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 agenda—which is racist—is 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 Newsday story 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 Education in 1998 called her “the standard bearer for activist trustees nationwide.” Stanley Kurtz, in a February 25 National Review Online 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 naked—why 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 events—a sex-toy demo and a discussion of safe s/m practices. The following weekend, a Post editorial—the first of three on the subject—labeled 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.)
Sex was on de Russy’s mind again last month when she lambasted a “sex-toy party” at SUNY Binghamton. The event, offered during the campus’s Masturbation Awareness Month, was, according to university spokeswoman Katie Ellis, “nothing more than an informational lecture by a registered nurse on the topic of women’s health and sexuality.” De Russy again claimed to be outraged, and even though the event was funded entirely by student funds, she told the Associated Press it was “yet another case of crass and eroded campus academic and moral standards.” But Bowen, who has since resigned his post at New Paltz, questions whether she can reconcile her religious beliefs with her role as trustee. She is waging a “single-minded campaign to force campuses . . . to comply with her religious values,” he wrote in a letter published in March in The Chronicle of Higher Education. (Bowen left his post last year under suspicion that he was forced out for standing up to her. “As long as I stayed at New Paltz, I was not going to be supported by Albany or by the chancellor,” he tells the Voice.)
To be sure, de Russy is a committed believer. Bowen’s letter was written in response to a piece she wrote for the Chronicle in February, wherein she argued, “True learning must also include schooling in religious doctrine.” And as a contributing editor to the hyper-conservative Catholic magazine Crisis, she has written in support of public funding for religious schools and to warn parents of the dangers posed to children by the card game “Magic: The Gathering.” Quoting various outraged parents and “experts,” she wrote, “Magic: The Gathering is steeped in the hidden language, imagery, signs and rites of at least 30 satanic cults in this country. . . . Such exercises may foster not only narcissism but a potentially lethal lack of realism about personal power.” She failed, however, to supply any statistics about the number of children who have lost their lives to the card game and its “pro-pagan agenda.”
By all accounts, her biggest victory has been her role in reforming SUNY’s core curriculum. De Russy says she’s proud of her “efforts to raise academic standards, [and] to strengthen general education” by instituting a new core (including math, humanities, and the social sciences) that every student must take in order to graduate. But even this effort was marred by controversy. Critics charged that the move took power away from the faculty members who should design such requirements. In an attempt to allay fears that the board was acting unilaterally, most of the new requirements were arrived at in consultation with faculty advisers—except Western civilization and American history, which opponents say were slipped in at the last minute.
McAdoo says that under the new guidelines, Africana studies courses, including one on the history of slavery, no longer fulfill the American history requirement. McAdoo and others stress that de Russy could also pose a potential political problem for Pataki. “You have a governor running a campaign trying to pick up support from the minority community,” says the UUP’s Scheuerman, “and you have this trustee he has appointed making statements about black studies and women’s studies.” Repeated calls to Pataki’s re-election campaign were not returned.
Capitalizing on the momentum built by the UUP’s resolution, McAdoo is hoping to put pressure on Pataki to reconsider de Russy’s appointment. “Students have been writing letters to the governor,” he says. “There are about 500 that have been sent from this campus in the past month and a half, asking for her removal and denouncing her ignorance and bigotry.” By the time SUNY’s students return to campus in September, the gubernatorial race will be in full swing, lending any anti-de Russy efforts an added sense of urgency. McAdoo will be there to welcome his students back, and also to remind them that “Pataki appointed her—he is accountable for his decisions.”