Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.



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  • Aaron Podolefsky: An Appreciation

    • Posted on Sep 29, 2013 by Scott Cawelti

    This piece appeared today (Sunday) in the Waterloo Courier.  

    Word came last month that UNI’s former Provost, Aaron Podolefsky, died of prostate cancer. He left UNI in 2005 to become President at Central Missouri, then President of Buffalo State in 2010, where he remained until his death.  He was 67.   

    He loved administrating, particularly at the college presidential level.   And he generated admiration and goodwill among faculty and students wherever he served.  

    Academic administrators herd cats, as they say, and college presidents herd cats,

    grasshoppers, squirrels, sparrows, and all other unruly campus creatures.

    Anyone who’s actually good at it deserves a few medals and long life.  

    Podolefsky made his mark on UNI from 1990 to 2005.  

    When UNI was searching for a Provost in 1998 I co-chaired the search committee.  Aaron was doing fine as Dean of the College of Social and Behaviorial Sciences, but wanted more, so he applied.  

    We were impressed, and eventually recommended him for the position.

    He was highly respected as Dean, insisting that all voices be heard, and revealing an all-purpose generosity of spirit, as well as an ability to make hard but defensible decisions. Rare traits each, and unheard of together.  

    He became an excellent UNI provost.    

    I sat on a couple of committees with him, and always counted on him to make sense of complex issues. Even when I disagreed with him, I respected and eventually appreciated his decisions. 

    In 2001, he made a decision in a controversy that put him in rare company indeed.  

    Here was the situation:  Theater UNI students had decided they wanted to produce and perform Terence McNally’s “Corpus Christi,” a play that, to put it mildly, raised hackles.

     I first heard about it when friends of friends at a cocktail party were complaining, rather loudly, that UNI was going to stage a play in which Christ and his apostles were portrayed as gay.  They shook their heads knowingly, as if to say ‘typical university nonsense.”  

    Those shaking heads turned into angry protests.  The faculty director, Steve Taft, worried that the play’s very idea was too controversial, and that potential theatergoers would dismiss it as rabble-rousing blasphemy. 

    Though blasphemy is still legal in this country, hard-core believers still go apoplectic.  

    Once word got out, protests went directly to the Provost.  Outraged citizens inundated Podolefsky with calls to shut the production down.  Alumni threatened to withhold their support for the university forever unless he cancelled it.

    Some students protested as well, insisting that their freedom of religion was being curtailed because the play attacked their beliefs.    

    Provosts at other universities had caved when faced with outrage over “Corpus Christi.”  They cited security concerns or just fear that it was too offensive to most citizens, especially donor alumni.  

    What did Aaron do?  He answered the protestors, calmly and deliberately, saying.  as he later explained, “When people wrote me copious emails about values, I wrote back that I also have values — American values, and that sometimes people died protecting those values.” 

    He sat on a 2003 panel on the “Corpus Christi” controversy, asserting that his own values held that everyone be heard, even when their expressions contradicted or offended values of other groups.  He seemed to condone blasphemy, which put him on the firing line.  Actually he was supporting academic freedom. 

    So he held firm, “Corpus Christi” went on, the university survived, and we now appreciate his ability to withstand pressures that other administrators at other universities could not.

    But it wasn’t easy.     

    Jim Lubker, the interim provost who followed Aaron, mentioned Aaron’s flaw, if any:  he was too sensitive.  The Provost regularly endured stinging criticism and abuse from angry citizens over “Corpus Christi” and other less controversial decisions.  “He took it personally sometimes,” Lubker said, “And suffered from it.” 

    Few people I’ve known can avoid that flaw.  Most of us recoil at criticism, go into defense mode, then sink into self-pity.

    If Aaron Podolefsky did that, it never showed.  He carried on, cheerful, affable, putting criticism and rebuffs behind him, and making decisions for the good of most, all of the time.

    UNI will be holding a memorial service for him in the near future.  

    That’s only fitting; Aaron Podolefsky deserves not just remembering, but emulating.




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    • Personalities
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    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
  • Book Burning, Rioting, and Free Speech

    • Posted on Apr 17, 2011 by Scott Cawelti


    Desecration of any sacred object, be it flag, holy text, saint’s finger, or hallowed painting like the Mona Lisa, can cause big trouble. 

    If someone were to spray paint graffiti on DaVinci’s masterpiece, it would cause great wailing and gnashing of teeth worldwide.  Such art desecrations happen with enough regularity that guards and barriers are now placed around the world’s art treasures to keep them safe.  Masterpieces are also one of a kind, so destroying an original would be tragic.  If there were a million Mona Lisas, desecrating a copy wouldn’t mean much.  In fact I own printed copies in art books and could destroy any of them with impunity.

    As a matter of fact, I own a copy of the sacred Quran, and it sits next to the equally sacred King James Bible on my bookshelf.  We all own such books, and most of us treat them with respect.  I consider book burning an act of vandalism and a waste of reading material, good or bad.  Incidentally, both sacred texts are available on my Kindle for ninety-nine cents. 

    Not sure how I would desecrate my Kindle.  Remove the battery?

     All of which brings me to Pastor Terry Jones.  He’s the Florida publicity hound who promised not to burn a Quran late last year.  Then on March 20 he went ahead and
    “executed” his copy of the Muslim Holy Book in his church after a mock trial, declaring the book guilty and sentenced it to death by burning. 

    At the time, few people noticed, since it was so obviously the actions of a fame-seeker and nut job.  And that’s where it should have ended.  However, Jones created a video of his desecration for YouTube so everyone could watch. 

    So it became news. Big news.  Angry radical Mullahs railed at Jones and even Afghanistan’s President Karzai stepped in, calling for Jones’ arrest.  Riots and deaths followed, including seven UN workers in Afghanistan.  Scores were injured, and unrest has spread, including retaliatory Bible-burning. 

    Those of us who believe in freedom of speech and separation of church and state struggle with at least three questions:  (1) Should Jones in fact be prosecuted for destroying his copy of the Quran, knowing it would cause trouble?  Maybe it’s the equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theater.  (2) Who is ultimately responsible for those UN workers’ deaths and injuries in Afghanistan that grew out of Jones’ actions?   (3) How can people invest so much significance in a copy that’s so easily created and destroyed? 

     One at a time:

                (1) No, he should not be prosecuted.  Criticized, boycotted, yes.  That’s called the marketplace of ideas.  But not arrested.  Someday I plan to give away or junk all of my books.  I don’t want to have to separate my copies of the Bible or Quran to avoid jail.   Same with my store-bought flags. 

                (2) Jones cannot be blamed directly for what those Afghani mobs did.  Thanks to the Internet, we live in a tinderbox, where a tiny spark explodes into flame and people die.  If anyone deserves blame, it’s the radical mullahs and President Karzai for so roundly condemning Jones to their easily incited followers.   They should know better.  Where are the moderates who need to condemn them for such incendiary talk?  It’s they who’re shouting fire in their own crowded theater, not Jones.

                (3) Why so much emotion invested in a version of a sacred text?  People respond to intentions, not the logic of burning a cheap copy.  They believe sacred book burners hate their religion and in fact are desecrating their faith using their holy books as a symbol.  If someone’s book-burning actions bespeak hate of their faith, they have a duty to protest, even violently. 

    These people are true believers, a.k.a fanatics.  They’re not about to be changed by reason or moderation.  However, we moderates of all persuasions have a duty not to incite them when sparks from other fanatics on the opposite side (like Terry Jones) fly.  

    In other words, pour cool water on the tinderbox of faith-based outrage. 


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    Posted in
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
    • Hot Button Issues
    • Censorship
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