a broad political challenge to the traditional university curriculum. With his emphasis on Shakespeare, as well as Ibsen, Chekhov and Brecht, Professor Sakren was clearly too dearly wedded to reactionary "Dead White Males" to fit in with her plan.

It is almost impossible to judge exactly why Professor Sakren was dismissed as the university authorities have refused to comment ahead of the trial. A number of literature teachers at other institutions expressed amazement that someone would be fired for adhering too closely to the classics. On the other hand, Professor Sakren's track record is so strong that his credentials would seem hard to fault: he has been freelancing recently at New York University and at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, both highly regarded venues.

"Jed ... is exceptionally good and what he teaches very few people can teach," Annette Bening, another former student, said recently on his behalf. "He has a solid command of acting and of technique ... This talented, energetic, caring teacher has fallen victim to an atmosphere of political correctness and this is wrong. The classics are essential for drama."

Plenty of people have rushed to prejudge his case for their own purposes. "Drama professor fired for teaching Shakespeare" is the sort of headline few newspapers can resist, and a number of them have revelled in Professor Sakren's accounts of being urged to teach a play called Betty the Yeti - the story of an abominable snow-woman who seduces a logger and turns him into an environmentalist.

Meanwhile, several conservative university professors and right-wing ideologues who hate many new trends in liberal arts education have jumped on Professor Sakren's case as an instance of political correctness gone mad. "The academic sub-culture is very left-wing and wants to install an overtly politicised curriculum," said Tom Bertonneau, executive director of the conservative Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. "I was dropped from my university because I taught a grammar class, and grammar was considered an oppressive artefact of bourgeois culture."

The conservative belief that universities have been taken over by radical feminists and Marxists ignores the fact that many senior faculty members and department chairmen were raised on the classics, have always taught them and remain set in their traditional ways.

What is true is that a number of professors trained to challenge traditional beliefs about scholarship have chosen to attack the curriculum itself as a source of antiquated values that perpetuate class, gender and racial prejudice.

But to many professors, the debate over the curriculum is a red herring. "The big problem is sloppy scholarship, and especially sloppy scholarship endorsed because it is deemed to be politically desirable," said Eric Clarke, an English professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "Fights over the canon have merely served to cover up the real danger, which is a dumbing down of standards."

That view is shared by Professor Sakren. Not only has Shakespeare been pushed out of ASU, he says, but the drama department's latest show - called The Vagina Chronicles - was so poorly received it was not even reviewed in the local press. "The message was: we don't want a successful male in this department. If you are a professional who has worked in the field and capable of doing good work you are automatically ostracised."