STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. In South Carolina, some state lawmakers want to cut funding for two public colleges. They're unhappy about gay- and lesbian-themed books in student reading programs. Sarah McCammon, of Georgia Public Broadcasting, visited one of the schools, the College of Charleston.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: The college is nestled in downtown Charleston, among Victorian rowhouses and sprawling, live oak trees draped in Spanish moss. The campus is packing up to go home for the year, and inside a modern-looking student center, a half-dozen students are gathered, cellphones in hand, operating a phone bank.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CAMPAIGN)

MATT RABON: OK. I just wanted to urge Gov. Haley to come out in support of academic freedom.

MCCAMMON: Philosophy major Matt Rabon is asking South Carolina's Republican governor, Nikki Haley, to block the state legislature from cutting funding to their college.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE CAMPAIGN)

RABON: I understand that the funds that were punitively removed from our operating fund...

MCCAMMON: In February, the South Carolina House of Representatives voted to cut $52,000 - the cost of a student reading program. Members did this because they objected to the choice of the graphic novel "Fun Home." The award-winning memoir, by Alison Bechdel, includes illustrations of lesbian sex. It also became an off-Broadway musical.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "FUN HOME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Caption: My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay, and I was gay. And he killed himself, and I became a lesbian cartoonist.

MCCAMMON: Last month, the New York cast of "Fun Home" traveled to Charleston to perform the play in support of the students, striking back at lawmakers who voted for the cuts, like Republican Rep. Garry Smith.

STATE REP. GARRY SMITH: Any sort of freedom, including academic freedom, comes with responsibility.

MCCAMMON: Smith also says the college failed to present multiple perspectives about the novel.

SMITH: You need to discuss it from a true academic debate standpoint, which looks at all aspects of it. That was not done.

MCCAMMON: Can you give me an example of a book that would have provided an opposite point of view?

SMITH: I'm sure that the university probably could have come up with one but off the top of my head, I can't give you one. But I'm sure that they're out there.

MCCAMMON: Students aren't just worried about lawmakers interfering with what's read and discussed on campus. They're also concerned about the GOP-controlled legislature hand-picking who runs the college. The state's Republican lieutenant governor, Glenn McConnell, was recently selected to become the college's next president.

Media reports suggest the college's governing board chose him under pressure from lawmakers, and against the advice of a search committee. That sparked protests from students like Matt Rabon.

RABON: It just reeked of insider sort of dealings, backroom political maneuvers, and political and economic pressure being put on the Board of Trustees.

MCCAMMON: McConnell spent more than 30 years in the state Senate. And he's known for his affection for Civil War history and the Confederate flag. McConnell did not agree to an interview with NPR, but he has the support of at least one well-known Democrat, Charleston's longtime mayor, Joe Riley.

MAYOR JOE RILEY: He's a good guy and a very nice, hardworking person. I think he'll be an excellent college president.

MCCAMMON: Riley says McConnell, as a graduate of the college, will be a strong ambassador for the institution. Political writer Andy Brack says state lawmakers likely see in McConnell an opportunity for more control of the college. He says choosing McConnell may be the price the college was willing to pay for a stronger relationship with the legislature.

ANDY BRACK: It's tough being a college president these days, and one might think that a reason that Glenn McConnell was hired is that he understands state budgeting and understands the relationships involved with the legislature, which has a big control over the universities in this state.

MCCAMMON: While McConnell's selection prompted students to stage a sit-in, where they wore tape over their mouths in protest, he'll become the president of the College of Charleston at a quieter time on campus. He takes over July 1st, when most students are away.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah McCammon.

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