Forum on Miller seeks to explain cancellation



Joe Fleming

A forum to discuss the University administration’s decision to rescind the invitation to performance artist Tim Miller was held Feb. 28 for students, alumni, faculty and staff. Over 200 people attended to voice concerns, ask questions regarding the decision, and hear statements by the panel composed of the University President Rev. Peter Donohue, O.S.A., Jean Lutes, academic director for Gender and Women’s Studies, Heidi Rose, associate professor of communication and Joe Cozza, Nina Trovato and Elizabeth Marafino, the three students who organized the forum. In his opening statement as forum moderator, Maurice Hall, chair of the communication department, stressed that his department is in full support of Donohue and Rose, who invited Miller to campus and organized his workshop. In addition, he said the forum would address a “broader conversation of tensions that are not easily resolvable.” “It is a complicated incident,” Hall said. “Not all of the information in the public sphere is entirely accurate, and we should not reduce events to simplicities, as they are nuanced and complicated.” Rose added that she was saddened by how communication broke down, and although she disagreed with the administration’s decision, she was in support of Donohue. “It’s very important to understand that this workshop and Tim’s lecture were intended to be a gift to the University,” Rose said. “I both support Father Donohue and disagree with his decision, but it is OK to disagree. The freedom to disagree with another’s position and engage in dialogue is what it means to be a part of a University.” Marafino, Cozza and Trovato were the only students on the panel, and they stated their dismay and disagreement with the decision. Marafino and Cozza specifically demonstrated concern over possible implications of the decision with regards to stifling self-expression and silencing different perspectives. “I’m concerned with breaking the social contract of the University’s mission,” Marafino said. Donohue gave an address to the attendees regarding the decision, and the pre-evaluation of Miller’s workshop once it was brought to his attention by a flurry of emails and phone calls from parents and alumni, as well as members of the Cardinal Newman society. He began by apologizing to any individuals who may have been offended by the administration’s decision, and stated that he grappled with the workshop’s impact on the University’s Catholic values. “I struggled with what it means to be a Catholic university, and to be part of a network of Catholic universities,” Donohue said. Donohue added that he believed the content of Miller’s performance was explicit and objectionable, and although Miller was invited to host a workshop, his website lists him as a performance artist and it was difficult to convince concerned members of the University community that he would not actually be performing. “I thought that his message was too explicit, and his techniques wouldn’t resonate well with others in the community,” Donohue said. “We have to be aware of explicitness in a community grounded by faith, and we were not prepared for the community’s response to the performance.” In addition, Donohue stated that he found the “homophobic” label especially troubling. “Homophobic is not something that I am, that [the University is] or what we should be,” Donohue said. “The decision had nothing to do with him being gay. My first priority is the Villanova community and supporting all members of our community, and I would address anything that would make anyone feel excluded.” Cozza, Marafino and Trovato all stated that maintaining and encouraging dialogue within the University community was what inspired the idea of the forum and motivated them to enact their vision. “Our initial intentions were to gather concerned people together in one place, have Father Donohue explain the decision in a way that was not so disconnected and to stimulate dialogue amongst the members of the Villanova community,”  Trovato said. “We cannot allow groups outside of the Villanova community to dictate what can and can’t happen within the University.” According to Cozza, they felt that it was important to have the event planned and led by students-a sentiment that was supported by the faculty members who helped organize the event. “We knew that this had to be a grassroots kind of event,” Cozza said. “We need to show students are taking initiative, and the faculty members we contacted stressed that it should be a student-driven event.” They also stressed that, much like the Facebook group they created to stimulate discussion, it was necessary to maintain an open dialogue and allow all arguments, concerns and opinions to be expressed. “We didn’t want to exclude or censor anyone,” Marafino said. “We thought that was important for a healthy dialogue.” They said later that they thought the forum was successful and they have received a largely positive response, though they understand that some who attended may feel frustrated at the lack of answer. Trovato stated that students who came to hear an apology from Donohue did not think the forum achieved its purpose. “Some people may have expected Father Donohue to say he was wrong, but I think that was somewhat naive,” Trovato said. “People left unsettled, and I think that is a good thing. Now it is important that those same individuals go make active changes for the LGBT community with a conscious effort to prevent outside sources from being overly influential.” “I think that some people left without having their questions answered, and that can be a good thing for continuing dialogue,” Cozza said. “I think the community is setting a precedent for reaching out and discussing issues, and we’re focusing on what we can make better and stronger and what we can improve upon.” Lutes said she was glad that students were taking the initiative to organize a community discussion, especially considering the importance of the issue. “It is important to talk as a community whenever we are being criticized, regarding the grounds of the criticism and what we should do about it, particularly when it is about members of the community who are already marginalized,” Lutes said. “I hope that the forum will help start that discussion.” Rose stated that although important issues were raised during the forum, it did not appear that there was a “true dialogue.” She felt that the forum was nonetheless successful. “There were some contradictions that arose and were not fully engaged or developed because there wasn’t a full dialogue,” Rose said. “With that many people in one room it makes it difficult to have a real dialogue, though I think that the forum accomplished all that it could. Some people may not have like the answers and there may not have been a resolution, but I think that’s good.” In addition, Rose thought that the community’s action showed, importantly, that they “don’t live in apathy.” “I think that there are lots of big problems that many of us feel compelled to act upon,” Rose said. “Not many of them hit us where we live, but when they do, we’ve shown that we’re not afraid to act.” Cozza, Trovato and Marafino said they hoped those attending the forum would be encouraged to engage in these kinds of dialogue and see how important it is within the community. “I hope the message of unity and need for dialogue is greater than the message of the cancellation,” Trovato said. “To show people both inside and outside our community that we’re not perfect, but we’re trying.”