Comment Of The Day: “Unethical Quote Of The Week (And Jumbo!) Washington College (in Md.) President Kurt Landgraf”

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.

I’m back.

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?

Sincerely,

HeatherCatherine Donovan Phillips ’91

10 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “Unethical Quote Of The Week (And Jumbo!) Washington College (in Md.) President Kurt Landgraf”

  1. Unfortunately, the Authentic Frontier Gibberish that’s being spewed by the administration of Washington College is polluting every liberal arts college in the United States. These administrators and their faculties are enemies of education.

  2. Here’s another eloquent letter appearing in the Chestertown Spy from Timothy B. Abbott. “Censorship and Abuse of Power” — WC Parent Decries Foreigner Cancellation
    https://chestertownspy.org/2019/11/12/censorship-and-abuse-of-power-wc-parent-decries-foreigner-cancellation/

    I counted 4 posts or letters in today’s online edition: 2 from admins & 2 from parents. The comments to each, as well as contained here & earlier, are most instructive.

  3. Until there are direct, personal consequences, the cya explanations from those who should know better will continue.

    Those consequences should be sought by the right, as the left has enforced them for wrongthink for most of my life.

  4. Just a clarification. I originally privately emailed this letter to President Landgraf and the Board of Visitors and Governors. My letter did not appear in the Chestertown Spy. I did share the letter, also privately, with some of my fellow alumni. When I saw your quote of President Landgraf in your blog column, and after seeing letters similar to mine in the public forum of the Chestertown Spy. I decided to share my letter with you in the Comments of this blog. That is the first time it appeared in public. I have yet to receive any sort of response from the college.

  5. The College sent out a town hall meeting invitation to its alumni today via email and its Facebook pages. The meeting will take place on Wednesday, November 20 at noon. I’m hoping it will be a fruitful discussion and am encouraged by the fact that they are open to having a discussion.

    • heatherphillips479810425 – Your objective examination and conclusions on the subject at hand are the best argument the discussion could have. I hope everyone at the meeting will have access to it. The final two paragraphs need disseminating to all institutions of so-called higher learning as well. Good luck!

      This blog, including comments, is being forwarded to my alma maters’ alumni and other educational associations as well as to theater faculty and editors of student publications in the same Thank you.

  6. Here is an article from the Washington College paper, The Elm, on this subject:

    “The Foreigner” senior thesis canceled by Washington College
    November 18, 2019 The Elm No Comments
    By Cassy Sottile

    News Editor

    The Washington College administration, in collaboration with the Department of Theatre and Dance, canceled a senior capstone production of Larry Shue’s “The Foreigner,” which was scheduled to hold performances on Nov. 8 and 9.

    Out of a desire to prevent further injury to members of the WC community who already feel marginalized, Associate Professor and Interim Chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance Laura Eckelman decided to cancel the public performances. The decision was made on the evening of Nov. 7, approximately one hour before the play’s final dress rehearsal. 

    Senior Megan Stagg, the production’s director, was first attracted to the show 23 months ago. 

    “I was first drawn to the big idea the show was trying to get across to audiences — that not everyone is who they claim to be and do not feel like they fit in all the time,” Stagg said. 

    This idea of “othering” is a major plot point of the show, according to Stagg.

    “The Foreigner” centers on a group of people who feel “othered” by society in various ways, including premarital pregnancy, neurological differences, and age. According to an email sent by the president’s office on Nov. 11, over the course of the play, these individuals build a community through listening, learning, and humor, but their bond is threatened by the xenophobic anger and self-proclaimed entitlement of two other characters.

    The play contains some elements that students and staff found particularly offensive, according to Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Sarah Feyerherm and Provost and Dean of the College Dr. Patrice DiQuinzio. 

    The climax of the play features the “disenfranchised protagonists” defeating characters who appear in Klu Klux Klan robes and are clearly set up as the antagonists. 

    In preparation for this reveal, Eckelman sent an email with the script attached on Nov. 6 and 7 to Student Affairs, the Department of Public Safety, and Counseling Services. Feyerherm and DiQuinzio were off-campus until the morning of Nov. 6.

    “Prior to the email, there was no awareness about the content of the play outside the theatre department,” Feyerherm said. 

    Due to the condensed timeline for the decision, Stagg was not included in the conversation about canceling the play.

    “We touched base with various constituencies about the content of the play before making the decision,” Dean DiQuinzio said. 

    Dean DiQuinzio herself did not read the script, but did attend the closed dress rehearsal of the production on Nov. 7 to understand the show as Stagg and the department intended it.

    “We discussed many possible interventions that might help to address their concerns, including public content warnings, alterations to the KKK costumes, and a moderated public discussion after each performance, but were unable to find a satisfactory compromise,” Eckelman said. 

    In the days leading up to the decision, a series of three meetings were held which involved Eckelman, DiQuinzio, Feyerherm, Associate Professor of Theatre Brendon Fox, three staff members, five to 10 students, and Director of College Communications Wendy Clarke. 

    “As an artist and an educator, I believe fervently in the value of theatre as an engine for empathy, a tool for social change, and a vehicle for encouraging difficult conversations,” Eckelman said. “But I also feel a personal, social, and professional responsibility to treat my neighbors with as much care, respect, and compassion as I possibly can.” 

    The post-show discussion panel that was supposed to take place after the Friday performance of the show, led by dramaturg junior Will Reid, was also canceled. 

    The discussion panel was set to address the appearance of the KKK members onstage and how the team approached this, according to Reid. 

    “[The department] could have done a better job at including constituencies on campus to understand the content of the play and converse about it,” Landgraf said. 

    To discuss the decision with groups on campus, Landgraf and Feyerherm attended the Student Government Association Senate session on Nov. 12 and Landgraf had dinner with the SGA class officers. 

    According to SGA Secretary of Diversity junior Felicia Attor, the play affected everyone on campus. 

    “Understandably, this play is a comedy and more than 23 months of work went into it, which can never be disputed. However, putting the KKK on stage in a satirical way is not appropriate because nothing about the historical and present day ramifications of the KKK is funny,” Attor said. 

    Confederate flags are seen in Kent County frequently, according to Attor. 

    Students on campus still face overt and subtle forms of racism from people in the community and on campus. 

    “This is about acknowledging the need for all, not some, students to feel safe on this campus,” Attor said. 

    The Elm reached out to other student groups involved in the decision to cancel the production, but received no reply.

    According to Clarke, students with marginalized identities made up around 10% of campus in 2010. This figure has increased to approximately 21.3% in 2019. 

    “This represents a cultural shift in demographics across the country that WC is responsible to maintain,” Landgraf said.

    The College strives to be a community that prioritizes inclusiveness and the ability to articulate one’s perspective with an effort toward finding greater understanding, affecting positive change, and strengthening communication, according to the Nov. 8 Provost email. 

    “Part of what is difficult about this situation is the need for us — as individuals and as an institution — to balance our desire for equity, diversity, and inclusion with our responsibility to challenge, to teach, and to encourage progress,” Eckelman said.

    In the wake of the announcement of the cancellation of the play, the Chestertown Spy published a Nov. 11 article claiming the decision was an act of censorship.

    “This was not an act of censorship,” Landgraf said. “The campus was not prepared for the content of the show, and the decision was made to be respectful of our student populations.”

    “The Foreigner” has been performed on other college campuses across the country, such as Indiana University in July 2018 and Virginia Tech in Feb. 2019. According to Landgraf, colleges should not be censoring any speaker or production because content is controversial. 

    “I do not see this as an act of censorship. I view censorship as being shut down against your will. This was a course correction made by and with the theatre department,” Eckelman said. 

    The Chestertown Spy also published two open letters to the College administration — one from Timothy Abbott and the other from Talya Leodari — both addressing perceived censorship of the show and scheduled post-show discussion panel. 

    “There have been arguments made that [we] made the wrong decision based on the First Amendment and freedom of expression. However, we do have the right to say something, but we should exercise good judgment in how we say it,” Dean DiQuinzio said. 

    In the aftermath of the decision, several members of “The Foreigner” team received negative messages on social media, according to Stagg.

    “I have received a couple messages online calling me a racist for being a part of the show,” one cast member said. 

    Stagg first reported the messages her cast has received to the Department of Public Safety. Since then, a Department of Public Safety officer has reached out to the cast who have received negative comments, according to Associate Director of the Department of Public Safety Sue Golinski. 

    Any negative messages received are being reported to Public Safety and Student Affairs. 

    “This show is about giving a voice to the voiceless and we have been undermined and received hate for it through the cancelation,” Reid said. 

    In addition to some receiving messages accusing them of racial bias, some of the company members experienced accusations of silencing others. 

    “While talking about the decision, someone told me that they were tired of being silenced. As I was leaving the conversation, upset, I heard them say that I was wrong and did not respect that person,” one company member said. 

    If any student needs to report a message or interaction of concern, they should contact Public Safety at 410-778-7810, as well as Student Affairs.

    Moving forward, the College administration and Department of Theatre and Dance are looking into the possibility of some kind of presentation of the play that is inclusive to the whole campus population. The presentation will include those directly involved and the groups of people who need to have input, according to Dean DiQuinzio and Feyerherm. 

    “We will not train the next generation of citizen leaders by avoiding hard conversations, but we also will not do it by ignoring each other’s pain,” Eckelman said. 

    This presentation will most likely be next semester. 

    “The play is about the importance of empathy in easy and difficult situations. This show was produced and canceled out of empathy,” Eckelman said. “I believe — and hope — that these events will provoke some much-needed conversations (on our campus and beyond) about intercultural sensitivity, content warnings, and academic freedom.”

    I’m still feeling that although the college is trying to be sensitive to people who may feel marginalized, they are not taking ownership of the fact that they censored this play. They were willing to hold a meeting with alumni today, which I listened in on. It seems the college stands behind their decision, but are willing to have an alumni task force to better communication, and will be looking at more constructive ways of handling similar situations in the future. Time will tell.

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