Unethical Quote Of The Week (And Jumbo!) Washington College (in Md.) President Kurt Landgraf

“Elephant? What elephant?” The thing is, Jimmy was playing a CLOWN when he uttered that line, not a college president.

“Our intent in cancelling the production was to prevent further harm to members of our community who already feel marginalized. However, the decision to cancel the play has been interpreted by some as a form of censorship on the part of the College. Censorship is anathema to the core values of Washington College, and this was never our intent.”

—-Kurt Landgraf, president of Washington College in Maryland, in his letter to the campus regarding the decision to cancel a student production of Larry Shue’s 1980 farce “The Foreigner.”

Got that? “Censorship? What censorship? Oh, you mean that thing when we stopped a play from being performed? You call that censorship?”

Yes, the president of an institution of higher learning is really and truly saying in print that administrators cancelled the production of a play, as in “prevented it from being seen,” because of concerns over the content of said play, and the need to protect some students from seeing it, hearing it, or knowing it was being seen and heard by others, yet did not intend this to constitute censorship, which it was by definition.

I’ll publish the whole weaselly, embarrassing letter at the end of the post, because otherwise you might not believe it.

I have seen “The Foreigner.” It’s not a classic by any means, but there is nothing controversial about it, and nothing that would legitimately “trigger” anyone with the sense God gave a trout.  Deciding that “The Foreigner” needs to be censored makes as much sense as blocking a production of “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

The comedy opened Off-Broadway in 1984 and won two Obie Awards and two Outer Critics Circle Awards as Best New American Play and Best Off-Broadway Production. Since then it has been a staple of regional theaters, community theaters, colleges and high schools. A very short version of the plot: Two Englishmen visiting a  fishing lodge in rural Georgia foil the plot of an evil  local Klansman to take over the lodge and use it as a KKK headquarters. The hero, Charlie Baker, pulls this off in part by pretending to be a non-English speaker and talking gibberish, as well as pretend language like ” Klaatu barada nikto” from the classic film “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”  Because people think he can’t understand them, they openly discuss their various plots and schemes in his presence.

The Horror.

Such a self-indictment for stupidity, dishonesty or, in the alternative, lack of language proficiency from the head of a college raises a legitimate question of the worth of a diploma earned by any student unfortunate enough to go there. I wouldn’t want to hire anyone whose education was entrusted to such incompetents. There ought to be a class action  against the school by students and graduates for rendering their credentials worthless.

Of the many comments on the various posts about this across the web, this one, from Instapundit, is probably my favorite:

So now students are “triggered” when they are portrayed as winning because they are too delicate to deal with the image of groups they disagree with? …Apparently the only thing that won’t trigger future leaders of tomorrow (let that sink in) are images, stories, speakers, etc., that fall totally in line with their own thinking. Talk about “delicate”.

The world they envision will never exist. Even if all their wildest dreams come true there will still be strife and, egads!, disagreement in the world. They need to learn to deal with it.

I do find it depressing that so many commenters are unfamiliar with the play, but theater literacy is one of the most rapidly deteriorating aspects of cultural literacy.

Below is poor Kurt’s letter. Let me also flag the second most remarkable statement in it:

“To that end, we are currently discussing how we can best present the story and message of this play in a way that enables the campus community to have a productive, thoughtful conversation.”

The best way to present the story and message of any play is to present the play as the author intended it to be presented. This isn’t rocket science, and “The Foreigner” isn’t “King Lear.”

Dear Campus Community,

Last Friday, we announced a decision to cancel two scheduled public performances of “The Foreigner.”  This play—written in the 1980s and frequently produced at educational and professional institutions across the country—centers on a group of people who feel “othered” by society in various ways, including premarital pregnancy, neurological differences, and age. Over the course of the play, these individuals build a community together through listening, learning and, humor, but their bond is threatened by the xenophobic anger and self-proclaimed entitlement of two other characters. In the climax of the play, the community of disenfranchised protagonists rises up to easily defeat the bigoted antagonists (who reveal themselves as members of the KKK). It is through the portrayal and defeat of these villainous characters that the play conveys its message about the evils of xenophobia, the dangers of “othering,” and the importance of empathy.

We made the decision to cancel the performances after listening to members of our campus community who told us that they were deeply hurt and affronted by the existence and portrayal of characters associated with the KKK—even though these characters are clearly portrayed as villains and are easily vanquished by the play’s protagonists. Our intent in cancelling the production was to prevent further harm to members of our community who already feel marginalized. However, the decision to cancel the play has been interpreted by some as a form of censorship on the part of the College. Censorship is anathema to the core values of Washington College, and this was never our intent.

It is our job, as a liberal arts institution, to create a space where difficult issues can be faced head-on and thoughtfully discussed. The production and subsequent cancellation of this play have raised important questions about how we, as an institution, choose, contextualize, and discuss potentially controversial material—on our stages, in our classrooms, and beyond. To that end, we are currently discussing how we can best present the story and message of this play in a way that enables the campus community to have a productive, thoughtful conversation. We will work with all of the relevant student groups, staff, faculty, alumni, and Board of Visitors and Governors to determine the best way to accomplish this and to find the most constructive path forward.

President Kurt Landgraf
Washington College

 

26 thoughts on “Unethical Quote Of The Week (And Jumbo!) Washington College (in Md.) President Kurt Landgraf

  1. The president of a “college” should need to consult a dictionary? It is censorship, but it’s not really censorship. I would advise all high school graduates to stay away from colleges and universities, from Harvard to the unknown Washington College, as it is obvious that their leadership never absorbed anything beyond the third grade. Unbelievable.

  2. So President Landgraf cancels the play because of its content, then proceeds to give a synopsis of the play’s content in his cancellation letter. He references “groups of people that are ‘othered'” (whatever that means), the xenophobic two main characters (probably white men), the KKK, and the basic plot of the story. He essentially tells the story outline, while at the same time writing that students shouldn’t be exposed to the story. He probably should be censoring his own letter! And how dare he use “members of the KKK” in the anything sent to the public! That’s hate speech and he should be immediately asked to resign.

    • When the Woke and wanna-be Woke are hoist on their own petard, caught in their own nets, prosecuted for that which they prosecute others; then will we see change back to a rational standard.

      And not before.

  3. This is actually pretty simple. When you are in a position in which you have all the power (boss, parent, college president) and can’t realistically be challenged, just tell the other person that whatever he protests isn’t what he claims, and if he disagrees, just tell him that’s his problem and that it changes nothing. If you are a peer, just do the same and tell him nothing he says will change your mind.

    In this case there’s realistically nothing else the college community can do. It does kinda remind me of a simple-minded but not off-base cartoon published in my college newspaper in which a student challenges a dean who will not allow a performance and says “can you tell me what’s the difference between this and fascist Germany?” and the dean’s response is “Hitler lost, son.”

  4. So I guess that means that they will also have to cancel any plays or movies or books about World War II because, you know, there are Nazis in those things, even though they are clearly the villains and get defeated in the end. After they get rid of WWII, then they can move on to deleting other villains, I reckon.

    Sheesh!

    What twaddle.

    • Nazi’s are useful to the left: they stand for a conversation ending signal of virtue, for when you cannot coherently form an answer to a logical, rational question.

      Secretly, the left uses Nazis as role models, on how to control (and dispose of) your population.

    • Taken to its natural conclusion, yes, this is precisely what will happen.

      “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
      – George Orwell

    • Before long all material that deals with history will have to carry a warning label. Warning: may contain unpleasant or triggering material.

      I post a lot of historical stuff on social media, including a lot of photographs of aircraft, parading soldiers, etc. My one friend who practices yoga in between attempts to make it as a pop musician told me she specifically excludes me from her feed, lest a picture of a Spitfire or a statue of a WWI soldier mess up her peaceful state of mind.

  5. This president of Washington College is a crypto-fascist of first regard. Never trust anyone who wants to protect you from “harmful exposure” to ideas as expressed in plays and media.

  6. If the students had changed the name to something Maoesque, like “The Noble Immigrant Who Strove Against the Oppressor”, they would have been good to go.

  7. “The Foreigner” is such a gentle send-up of bigotry & intolerance that anyone who would be offended, let alone threatened by it lacks the skill set to be in a school of higher education, whether as a student, faculty or administrator. Some principled theater company should offer the production a “safe space” to continue “the conversation.” Will “The Merchant of Venice” or “Othello” be next? BTW, the letter is pure sophistry. The president knows exactly what he’s doing. This is his balance sheet: “Kurt M. Landgraf, [is] a former corporate executive with deep experience in financial accountability, information technology, and integrated business strategies.” You can read further: https://www.washcoll.edu/live/profiles/12530-kurt-m-landgraf

    • Thanks for the background on Landgraf. Do you think it’s likely that he has ever read or seen “The Foreigner”? Wouldn’t there be someone in the office—or a drama teacher—who could inform the letter before it embarrassed the school? Wikipedia says that a high school production was killed because of the Klan costumes, but it’s hard to imagine a more benign play.

      • I couldn’t tell from the letter, but the impression I got was he hadn’t done either. It would a dense reader who failed to grasp the humor – assuming anyone reads plays these days – but an even denser one who did not laugh outright as the villains get their comeuppance. As far as the Klan costuming, maybe it was called for in the script. I’d have to check. Yes, an embarrassment for the school both for killing such a benign (almost a farcical) production and the way it was handled. An example of how the bean counters have altered the liberal arts education.

        • I am losing heart regarding the prospects of any art surviving the censorship urge, John. Let’s do a symposium, or something. Disney felt it had to put trigger warnings on its old animated features. John Legend inflicted that God-awful re-write of “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Schools are afraid to do “The Mikado.” I am distraught.

          • Theater and the arts have been run off the rails IMHO. Where they haven’t been censored – outright or self-censored – they’ve been subverted. And it’s not only art, but also history, education, movies, and the media. If you haven’t been to The National Archives, the Newseum, and Mount Vernon lately (to name a few), you’ll be surprised how these institutions are reinterpreting the past. Activism, presentism, without benefit of historical context, is the new norm. And the curatorial impulse is at work everywhere. I really would like to see someone pickup “The Foreigner,” like in the old WPA days, and give it new life. Short of that the best symposium I can imagine is a free theater such as you established at TACT. What a great run Jack! I am grateful for that window and think of it often. Thank you.

  8. As an Alumna of the College (1991, BA, Philosophy) I sent a letter to the President and Board of Visitors and Governors which I shared below. Keeping in mind that no institution is perfect, the college does provide a good education, but many alumni are concerned about this situation and hoping to see a better resolution to this situation. My letter is one among many, and I feel comfortable sharing it, since other open letters have been written to the college via the Chestertown Spy Newspaper.

    Dear President Landgraf and Board of Visitors a[n]d Governors (via Vic Sensenig),

    I’m writing to you to express my disillusionment with the college’s decision to cancel the public performances of the play The Foreigner this past weekend.

    I read the letter sent to the campus community by Patrice DiQuinzio, Provost and Dean of the College, and Sarah Feyerherm, Vice-President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students, and also your and Timothy Abbott’s letters responding to the situation in the Chestertown Spy.

    I also read the comments on social media by various alumni, many of whom expressed valid points. Although, perhaps they should have not condemned the College so strongly in a public forum without going to the source and opening a dialogue.

    My concerns are that Washington College should be a forum for the exploration of all ideas, even and, sometimes, especially, those ideas that make us uncomfortable. If the college censors something because it makes a particular student (or group of students) uncomfortable where does the line get drawn? The liberal arts college education should not be a reflection of the politics of the times, but rather a place that explores the ideas and history behind those politics, whether students are comfortable with them or not.

    To me, a better way of handling this situation would have been to use this play, which everyone clearly agrees shows the KKK members in it as the villains, as a springboard for debate and discussion of abuse of power, narrow-mindedness, persecution, etc., and how these things take root in supposedly civil society (and, perhaps, what could be done to stops such things from happening). The weekend could have been an expansive, interdisciplinary learning experience, instead of a public relations fiasco for the college and the ruination of a student director’s efforts to bring a play to an audience.

    This brings me to the question of how that student’s efforts could count as less than the the offense that was taken at the likely misunderstood ideas in the play. I wonder if the offended party was even familiar with the play’s details? It concerns me that a student paying to get a good education at the college could be thwarted at the 11th hour of a senior production. What is this teaching about the concepts of open-mindedness, fairness, reward for academic rigor and hard work? I’m afraid the lessons this student will learn from this are very negative ones.

    I have recommended the college to friends with college-aged children. I would not be likely to do so in the future if I do not see the free exploration of ideas and free speech happening at Washington College.

    I’ll end with a pertinent illustration from my experience at Washington College as a Philosophy major in the late 1980’s-early 90’s. I loved studying the ancient philosophers. Plato was my favorite. And, I loved seeing how the ideas from the ancients evolved through the history of Western Philosophy. But, when I got to studying Karl Marx and Friedrich Neitzsche, their ideas were so repulsive to me that I had a hard time even reading them.

    However, I did not protest or take offense that the college was teaching socialism and ideas that could lead to the downfall of society as we know it in the United States if implemented here. I didn’t try to get the college to stop teaching these concepts. (I know this is a bit of an oversimplification but look at how much harm resulted in the world from these ideas – Chinese persecution, North Korean persecution, socialist Russia, communist East Germany, etc.) Instead, I asked my professor if I could do an independent study of Marx and Neitzsche so that I could better grasp what they meant. If I could perceive that there was harm that could be produced by their ideas, I wanted to know them thoroughly so that I could guard against that harm in this society as I matured as a member of it. My point is that we need to be always ready to explore those things that make us uncomfortable, but also help us to grow in our perspective and thinking, especially in an academic setting. If not there, then where?

    Sincerely,

    HeatherCatherine Donovan Phillips ’91
    Member of 1782 Society
    Reply Reply All Forward

    • Excellent letter, Heather. And if I can be of any assistance as the school explores these issues, let me know. I’m a professional stage director and ran a theater company for 20 years, as well as a lawyer and ethicist. A pretty good background.

  9. Speaking for a group of about 200-300 (changes daily) alum, we’ve been at odds with the Board of Visitors and Governors due to the cost of the high turnover of administration for years. The lack of transparency in the fiscal and administrative management is deplorable. Calling on the alumni to support half-hearted and complacent efforts to maneuver a private liberal arts college, the 10th oldest college in the country, through this past 10 years makes us grow weary. This censorship is only the latest, most egregious act thus far by the current administration.

    You mistake Machiavellian for pure ham-fisted ignorance. Kurt was late to the game on this issue, yet owns and yet in his own moment of “enlightenment” supports the decision fully. If you read the letters to the editor on The Chestertown Spy from one of the affected parents of the cast/crew (https://chestertownspy.org/2019/11/13/wc-parent-open-letter-to-provost-diquinzio-on-foreigner-cancellation/) , or look at the largest social media commented post ( https://tinyurl.com/censorshipwc1) you’ll see the Provost and Dean, and perhaps 1 other professor, announced the cancellation at the outset of the final dress rehearsal, then locked the doors, allowed the students to work through the play, then walked out at the end with nary a word or huzzah.

    The students, and faculty, have since been ‘advised’ not to comment on social media, as it would only inflame the fire of ignorance, as we, the alumni, the parents, and community members are “not in the know”. Finger pointing and collusion have arisen, as if we, the spectators in our own Orwellian play, cannot understand that censorship with reason is not indeed censorship.

    A week has gone by, and Washington College, Kurt Landgraf, Provost Patrice DiQuinzio and Dean Sarah Feyerherm have not expounded on their words – and sadly this is placing them and the college in the public eye for a horrible blow, the week of Veterans Day, the 4th anniversary of the attack against Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and in light of the protests in Hong Kong, all events heavily reflected by the US’s First Amendment. Our degree is indeed losing value, the fate of a centuries old liberal arts college already weakened, and now jeopardized, and my own home town on the Eastern Shore cast in a negative light.

    We are i need of deep seeded change at Washington College – not only of the administration, but as the Board is also silent on this matter, and has been complacent for too too long, on the Board of Visitors & Governors as well. We deserve no less than than better, and are receiving less than average.

    I am a 1987 graduate of Washington college holding 2 BA degrees, one if which is in Drama. The former chair of the department brought this act to my attention, and he is gob-smacked.

    • I will post this publicly as a Comment of the Day, and repeat my offer to another of your alums that I am at your service, gratis, if you think I can assist in any way (as an ethicist, a lawyer, a professional stage director and the former operator of a Virginia professional theater as well as the founder of several university theater organizations. Once, before Facebook banned links to this blog as part of its own censorship, I might have been able to better spread the word.

    • Hi, Skip, I heard that President Landgraf reached out to some alumni to meet with them. I have not yet heard anything in response to my letter. Have you had any direct replies? Do you intend to meet with anyone at the college? -Heather Phillips, ’91

      • Thank you for your offer Jack, your assistance could be useful down the road- rereading my comment, I’m embarrassed I posted without a spell and grammar check.

        Hi Heather, I know of 1 alum Kurt meets with on 11/15 – but parents of at least 1 child have sent letters, and, due to no response, publicly posted letters (1 you posted here) due to a lack of response from the college administration. One classmate received a call today noting basically that our ‘calling the school and administration out was damaging the school and the school’s raison d’etre. We’re shocked and amazed at this response. The school’s censorship of a frequently circulated play is the only reason these comments and calls for termination are on the rise today. No alumni wants to damage the school and the value of their diploma, what I want is the school to do educate and inform, to burn its candle brightly against the darkness of ignorance. Last week is the culmination of the antithesis of providing a beacon of intelligence.

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