UPDATE: (posted 10:55, 2009-06-01): For the latest round of information about the "reinstatement" of this program see this post on Bill Marler's blog (which is simply links to several related news items). Note that much of the commentary still refers to "reinstatement" as though the program were cancelled, perpetuating what I think was a mischaracterization in the first place, as I noted below in the orginal post.
Yesterday the 2009 WSU Common Reading program was restored to its normal scope after a week of attention in local and national media about the book, Omnivore's Dilemma, being banned (see, for example, this story in the Seattle Times). The Common Reading program is back on track thanks to the generosity of former Regent and good Coug Bill Marler, who blogs about this here, and here.
So what is the real story? I do not know many details, but there are some things I'm pretty sure about:
Characterizations that the program was halted or that the book was banned are not accurate. Was the program changed? Yes. Was the program scaled back? Yes - in particular, the special features that characterized previous years, for example, one or more invited speakers, including the author, were dropped. And, yes, the decision was made to have the book distributed to only those students who enrolled in courses where faculty chose to integrate the book, rather than to have all students receive it over the summer at their Alive! session.
The scaling back of the program was driven by significant cuts to its budget as part of WSU's $27 million state budget reduction next year. From the tone of some of the commentary I've seen, this explanation was greeted with skepticism; that skepticism, however, was not well grounded in fact.
I believe Warwick and Elson when they say there was no outside pressure. Where that notion, as reported in the Spokesman Review, came from is not apparent to me. Could the book be controversial? Yes; given that Omnivore's Dilemma takes a critical look at how food gets to our tables, this is not an unwarranted thought. (I am still reading the book, and I may have more to say about this later, when I am finished.) However, if you think about it, scaling back the program is not a response that would satisfy outside pressure to not use the book -- whether a few hundred or all 4,000 copies are used, any use has the potential for controversy and pressure.
Would another book have been chosen had the selection process been followed as it should have? Possibly. Who knows...and, frankly, who cares? Any book worth its salt for the purpose of the Common Reading program would likely generate criticism from some quarter (as has happened periodically at other universities). The fact is, however, that Omnivore's Dilemma was chosen and it really doesn't matter at this point whether a different book might have been chosen had the process been conducted as intended. I'm not saying how the book was chosen doesn't matter, but at this point that's water under the bridge.
In the end, a thoughtful and supportive Coug alum made a generous gift that will allow an important program to continue in much the same form as it has for the past two years. I hope that the use of this book in our classrooms will help cultivate in our students those attributes that such a program is intended to foster -- reason, argument, evaluation of evidence, critical thought -- and that they will learn to read, listen, write, and speak carefully and thoughtfully, distinguish argument from opinion, and distinguish fact from innuendo ... attributes that have not been on display in abundance in the communications that have flown around regarding the 2009 Common Reading program this past week.