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University rescinds speaking invitation for 'The Color Purple' author

By Jennifer Calfas, Daily Staff Reporter
Published August 16, 2013

The University has rescinded its invitation for renowned author Alice Walker to speak at the Center for Education of Women’s 50th anniversary event.

The Color Purple author posted a letter on her blog that she claims is from her agent. The letter said donors sponsoring the event threatened to withdraw their funding due to comments Walker has made regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“They are not willing to fund this program and the university/Women’s center do not have the resources to finance this on their own,” Walker’s agent wrote. “They are deeply regretful but I wanted to let you know immediately either way.”

In the U.S., Walker is represented by The Wendy Weil Agency, according to the firm's website. It's not clear who from the agency wrote the letter.

Walker, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983, published The Cushion in the Road in 2013, which included significant criticism of Israel. The Anti-Defamation League said the book features “80 pages to a screed” on the conflict as well as “explicit comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany.”

Below her agent’s letter, Walker wrote that she is “sorry to miss this joyful sounding of women (and men) who are without doubt some of the best our country has to offer.”

Gloria Thomas, director of the Center for Education of Women, released a statement that apologized for how the center handled Walker’s invitation to speak. Thomas added that Walker was not “the optimum choice” for the event, but denied that donors had any impact on the decision to rescind her invitation.

“Our 50th anniversary funding is completely assured,” Thomas wrote. “All donations, for this and other events, are accepted with no provisos or prohibitions regarding free speech.”

While Walker may not be speaking at the event, Thomas said in her statement that she hopes to co-sponsor a lecture in the future that features Walker’s opinions on human rights issues.

In an email to faculty that was obtained by The Michigan Daily, University Provost Martha Pollock wrote that the University’s commitment to free speech and diversity is highlighted in its history of hosting important speakers.

“Challenging and difficult conversations are the core of our academic mission and spur both individual and community growth,” Pollack wrote. “Indeed, we strongly believe that the best response to challenging discourse is more discourse.”

Pollack added that the University trusts in each individual academic unit to make their decisions to invite speakers to campus.

Pollack echoed Thomas’ statement, noting that the decision to withdraw the invitation “was based solely on the celebratory nature they hoped to achieve at their anniversary event.” While Thomas wrote she hoped to co-sponsor an event featuring Walker, Pollack confirmed that the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies will invite Walker to speak publicly on campus.

The event’s kickoff — at which Walker would have spoken — will take place in February and March 2014. The kickoff will feature female leaders who play a role in “building, improving and sustaining their communities,” according to the center’s website.


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