U of C paper sparks uproar after retracting controversial column

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Staff Writer
  • May 19, 2009 @ 11:40 AM

A column in the student newspaper at the University of Chicago offended enough readers that the paper not only apologized for running the opinion piece, but also retracted part of the column a day later.

First-year student Luke Dumas’ column titled “A Springtime Strip,” which appeared in the May 12 edition of the Chicago Maroon, called out women on campus – and some men – for wearing too few clothes as the weather warmed up, referring to scantily clad undergrads as “tramps” and “skanks” because of their clothing choices.

Some students decried the column for being sexist, misogynistic and offensive, while others called for the writer to be fired.

“I regret that people feel that way but I don’t regret writing what I did,” Dumas says.

A day later, the Maroon’s editor retracted parts of the story and, in an unusual move, modified the original version online to delete the offending phrases. The Maroon’s Web site has received almost 80 comments from students on the topic, some just as upset that the paper retracted parts of the column as those who were offended by the column in the first place.

One line in the original column read, “do our students become tramps to more effectively enjoy the weather, or do they use the weather as an excuse to more effectively become tramps?”

The revised version of the column changed that line to read, “do these students shed their clothing to more effectively enjoy the weather, or do they use the weather as an excuse to shed their clothing?”

But another sentence reading, “these students are showing that they’re not only tolerable to look at, but veritably doable” remained unchanged.

“I knew they would apologize for the uproar and for the offensiveness,” Dumas says. “I did not know they would retract it. … I wish they had not changed the article online because now it’s completely different from what I wrote. It’s not even close.”

The Daily News obtained a scanned version of the original article from the University of Chicago Library.

By the end of the week, the article and its retracted, revised version had started a robust online debate. A separate letter from Editor-in-Chief Supriya Sinhababu garnered a dozen comments of its own.

In that letter, Sinhababu apologized for allowing the column to be printed and acknowledged she expected the column would be controversial.

“The retracted parts of the article describe women using excessively harsh language and a contemptuous tone. Prior to the retraction, the article’s imagery and exaggeration implied a resemblance between female students and prostitutes,” Sinhababu wrote. “I firmly believe these remarks read as discriminatory; yet I allowed the article to be published intact. This was an instance of gross editorial oversight on my part.”

Reached via Facebook, Sinhababu declined to comment on the controversy.

But one of Dumas’ friends, Joanna Laine, a public policy and political science double major, says while the article’s language was coarse, she didn’t find it offensive.

“I also disagree with the idea that just because people disagree with viewpoints, it’s labeled hate speech and offensive and as a result the Maroon felt pressure to retract it,” Laine says.

She also sees an upside to the controversy: it got many students on campus talking about issues like sexism, discrimination and free speech.

“We’re not a very activist school by and large, and so I thought it was really great that Luke wrote this article because it raised so much discourse,” Laine says.

Daily News Staff Writer Peter Sachs covers higher education. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 18, or peter [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.