By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
Candace de Russy, a conservative SUNY trustee appointed by Governor George Pataki, has made a name for herself by battling what she considers academe's subversive elements. Now she's identified a new threat: America's black studies and women's studies professors.
"These studies are divisive. They promote national disunity," Bronxville resident de Russy tells the Voice. "How? By eroding a sense of national identity and common culture, and I strongly, strongly submit and suggest that that should give us all pause in light of September 11."
Comments like these are why de Russy, who was appointed in 1995 to the 16-member board that governs the State University of New York, finds herself at the center of the latest in a long line of self-generated controversies. "People from every race and religion and across gender lines were impacted by this tragedy, and for her to use it as a vehicle for her right-wing agendawhich is racistis totally obscene," says William McAdoo, chairman of the Africana studies department at SUNY Stony Brook. Joining him in attacking de Russy is the SUNY faculty union, which, in an unprecedented resolution, voted unanimously on February 9 to condemn de Russy's comments and demand that Pataki remove her from the board. William Scheuerman, president of the United University Professions (UUP), the union that represents 27,000 of SUNY's faculty and staff members, calls her "an embarrassment," and says "she's a political liability for Pataki." The vote, which passed without dissent among 250 faculty union delegates, followed similar comments de Russy made in a February 4 Newsdaystory about black studies programs. Reporter Martin Evans paraphrased her as saying most black studies departments are flabby, feel-good programs that carry an anti-American bias and do little to advance hard knowledge, calling such studies "therapeutic in nature." She later included women's and gay studies programs in her attack.
De Russy says that "all the hysteria that surrounds this incident" only proves that McAdoo and others have "forsaken open and reasoned debate," claiming that her "right to speak out freely" is being squelched.
To her supporters, de Russy is a fearless defender of academic standards whose crusade to revolutionize public higher education in New York is long overdue. The Chronicle of Higher Educationin 1998 called her "the standard bearer for activist trustees nationwide." Stanley Kurtz, in a February 25 National ReviewOnline column, said she was the victim of "a false charge of racism," and praised her for being "a thorn in the side of the Left-leaning faculty at the SUNY system." Zoe Romanowsky, spokeswoman for the Catholic magazine Crisis, where de Russy is a contributing editor, calls her "the kind of person who, while everyone's standing around admiring the emperor's new clothes, says, Look, he's nakedwhy are we pretending?"
But others say she is a prudish demagogue more interested in furthering her own ideological agenda than in advocating for the university system she was appointed to represent. The most recent example of this, say her critics, is her attack on a sex-toy discussion held last month at SUNY Binghamton. It wasn't the first time she grabbed headlines by attacking a discussion of sex at SUNY. When the women's studies department at SUNY New Paltz hosted its 21st annual conference in November 1997, de Russy launched her first public attack against what she calls "special interest studies." The conference, "Revolting Behavior: The Challenges of Women's Sexual Freedom," attracted approximately 250 students and area residents to hear discussions on topics ranging from reproductive freedom to self-defense. It also attracted de Russy and some like-minded opportunists, who, pen and pad in hand, attended a select few panels and workshops, looking for evidence of sexual depravity and immoral behavior. They found what they were looking for in two of the conference's 21 eventsa sex-toy demo and a discussion of safe s/m practices. The following weekend, a Posteditorialthe first of three on the subjectlabeled the conference a "tax-subsidized peep show."
De Russy called it "a travesty of academic standards," and swore that New Paltz president Roger Bowen would answer for defending the event on the grounds of academic freedom. "I will do whatever I can do to get him dismissed," she vowed. This time, Pataki joined in her outrage, declaring, "This has nothing to do with freedom of speech and everything to do with the proper expenditure of tax dollars." He asked then-chancellor John Ryan to appoint a committee to investigate the conference for a possible misuse of state funds. When the committee, which included faculty members and a former SUNY president, agreed with Bowen and concluded that the conference had everything to do with free speech and was indeed a proper expenditure of tax dollars, Pataki and Ryan backed off. But de Russy didn't take the hint and called the report itself "a thinly veiled but nonetheless blatant effort to quash criticism."
(Full disclosure: I published an editorial that criticized de Russy's attacks on the New Paltz conference in The Stony Brook Press, a campus newspaper; the cover featured a photo of the trustee's head affixed to a dominatrix's body. After de Russy received a copy, she complained about it to the Post, arguing that the First Amendment shouldn't apply to our student-funded public university newspaper.)