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Art professor says U of M threatened his free speech

By Mandy Hrach
On February 17, 2014

  • A few undisclosed locations on campus are stenciled with “The University of Memphis is NOT a business.”. Photo by Harrison Lingo | Staff

 

An art professor who has been an outspoken critic of the University of Memphis' administration said he was threatened with criminal prosecution and the loss of his faculty senate seat for stenciling messages on University buildings over winter break. 

Cedar Nordbye, associate professor, accused University administrators of harassing him for exercising his right to free speech. An artist by profession, Nordbye used acrylic ink to stencil the message "The University of Memphis is NOT a business" on four campus buildings right after Christmas. 

"It does disturb me that the administration would seek punitive action when I had not been found guilty of any crime," Nordbye said. "It seems to me that the administration was seeking to suppress free speech and to discourage any questioning of their party line about the nature of our University." 

Nordbye said the purpose behind the index-card sized stencil was to pose a question to members of the University community. 

"We are at a crossroad in public higher education where we may move towards a corporate business model approach to higher learning," Nordbye said in a statement to campus police on Jan. 14 . "A lot of faculty on this campus and across the country are very concerned that we may be losing touch with what is most important with what we do."

Police were informed about the acrylic-ink stencils when Richard Ranta, dean of the college of communication and fine arts, filed a complaint on Jan. 8. Unaware of who was behind the images on the campus buildings at the time, Ranta contacted police services when he saw the same logo on multiple buildings.

When asked about the ink paintings, Ranta declined to comment but said he and Nordbye still get along fine just as they did before the incident. 

"I did not know what it was at the time - just that it didn't belong there," Ranta said. 

The U of M police asked Nordbye to make a statement on Jan. 14. At that time, he was told that police were investigating a vandalism complaint and that he might be charged with a crime. According to campus police, images of Nordbye were captured in surveillance footage.

Norbye confirmed he stenciled six times in the Art and Communications Building, three times at Dunn Hall, three times at the Communications and Fine Arts Building and once at the Ned McWherter Library. 

"Also, I hoped by using very official-looking text, it might appear as though the University was asking a question about itself," he said in the statement.

Nordbye said he did not think it was vandalism but was willing to work with the University to help get it cleaned up. 

No criminal prosecution was taken, but Nordbye was threatened to have his position as committee chair on the faculty senate taken away. 

According to him, an unknown administrator from the president's office contacted the Faculty Senate Executive Committee. Nordbye represents the Art Department on the faculty senate.

After a vote, the committee ultimately decided to take no such action, but Nordbye was required to speak to the faculty senate at its Jan. 28 meeting and apologize for taking up the time of the campus police and the maintenance staff that had to clean up the stencils. 

However, he defended the message and statement he was trying to make.

During recent faculty senate meetings, Nordbye has repeatedly questioned and sometimes criticized University administrators for efforts to change the university budget model and close the budget gap. 

"I think that through the administration's effort to remove me from my senate position, there was an effort made to intimidate me and to discourage the kind of free speech that I was engaged in," Nordbye said.

Nordbye said the actions taken against him would not stop him from trying to get the message across that public universities should not be run like businesses. One of the stenciled messages is still visible on the front of the newspaper box in front of the McWherter Library.

"I would like to encourage all members of the community to speak out in any way that they can to fight for the survival of the soul of this unique university and to make a stand in our national struggle," Nordbye said.


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