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Emails: University of Iowa asked outraged students to preview Mason's apology

KKK effigy drew widespread response, criticism

A public art piece created by University of Iowa faculty member Serhat Tanyolacar stood on the UI Pentacrest for less than four hours in December before it was removed. (Mitchell Schmidt/The Gazette)
A public art piece created by University of Iowa faculty member Serhat Tanyolacar stood on the UI Pentacrest for less than four hours in December before it was removed. (Mitchell Schmidt/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — A group of University of Iowa students outraged by a Ku Klux Klan-robed sculpture erected on campus last month was allowed to review and offer revisions to a draft of President Sally Mason’s apology — a statement that subsequently sparked heated debate about free speech.

An original draft of the apology that Mason’s advisers proposed Dec. 5 — the same day the statue was erected and taken down — said “materials that featured the subject of racial discord were displayed without permission on our campus.”

“That display caused pain and fear among members of our community,” according to the draft.

Emails obtained Wednesday by The Gazette reveal UI administrators sent that draft to student leaders who had expressed indignation over the effigy, asking for “suggestions.” The students sent a “response draft” with a handful of changes and stronger language.

UI Vice President for Student Life Tom Rocklin said in internal emails that “some of what they have written, I think, is out of the question.”

The students, for example, suggested Mason call the statue a “portrayal of hate” and say “this action of an individual at an educational institution at the pedestal of the Pentacrest was not and will never be tolerated.”

They also suggested Mason call for an investigation.

“Much of the language is not language that the president would use, and I hope they would understand that the statement has to be in her voice,” Rocklin said.

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Still, the final version retained some of the student changes, including a description of the artwork and a characterization that the community felt “terrorized.”

The hundreds of emails made public provide a glimpse into the university’s initial response, its efforts to assuage outcry from students and cautions that some advisers offered on the side of free speech.

“The artist, a faculty member … has been made not only to feel unwelcome on this campus, but is receiving hate mail and death threats, in part because of official UI statements mischaracterizing his constitutionally-protected expression,” UI professor Katherine Tachau wrote Dec. 7 to Mason. “The official statements are making an unfortunate situation far worse — and you certainly do not speak for me … when you say ‘WE have failed.’ ”

UI officials declined to comment for this article.

Serhat Tanyolacar, an assistant professor for the UI School of Art and Art History and Grant Wood Art Colony Printmaking Fellow, created the statue — which likens a Ku Klux Klansman — and positioned it on the UI Pentacrest Dec. 5 as public art.

He said the statue was meant to foster discussion and create positive change in light of racial tensions nationally. But outcry among some students was swift, and UI officials removed the statue after nearly four hours.

The UI’s first campuswide statement issued on the day the statue was erected — as opposed to Mason’s apology days later — referred to it as “deeply offensive” and said the institution “considers all forms of racism abhorrent.”

In emails, Tanyolacar said the statements depicted him as a “racist, intolerant, and prejudice individual, which hurt me more than ever.”

Turkish-born Tanyolacar, 38, wrote that he came to the United States because of its speech freedoms. “And now I have been told that my freedom is limited, and it is controlled (by) academic hierarchy,” he wrote.

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Kevin Kregel, UI associate provost for faculty, advised Tanyolacar on Dec. 7 to make “some type of apology.”

Tanyolacar did offer “sincere apologies” to the black community for his “thoughtless action.” But then he issued a second statement espousing free speech. And in a Dec. 8 email, he wrote that the university owed him an apology.

Tanyolacar, who is scheduled to end his fellowship after this semester, said in an interview that he still feels he deserves an apology.

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