At the close of a virtual town meeting with alumni on Wednesday, Washington College President Kurt Landgraf said he would make the same decision again to cancel the performance of The Foreigner–in order to be respectful of the most diverse student body in the college’s history.
“I take full responsibility for what occurred here,” Landgraf said. “I believe we did the right thing; and frankly, if I had to do it all over again today I would still do the same fundamental things that were decided.”
“What we did was fair, equitable and respectful to our student body and reflective of the values of Washington College,” he said in the virtual town hall.
The decision was made while Landgraf was out of town on Thursday, Nov. 6. — when the cast and crew were notified moments before the dress rehearsal that public performances scheduled for Nov. 8 and 9 had been canceled.
Many WC alumni have called the cancellation a blatant case of censorship after it was announced in a letter signed by Provost Patrice DiQuinzio and Dean of Students Sarah Feyerherm.
In responding to outcries of censorship over the cancellation, Landgraf said the college was “unequivocal in its support of free speech.” He said free speech was the foundation of a liberal arts education.
“We are absolutely unwavering in our support of that,” he said.
But he gave greater weight to being “respectful of all our students… to recognize that our student body is more diverse than it ever has been.”
Sitting with Landgraf, Theatre and Dance Acting Chair Laura Eckelman pushed back on criticism that shuttering the play was censorship and said she made the decision after consultations with the administration–and students who were passionate in their objections to portrayals of the KKK in the play.
She said the decision was made “out of a desire not to further injure those members of our campus community who already feel the most marginalized and who already face in many ways the most challenges both on and off campus.”
“In this case, canceling the production felt like the best thing to do,” she said. “I do not see it as an act of censorship but as a course correction and us being more attentive to the members of our community that were likely to be hurt.”
An ’00 graduate challenged Landgraf and Eckelman that the decision was not a case of censorship.
“Let’s stop debating whether or not this was censorship,” the ’00 graduate said. “By the word’s definition, this was censorship…just because the department was consulted doesn’t mean this wasn’t censorship, whether or not you think it was done for a good reason, this was censorship…so let’s just establish that it was censorship.”
The ’00 alumnus asked why The Foreigner was canceled when so many other performances in the past have touched on controversial issues.
“How are we going to protect the arts going forward,” he asked. “How are you going to establish where that line is so that people going forward don’t have to wait to find out if their play is going to be canceled.”
Eckelman responded, “We haven’t made any decisions yet what that would look like because this is all still very fresh…we are planning to explore what might be the best practice in the future, so the short answer is we don’t really know yet.”
A ’17 alumnus said the decision to cancel the play was “cruel” to the student director.
“This was the culmination of her college career,” the ’17 alumnus said. The ’17 alumnus also said this was not the first experience with censorship on campus.
“I personally experienced it while working at the ELM newspaper [and] not from anyone on the ELM or a faculty advisor, but from the administration. The canceling of this play does not reflect good intent, it reflects an implicit racial bias and a lack of willingness to confront our past, especially in a place like Kent County.”
Doug Rose, an ’86 alumnus and winner of the Sophie Kerr Prize, asked why the cast and crew were not included in discussions to cancel the play and why they were not invited to the town hall discussion.
“Where are the students in this discussion, why are we keeping them away from these important discussions,” Rose asked.
Eckelman responded that it was a “time-pressured environment…they were in dress rehearsals.” She said she brought the cast and crew into the conversation “at the earliest opportunity.”
“I respectfully refute your statement that the students haven’t been involved in the conversation,” Eckelman told Rose. “We met with them on the evening of the cancelation and we met with them again a couple of days later.” She said she’s been in contact with the students by email asking for their feedback.
Rose was not satisfied with Eckelman’s answer and noted that every other constituency on campus was part of the discussion, except the students involved in the play.
“You took the time to talk to a lot of other student groups, other faculty, other staff, other administration, but no one bothered to talk to the people in the production itself until the cancelation order came in,” he said.
“Again, a lot of that had to do with the constraints of time…it’s hard to communicate just how pressured all of that was in terms of time constraints,” Eckelman responded.
Eckelman also made note that the student director was upset with the decision, but articulated 15 minutes later that it was the right thing to do.
Later in the day, Communications Director Wendy Clarke told the Spy in an email that there was no guarantee future cancellations wouldn’t occur, even after a new vetting process had been established to consider the content of performances.
“It’s impossible to answer this unequivocally, since we can’t predict the future,” she said in an email.“The college never intends for any public event to be cancelled. We make these decisions only when absolutely necessary. We will continue to make efforts—better efforts—to anticipate potential challenges of content, logistics, or other event-related issues, but some situations will always be unanticipated, and we cannot control that.”
Yesterday the National Coalition Against Censorship strongly condemned the decision to cancel The Foreigner.
“Apparently the very presence of the KKK in the story, no matter how strongly the story condemned them, was upsetting,” the NCAC said. “A university should certainly listen to the voices of the campus community. It should provide opportunities for open conversation around controversial material – in this case, offering talk-backs after the performances would be a simple option. However, a college should no more allow the voices of some students the power to censor a student’s work, than it should allow objections to books taught in class to determine the syllabus. Were such objections to take precedence to academic freedom and educational objectives, there are many plays, films and novels that would have to be banned on campus because of the upsetting villains they present: there are Nazis in The Sound of Music, racists in To Kill A Mockingbird, and a character blinding horses in Equus, to take some of the plays more frequently performed on campus and in schools. Should the college also ban Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and should its film history classes ignore the controversial but historically significant Birth of a Nation? And how would Washington College students deal with history itself, the violence of which far exceeds the caricatured villainy of The Foreigner?”
The statement was co-signed by National Coalition Against Censorship, Dramatists Legal Defense Fund, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)
And in a Facebook post yesterday, Jack Gilden ’87, called for new leadership at the college.
“There is but one urgent question that arises from yesterday’s conference call: How does the school continue as a ‘liberal’ arts institution when, antithetically to its own mission, it cancels student work and improperly controls what the community may experience? By continuing on and moving forward with the same leadership the stain of this malpractice will touch everyone in our community. If the students, faculty, alumnus and board do not stop this immediately then all of us are tacitly censors, too. Why? Because we have the power to change course or endorse what happened by keeping the present leadership. When you have a pilot who can’t fly, a bus driver who can’t drive, or a doctor who can’t diagnose or treat, you fire them. They don’t understand the job. A liberal arts president and educators who use and defend censorship tactics do not understand the job. The school needs a new president, provost, dean, and theatre arts leader as soon as possible. Continuing on this path, with this group, labels the school, right now and into the future, The Censorship College. Is that what we want for Washington College? Is that who we are? Change is gravely important and necessary right now.”