Michael Bonesteel Credit: Richard Pearlman

Author, art critic, and longtime adjunct assistant professor Michael Bonesteel resigned from the faculty of the School of the Art Institute last month, citing a “toxic environment” that “feels more like a police state than a place where academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas is valued.”

Bonesteel, an internationally recognized expert on Chicago artist Henry Darger, left SAIC as a result of complaints by three students over two incidents that occurred within a three-day period in his classes last December. Both incidents consisted of objections to ideas and material related to the edgy historical subject matter Bonesteel has been teaching in popular classes at SAIC for 14 years.

Rude? Raw? Often violent? Steeped in the mass culture prejudices of its time? Well, yes—those are the calling cards of Bonesteel’s area of scholarly study: comic books and outsider art.

SAIC, in a written statement from dean of faculty Lisa Wainwright, says it is “unable to comment on individual personnel matters,” so what we know about this is what Bonesteel has to say—and even he’s only commenting in writing, via e-mail. But his story echoes what I’ve been hearing from professors at other colleges and universities: the classroom environment, as Bonesteel puts it, “has become increasingly threatening to any professor who [even inadvertently] does not toe the politically correct line.”

According to Bonesteel, the first incident occurred on December 12 in his course the Present and Future of Outsider Art. During discussion of a theory that connects the most striking feature of Darger’s work—the prevalence in it of little girls with penises—with possible childhood sexual abuse, a transgender student objected.

“The student said there was no proof that Darger was sexually abused, and therefore I was wrong in proposing the theory,” Bonesteel says, adding that he agreed that there was no proof, but said many scholars thought it likely.

After this incident, Bonesteel met with a diversity counselor, and, following the counselor’s advice, posted an apology for his “insensitivity” on an SAIC website, along with a research article as background for the theory.

Dean Wainwright, subsequently ruling on this student’s complaint, found no violation of school policy, but determined that Bonesteel needed training on how to deal with “identity­related material” in his curriculum.

Two days after the first incident, during a discussion in his other class, Comic Book: Golden Age to Comics Code, a student launched into what Bonesteel describes as “a long diatribe about perceived anti-Semitic attitudes” of the author of an assigned text, the well-regarded Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, by Gerard Jones.

Bonesteel says the student also criticized “SAIC’s policies toward minorities and transgender students specifically, leveling accusations of racism and homophobia toward me in particular.” Bonesteel made a plea for patience “during this time of transition,” but the exchange “heated up,” and in the same session the student objected about the lack of a trigger warning during a discussion of an implied rape in another book. (Bonesteel says SAIC does not require trigger warnings.)

When the student complained, “the dean ultimately ‘determined that it is more likely than not that your conduct in relation to this student constituted harassment based on gender-identity in violation of the School’s Policy Against Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation,’ ” Bonesteel says.

Months later, another student in the comics class filed a complaint on the basis of having been “troubled by the incident.”

On May 30, Bonesteel says he was told that he wouldn’t be teaching any future courses in comics. His outsider art classes were to be revamped, and readings by “scholars in the field of Outsider art were to be discarded in favor of new readings from academic journals.” His hours for the 2017-2018 school year were reduced to a level at which he’d lose his health insurance benefits.

Bonesteel says he “could have lived with” making changes to his courses. “But to be labeled discriminatory and charged with sexual harassment because I got into a heated debate with a hostile student who happened to be transgender, and for that student’s accusations of sexual harassment to be credited—and for my account and those of several other student witnesses to be discredited—seems entirely unfair.”

“Then, to be punished by refusing to let me teach three comics courses in which I had invested twelve years of time and effort and love, and in the process take away my insurance benefits, these were the conditions that I found unacceptable.”

In his resignation letter, dated June 12, Bonesteel protested what he called “abuse of Title IX protections.”

“Overall,” he wrote, “it is my contention that I have been unfairly vilified and demonized by [a] small cadre of militant LBGT students with an authoritarian agenda.”  v