The nauseating tale of how Washington College in Maryland killed a fully rehearsed and audience-ready student production of the widely acclaimed (and inoffensive) Larry Shue comedy “The Foreigner” on the most flimsy of political correctness pretexts, and then saw the institution’s president absurdly deny that the censorious act was censorship, has begun attracting comment here from the college’s larger community.
Below is a Comment of the Day on my post about the situation, “Unethical Quote Of The Week (And Jumbo!) Washington College (in Md.) President Kurt Landgraf,” submitted by skipm, a 1987 graduate with two BA degrees, including one in drama.
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 one 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 in 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.
Before Facebook performed its own censorship, declaring this ethics blog in violation of Facebook community values (which, tragically, appears to be true), Ethics Alarms might have been able to do more to assist the abused students and alums of Washington College. Though to the majority of Americans who attend life theater about as often as they observe unicorns, this seems like trivia, it is not. This is the current trend in our colleges and universities: indoctrination, enforced conformity, suppression of creative expression, cowardice, intellectual betrayal.
Let me at least supplement the above lament with the open letter shared here by alumna Heather Phillips, originally 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?
HeatherCatherine Donovan Phillips ’91