Heartbroken, isolated, tolerated and welcomed only if they were willing to be quiet, were some of the words student panelists used to describe how they felt after reading comments made by their university president. The words from Seattle University President Fr. Stephen Sundborg, S.J regarding a photo of a student in drag published in the Spectator left them silenced and separated from the rest of the Seattle U community.
The students participated in an event last week called “Teach-In on Indecency, The Spectator, Homophobia and Free Speech” hosted by the law school on April 26. The teach-in, which featured the student panel, also provided legal perspectives and reflections from law school professors with expertise in media law and LGBTQ rights, among other research areas.
Bryan Adamson, associate professor of law at Seattle U, hosted the teach-in because he was “troubled and surprised” by the reactions of both Sundborg and Fr. David Leigh, S.J., who intentionally emptied Spectator newsstands because he was “offended” by the drag photo.
“I felt that there were many students and other members in the community who were directly harmed by those actions and words,” Adamson said.
Adamson said incidences like these have been happening on campus over the last several years. He wanted to host the teach-in to create a space for members of the Seattle U community to have these conversations and develop ways to respond to these comments.
“We as leaders, members of the faculty or administrators, [have not] addressed them and the harm they cause,” he said. “I wanted to do my part to get us engaged and making sure that we were being attentive to the concerns of the students around these circumstances.”
Dean Spade, an associate professor in the law school, facilitated part of the teach-in with Adamson. For Spade, the topic had resonated because of the effects Sundborg’s message had on his students.
“I saw a lot of my students upset and hurt by [the words],” Spade said. “To have a message come from the top that sounds like queer and trans people are only to be tolerated and that our life, our culture is disgusting, is harsh to receive when you’re already feeling a lot of marginalization.”
In the recap of small group discussions, undergraduate students shared their experience with professors where their preferred pronouns were not used and perspectives that disagreed with the straight white patriarchal history were not welcomed.
Hunter Adams, the student featured in drag on the cover of the Spectator was featured as one of the student panelists. Adams also recognized that the university needs to do more to improve.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done. We need to have more teach-ins because there are people who are willing to learn and take those extra steps to make sure inclusion is something advocated for on campus,” he said. “They’re willing to expand their horizons to understand different aspects of the community.”
Adams continued, saying that college is a place to learn about one’s self and community. He said the only way to come to a resolution is to keep talking about these issues because it creates awareness and unites a community to work towards minimizing the problem.
Adamson and Spade have made the commitment to develop stronger relationships between the law school and the undergraduate organizations, programs and faculty.
“There’s just a lot of information for us to share across about our experiences and about potential resources that might exist for us or sources of support,” Spade said. “There are a lot of opportunities to grow our ability to know about each other’s life, find each other and collaborate.”
Adamson wants to remind students that they need to continue to learn and stay strong because they have a mission to accomplish.
“Keep learning because that’s what’s going to win the battle of ideas and ideals at the end of the day,” he said. “Whether or not SU has a focus on creating cultural excellence, we owe it to our citizens to ensure we know they belong here.”
Adams is focusing on the silver-lining of the situation and wants to thank Sundborg for bringing this issue to light. Adams said that Sundborg’s words have brought the community together to push back against Sundborg’s comments and hold him accountable to upholding Seattle U’s mission statement.
“I respect his position and I don’t think he is a bad person but he has to learn. As the president of the university, you need to make it a point to learn with these students,” Adams said. “You have to adapt, learn, absorb and understand the communities that are coming in.”
Hunter may be reached at