Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

To the Editors of the Spectator and to all members of the Seattle U community.

I want to begin by commending the journalists of the Spectator who are engaging with real issues on the Seattle U campus and challenging the university to live up to our Mission, from the campus demonstration policy, to the recent administrative opposition to unionization by adjunct faculty, and, of course, most recently around the removal of copies of the paper in the name of “propriety” and “decency.”

I also want to share that I feel fearful writing this letter. I am a queer academic who has recently arrived here and has just received tenure. Am I protected? With tenure and free speech under attack nationally and with recent events on my campus, I’m not so sure. I’m honestly afraid, but I’m also angry.

To review: Personally offended by a student newspaper’s cover photo of a person from a drag show, a Professor in the English Department unilaterally removed student newspapers (and presumably destroyed them), so that visiting students and parents at Admitted Student Open Houses would not see them.

Then, a University President weighed in about how he was also “offended and ashamed” by the photo, in particular because he had personally “allowed” the show to take place and that “most Jesuit-Catholic Universities would not” have allowed such an event. Further, he claimed that the photo was “taking it too far.”

As a member of the English Department and a representative of the Academic Assembly I would like to express my personal incredulity and dismay at these events.

Not only were the actions of my colleague clearly wrong in removing/destroying newspapers, those actions and President Sundborg’s subsequent comments also revealed a paternalism that suggests that prospective students (and their parents) should be “protected” from queer bodies and behaviors. It implies that queer bodies and behaviors are permissible, but only if they are not too visible. It assumes that prospective students (and parents) would be offended by that photo, and fails to imagine that they could also be queer students (and parents) like those already part of our Seattle U community.

Faculty in English and across Seattle U have a deep understanding of the histories of censorship that have impacted literature and film and photography; we teach culture and representation, gender and queer theory; we also research writers and filmmakers and artists who have called out for justice in many cultures and historical periods. Particularly at this political moment when we have seen a rise in actions of hate speech and intolerance, with repeated attacks on the press facilitated by the Trump Administration, it is extremely disturbing to see actions like this occur in a place that presents itself as being particularly concerned with amplifying marginalized voices.

When our own Seattle U President weighs in and alleges that ” Anybody[ . . . ]who has a sense of propriety would find [the photo] offensive” it is even more troubling. It seems both authoritarian and, again, paternalistic, when a university president repeatedly suggests that he has “allowed” the drag show, and further implies that he might withdraw that “allowance” if his own standards of propriety are not met. To me, this points to a profound failure in understanding the nature of university leadership, university governance, and, at heart, the work a university is meant to be doing.

Such words do not reflect our Mission of inclusivity and social engagement with our communities, both on and off campus. They fail to understand that universities, including private Catholic ones, have shared governance: with students, staff, faculty, and boards of trustees. There is no “I” who “allows” things, but rather a “we,” an academic community who are committed to the fundamental principle of shared governance that runs this and every university. Most of all, we are a community that is engaged in intellectual work: in critical thinking, in debate, in questioning and in reflection.

On April 5 we were invited by the president to help improve the culture on this campus by engaging with the work of the University Leadership Council and the forthcoming fora. In that email, we were reminded of the key role of culture in shaping everything we do. I could not agree more.

Unfortunately, this week’s actions in decrying the Spectator photo suggest to me that our campus needs to closely examine our own cultural attitudes around bodies and desire, gender and sexuality, and to engage with our students, straight, trans and queer: the World has changed, and it is time to wake up.

This is an emotionally charged moment and the fear and anger that I and many members of our community are feeling right now needs to be recognized and acknowledged as the material effects of those actions and words that seek to shame us.

I look forward to more dialogue with all members of our community on these issues and I call for a forum to immediately begin this conversation.

Dr. Kirsten Moana Thompson
Professor and Director of Film Studies
Department of English
Seattle U

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