Dear President Sundborg,
As a department of interdisciplinary social scientists devoted to the pursuit of social justice-driven scholarship, we write in response to recent events involving Seattle University’s drag shows, the Spectator cover, and your public statements. These thoughts represent a collection of points raised by our own faculty, as well as (other) LGBTQ faculty and allies with whom we have discussed this issue. As many of us specialize in areas of sexuality, gender, culture, and identity, we draw from our scholarly training in these areas as well. Along these lines we offer ourselves as resources in what we hope will be an ongoing process of community education.
We begin by acknowledging your public and rapid apology and clarification. We know that we are all humans who make mistakes, and that we are all learning throughout our lives. We recognize the value in modeling the acknowledgment of bias and knowledge gaps in an educational community and encourage you to continue to do so, much as you have begun public statements in regard to racism. We trust that you are sincere when you say that you are committed to LGBTQ diversity and inclusion, and so we are writing to offer our thoughts about how you can better demonstrate that commitment.
We are concerned about the lack of understanding of queer and trans issues as demonstrated by both Fr. Leigh’s actions and your public statement about being offended by the photo. Indeed, rather than being offended, many of us thought it was a photo of a talented student looking positively gleeful in their full expression of their whole person. However, even if the photo were offensive to some, we believe Seattle University’s strong commitment to diversity and inclusion are precisely intended to protect against individual bias and preference or, indeed, the tyranny of the majority. Truly valuing diversity and inclusion means practicing them even when we are uncomfortable or disagree. Therefore, we are also concerned with the institutional disregard for difference and inclusion indicated by these actions. It is one thing to support LGBTQ rights on a theoretical level and another to support LGBTQ life. Your comments implied that queer people are permissible at Seattle University, but only if they are not too queer. We are disappointed by how upset some in our community appear to have gotten because they were confronted with actual queerness.
Finally, we are alarmed by the move to prevent free speech and free press in the face of disagreement and discomfort. We oppose the disciplinary tone toward the faculty involved with the Spectator. We strongly believe that (even) at a mission-driven Jesuit university, it is crucial to have a free press. Last month, Washington State passed the New Voices Act (SSB 5064) which ensured that student journalists in public K-12 schools and public institutions of higher education are free to “determine the news, opinion, feature, and advertising content” of school-sponsored media. We recognize that this law does not apply to a private university such as Seattle University, but the removal of the papers and criticism of the cover photo are not in the spirit of the current approach to student journalism. We do not want to be a university that is more repressive than our neighborhood elementary schools. Free speech and free press are more important than ever in our current political environment.
For all of the above reasons, we have seven recommendations toward healing our community, advancing our learning, and institutionalizing measures that will increase LGBTQ justice on our campus. We strongly urge you and the University do the following:
1. Meet with LGBTQ faculty. We request that you and your leadership team meet with LGBTQ faculty so they can address the broader concerns and unexamined bias your remarks signal, and so they can discuss with you different options to increase LGBTQ diversity and inclusion. The creation of an LGBTQ minor (below) is a good start, but it will not help LGBTQ students in other disciplines who never have the opportunity to engage with this material, nor go far enough in changing the culture of our campus.
2. Support the creation of an LGBTQ Studies Minor. The Women and Gender Studies program in the College of Arts and Sciences is currently piloting an LGBTQ Studies minor. The events of the last week demonstrate the importance of sexuality studies in our society and on our campus. As you noted in your second letter, “We are all learning through this process, including me.” We are proud to be part of a university that cares about diversity and critical education, and we hope you will take this opportunity to declare your public support of the minor.
3. Affirm the right to freedom of expression, speech, and press. We appreciated your statement that “any violation of the right of the Spectator to have their newspapers out” would upset you. We urge you to demonstrate this by issuing a strong statement from the President where you affirm the right to freedom of expression by LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff, the participants in the drag show, and by students and faculty reporting about the drag show. We are proud to work at a university whose Student Code of Conduct asserts that our educational goals are best achieved “in an atmosphere of freedom and responsibility for all members of the university in the search for truth and the expression of personal opinion” and also points out that the “student media, especially the student newspaper, make a valuable contribution to establishing and maintaining this atmosphere on campus.” We encourage you to proudly represent these values publicly by stating clearly that vigilante-style actions that aim to enforce an individual’s personal values or concerns by removing student publications are a violation of the university commitment to freedom of speech. Further, in light of your public remarks at the Pigott forum in which you questioned the role of an independent newspaper in a Jesuit Catholic institution, we demand you reassert your support of a free student press. In this particular political moment, we believe the forceful defense of a free press to be vitally important, and urge you to stand publicly by our university’s commitment to it.
4. Address sexual and gender violence. We believe that Seattle University must have a sexual assault center and other resources that many colleges do for supporting people around gender-based violence and pursuing strong anti-rape culture measures. We also want Seattle University to review the transgender-related recommendations of the CITI committee from 2010. We urge you to supporting the existing Council, with strong representation by faculty with related expertise, that examines the sexual misconduct policy on campus, mandatory reporting, and other issues concerning the atmosphere and resources for sexual misconduct, assault and domestic violence.
5. Engage in a critical examination of the commons. It is not lost on us that these events emerged within days of the Mission Day themed “Creating the Commons, Living the Tensions.” The events demonstrate that it is one thing to aspire to a common culture and quite another to create a public space that that offers justice to all. For this reason, we urge a much more cautious and democratic approach to campus pursuit of the commons. While “commons” and “culture” have been used interchangeably in this discourse, they have quite distinct historical and practical meanings. Where the commons refers to protected public space and commitment to the sharing of resources, many historical attempts at common culture have been thinly veiled moves to homogenize difference and impose dominant values upon marginalized communities. The stated assumption last week that all people have the same notions of dignity, respect, and/or sexuality makes the point. As social scientists who study these histories, we urge the University Leadership Council against regulating culture and suggest instead a more robust look at the policies and practices that undergird our shared environment.
6. Create trans-inclusive housing. Earlier this year, Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic academic institution in America, approved residential housing for LGBT students. Their vice-president of student affairs stated, “Our Catholic and Jesuit values call on us to engage with ‘respect, compassion, and sensitivity…It is in keeping with our Catholic and Jesuit values to provide a language, perspective, and sense of inclusion for deepening our sense of cura personalis.” We believe that Seattle University should follow in their footsteps.
7. Make critical ethnic and gender studies a requirement of the university core curriculum. Recent events have once again illustrated the importance of education about power and difference. We believe that Seattle University should add a year-long requirement in the UCOR, where students take a series of courses focused on racial, gender, economic, and religious justice, as well as LGBTQ issues, and other critical justice studies.
We hope that you will take this time to make public your commitment to your LGBTQ community members by enacting all seven of these recommendations. We are available to discuss any or all of them with you.
– Approved by a vote of the faculty and staff of the Department of Anthropology, Sociology, and Social Work