I just finished reading a really riveting book of local history about a little known and even less understood free speech case that arose at Appalachian State University and went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. I’m talking about Al Corum’s Fired with Enthusiasm: Testing Freedom of Speech in the University of North Carolina System
I got hold of a copy of the book last Tuesday and finished it on Thursday, stealing every minute I could from otherwise full days to keep reading. The story is compelling – a nine-year legal battle at the end of which Al Corum was awarded damages and got his protest of secretive and heavy-handed administration actions vindicated.
When Herb Wey retired as the top-dog at ASU, a noticeable “corporate culture” began to take hold, a style of administration that was top-down, uncollegial, secretive, and authoritarian. In 1984, one of those top administrators ran over Al Corum like a Mack truck, assisted by sub-administrators in the power structure who carried out the dirty work.
The administration action that Al Corum protested and which got his salary cut, himself demoted and relegated to humiliating busy work, looks pretty similar to vandalism, the disrespectful and even destructive treatment of that portion of the Appalachian Collection devoted to cultural artifacts – musical instruments, handmade furniture, looms, household items of all sorts. Those things simply got in the way of bigger plans and were clearly under-valued by the top administrators.
A section of Corum’s book relates how he managed to get access to the warehouse where the artifacts had been dumped, and he made a photographic record of the conditions there. The photograph in the book shows what appears to be a pile of rank trash but which, according to the caption, was actually the “Appalachian Collection artifacts, scattered and unboxed in the former Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse, where they were stored circa 1985.” Corum, as Dean of Learning Resources, had attempted to forestall the wrecking of decades of dedicated collection by college staff. He had said in essence to the higher-ups, “You really shouldn’t do that,” and the administration answered, yes we will, and you’re relieved of your deanship because you’re “insubordinate.”
(Ironically perhaps, because it happened much later and under a different set of top administrators, another act of cultural vandalism took place in 2005 when another set of cultural artifacts, those housed in the Appalachian Cultural Museum, got the hatchet. You can remind yourself about that episode here
. Bottomline: When Appalachian culture gets in the way of “progress” at ASU, Appalachian culture rarely wins.)
After the Corum suit was appealed through the Supreme Court of North Carolina and all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, on appeals from the University (being represented by the NC Attorney General’s office), it landed back in Superior Court of Watauga County for a jury trial. It took one full day to enpanel a jury, and on the next day, when the trial was supposed to take place, the university caved, offered Corum a settlement which he ultimately took (the cash really didn’t cover his legal fees for the nine years’ struggle). But he was vindicated.
Copies of Fired With Enthusiasm
are currently available locally only at the ASU Bookstore at the end of Faculty Street, in a section devoted to published works by ASU faculty. I’m told that the book will be listed on Amazon in a matter of weeks.