Should universities still teach Woody Allen’s films?

University of California, San Diego, rejects student-led petition to drop filmmaker from curriculum over sexual abuse allegations

February 28, 2018
Empty cinema

Calls to boycott Woody Allen movies over allegations that he sexually abused his daughter Dylan Farrow when she was a child have been renewed amid the growing Me Too movement. Critics also cite other concerns about his treatment of women and girls in art and in life. At the University of California, San Diego, in recent weeks, those calls took the form of a student-led petition to end a theatre class on Allen’s work.

But even some 22,000 signatures did not convince the faculty: the class will stand, the campus’ academic senate determined this month, after a review.

The matter is one of free inquiry, San Diego’s senate chairs said in a statement, summarising the decision of the Senate Committee on Academic Freedom.

The senate “supports the right to the continued teaching of this course now and in the future,” senate chair Farrell Ackerman, professor of linguistics, and vice-chair Robert Horowitz, professor of communication, wrote. “As importantly, the senate supports and will vigorously maintain the right of all faculty to participate in the principles of academic freedom: these advance and preserve the university as a singular institution for the free exchange of ideas and debate that cannot and should not be diminished by forces that seek to restrict and canalise course content in favoured directions.”

Savanah Lyon, a theatre major at San Diego who organised the petition and lobbied the theatre department to stop offering the course, responded to the news in her own statement, saying that she was “disappointed but not surprised”.

“I had hoped that the senate would listen to a student who is advocating for herself and for her peers in an institution that seems to be incapable of recognising and listening to us, but they sided with the university and the protection of ‘academic freedom’,” she said. “I will continue to stand up and speak out against what I feel is wrong and I know that there will be people beside me helping me along the way. I pay money to this university, all students do and, therefore, we should have a say.”

In an earlier op-ed published in San Diego’s student newspaper, Ms Lyon challenged the idea that academic freedom is a legitimate defence for teaching Mr Allen's work. “We’ve reached a time where it no longer stands,” she said. “There are some issues that are crystal clear: Allen has a number of longstanding sexual abuse allegations and, therefore, shouldn’t get his own class devoted to him. That’s it. Line drawn. It may seem small, but removing this course from UCSD’s catalogue speaks heavily to what we as a community and campus will allow. We can’t let anything slide, no matter how ‘small’ they might seem.”

Mr Allen has denied Ms Farrow’s allegations against him, and a decades-old criminal inquiry into the matter resulted in no charges. But Ms Farrow, now an adult, continues to say that Allen molested her when she was seven years old. Mia Farrow, Allen’s former partner, also alleges that Mr Allen began having an affair with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn when Ms Previn was still in high school. Mr Allen and Ms Previn later married.

Beyond personal matters, critics have questioned Mr Allen’s portrayal of relationships between minors and adults on film, such as in the 1979 film Manhattan. Mr Allen cast himself as the love interest of actor Mariel Hemingway, who was 16 years old when the film was shot. She later said that Mr Allen “attacked” her like a “line-backer” during an on-screen kiss. Richard Morgan, a writer who was the first to read the “Woody Papers” archive at Princeton University in its entirety, has described Mr Allen’s work as “flatly boorish. Running through all of the boxes is an insistent, vivid obsession with young women and girls”.

Still, Mr Allen is far from the only artist associated with an obsession with young girls or women – indeed, a staggering number of short stories, books and films are based on what Mr Morgan, critiquing Mr Allen, described as “young women who are compelled to lacklustre men merely by the gravity of the men’s obsession”. Vladimir Nabokov’s Dolores Haze in the literature class staple Lolita was 12, for example.

Mr Allen is also far from the only artist accused of being a bad person, criminally or otherwise. And while, in recent years, a number of institutions have moved to sever ties with morally abhorrent people or ideas – revoking honorary degrees to accused serial rapist Bill Cosby or removing monuments with links to slavery, for example – most haven’t touched on the curriculum, which on most campuses remains the exclusive domain of the faculty and therefore protected by academic freedom. Reed College in Oregon, for example, has resisted student demands that it overhaul an introductory humanities course over concerns that it is too oriented towards the West.

There are exceptions. Wendy MacLeod, a professor of drama at Ohio’s Kenyon Collegecalled off the production of her original, co-curricular play this semester after some on campus complained about how it portrayed Latinos. Knox College in Illinois also cancelled a production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechuan over student concerns about how it portrayed Asians.

Steven Adler, professor emeritus of stage management at San Diego, has taught the all-Allen course since the 1990s and is doing so this semester. The upper-division class looks at screenwriting, directing, cinematography and editing in Mr Allen’s films, as well as the “intersection of comedy and tragedy” therein, recurring themes and critical responses. Students view 13 films, writing two three-page essays and one 10-page research paper.

Professor Adler has declined to speak publicly about the case and did not respond to an interview request. Ms Lyon wrote that she had met with him, however, and shared her concerns. In response, she said, Professor Adler compared “banning this class to banning classes on black history and climate change. I was asked time and time again about hypotheticals of this or that being taught or not taught in class, when it all comes down to one statement: art is not required, it is chosen. You do not have to teach Allen; you choose to. It isn’t like history – it’s not set in stone.”

There is not “an exact timeline to follow or strict figures to feature,” she said. “Art is something that we as consumers of media get a choice in, and despite personal beliefs, there should be a moral obligation in these fields to feature artists that don’t have a history of abuse.”

Historians would probably take issue with the idea that the field is “set in stone”. And the senate subcommittee disagreed with Ms Lyon in a twofold finding.

“First, we recognise that the university is responsible for vigilantly maintaining and promoting the First Amendment guarantee of free expression of ideas and opinions on campus and for encouraging critical, deliberative and informed debate on controversial issues,” it said. “This responsibility is manifested both in our valuing and respecting the right of students to express their deeply held views, and our valuing and respecting the right of our faculty, in accordance with fundamental principles of academic freedom, to choose what they teach.”

Moreover, it said, citing the American Association of University Professors’ statement on academic freedom and tenure, “We conclude that cancelling or removing this or any other course for the reason that it contains the study of controversial material, or even material widely regarded as morally problematic, would undermine both the value of free inquiry and the associated rights of faculty to engage in such inquiry by choosing their course content.”

Charles Means, chair of the theatre department, did not respond to a request for comment. A university spokesperson referred questions about the class to the senate’s statement.

Valerie Ross, director of the critical writing programme at the University of Pennsylvania, has taught Mr Allen’s films on her campus. She said that she supported the San Diego faculty’s decision to protect freedom of inquiry as well as the the #MeToo and related Time’s Up movements, and did not see them as contradictory.

“What I do not support is censorship,” Dr Ross said. "Censoring a course on Woody Allen simply eliminates an opportunity for thoughtful, fact-based discussion about him and his work.”

The question of whether one should teach or research a particular person has been “vexed” for some time, she said. “Learning and scholarship – academic structure itself – is predicated on such friction, such differences of view.” 

During the heyday of critical theory, for example, Dr Ross recalled, there were “incredibly substantive, heated debates about how or whether to teach, and how or whether to consider, the work of Paul de Man, who was revealed as a Nazi sympathiser and, over time, whose very theory was seen as linked to a Nazi world view; or Louis Althusser, who strangled his wife and whose critics, like those of Professor de Man, came to see his philosophy as inextricably linked to maintaining an oppressive system, in this latter case, patriarchy.” 

“Foreclosing” upon such discussions in the classroom or scholarship “serves no one’s interests,” Dr Ross said. “We learned from studying these men the subtle relationships between our ideas and our ideologies, our theories and our practices.”  

A class on Woody Allen, therefore, “provides an excellent case for revitalizing a question that extends back to Plutarch and is very much at the core of the liberal arts: the question of the extent to which one can or should read a text (a film, a book, a theory, an action) through the character of its author or vice versa”.

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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