UPDATE: Ga. Southern book burning sparks outrage, calls for civility

Georgia Southern University student leaders, faculty and its president aimed Friday to unite the school and distance it from widespread condemnation of video of a small group of students burning copies of a guest author’s book after an address earlier this week.

“(W)hile it’s within the students’ First Amendment rights, book burning does not align with Georgia Southern’s values nor does it encourage the civil discourse and debate of ideas,” the university’s president, Kyle Marrero, said in a message Friday afternoon to students, employees and faculty. “Yes, I wish our students had engaged in a reasoned discussion. And yes, I wish these discussions had not deteriorated or led to broad generalizations that paint an ugly picture about our university.”

The author, Jennine Capó Crucet, was invited to the university’s main campus in Statesboro Wednesday evening to discuss her new book, “My Time Among the Whites: Notes From an Unfinished Education,” as part of the school’s orientation program for first-year students.

Crucet, an American-born daughter of Cuban immigrants, said she was asked to speak about diversity and the college experience. She discussed white privilege during the meeting. A white, female student questioned her credentials to discuss such topics, sparking a heated exchange among students, Crucet said in a one-page statement Friday.

Crucet said after the meeting, she was moved by her campus hosts to another hotel — after some people came to her initial lodging — and later learned on Twitter about the book burning.

One six-second video posted on Twitter shows a group of about a half-dozen people laughing as a small fire burned. The video has been viewed more than 124,000 times.

“To think of those students watching as a group of their peers burned that story — effectively erasing them on the campus they are expected to think of as a safe space — feels devastating,” she said.

Crucet’s scheduled appearance on campus Thursday was canceled. She’s scheduled to speak at a book festival Saturday in Tennessee.

The incident happened at a school that has become more racially diverse. The percentage of nonwhite students at Georgia Southern has increased over the past decade from about 32% to nearly 40%, state data shows. More than 26,000 students attended Georgia Southern last year, which has campuses in Statesboro, Savannah and Hinesville.

While book burning is considered constitutionally protected speech, it is usually not well-received. The practice goes back centuries and can conjure up ugly chapters of history. The most infamous book burnings were those staged by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis as part of their propaganda campaign against Jews. In 2013, a Florida pastor was roundly criticized for his plan that wasn’t carried out to burn nearly 3,000 copies of the Quran, Islam’s holy book, on 9/11 for each victim of the terrorist attacks.

Crucet, an author of several books and short stories, is an associate professor in the English department at the University of Nebraska and has been on tour at several college campuses to discuss her new book, released in September. The book is a collection of essays “on feeling like an ‘accidental’ American and the tectonic edges of identity in a society centered on whiteness,” according to her website. Crucet has won several awards for her work.

Several people, some who said they are Georgia Southern students, have posted messages on social media apologizing to Crucet. A few posts are critical of the author, accusing her of racist or disrespectful comments during her lecture against whites. Crucet has thanked students on Twitter who have expressed their support for her.

Georgia Southern University President Kyle Marrero.

Credit: University System of Georgia

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Credit: University System of Georgia

Georgia Southern, like many universities nationwide, has programs and curriculum to ease the transition for first-year students.

The university’s Department of Writing and Linguistics released a statement saying it is “dismayed and disappointed by the uproar” over Crucet’s remarks. The statement encouraged students “to remain civil in disagreement, even on difficult issues.”

> MORE: AJC staffer Bo Emerson on white privilege

Georgia Southern’s student government association president, Juwan Smith, wrote a letter Thursday announcing plans to “continue the conversation” at student meetings on Monday and Thursday at two of the campuses. Marrero praised a part of Smith’s letter.

“Opening the door to organic conversations is essential to learning and appreciating our differences. As we develop these competencies, we become better equipped to understand to address the challenges that accompany diversity and the inclusive environments that we seek to foster,” Smith wrote.