Campus Erupts Over Senior Class Brunch Speech and Ensuing Dialogue

Carter Cooper with reporting contributed Will Hazzard

             Campus and social media are abuzz in the aftermath of the Senior Class Champagne Brunch, which occurred on Sunday, May 5 on Whitnall Field. The brunch, an annual event that celebrates the efforts and accomplishments of the outgoing class, was also open this year to recipients of “torch medals,” faculty and staff members who were acknowledged by students as being especially influential. The brunch featured several student and alumni speakers including Senior Class President Matt Levitsky and Senior Class Orator Haley Mirr.

                   Days after the brunch occurred, email correspondence between Levitsky and Associate Professor of Educational Studies Barbara Regenspan circulated around campus. Regenspan had contacted Levitsky to communicate her disapproval of his speech, which she claimed to have walked out of. Regenspan cited her disproval of Levitsky’s allusions to “excessive drinking” and of Colgate’s “rich white boys drinking club and its network.”

                   Regenspan has since apologized to Levitsky and released an official statement to the Maroon-News, which is available online.

                   The situation escalated on Wednesday, May 8 when commenters began to spam Regenspan’s RateMyProfessor.com page, leaving low rankings and comments referencing the rhetoric in her speech.  The spam has since been flagged and removed from the site. Early on Thursday, May 9, a copy of the email correspondence appeared on the blog BarstoolSports.com. The correspondence is introduced and followed by derogatory language and ad hominem attack.

                   Some students re-posted the Barstool article on social media and others pleaded for an end to the spamming and negative language. One student’s Facebook status reads: “be peaceful, colgate…please don’t spread hate.”

                   In his speech, Levitsky referenced an incident in which he was escorted out of his freshman dormitory by Campus Safety officers after hosting a party, concluding the story by characterizing it as both a mistake from which he learned and a story that he has since told to friends and interviewers. Senior class orator Haley Mirr made passing references to drinking and bars in her speech and alumnus Paul Favale ’97 recalled that he often networked in bars over drinks. Alcohol use has proved to be one of several issues that have surfaced in the discourse surrounding the brunch the past few days.

                   Regenspan wrote to Levitsky in her first email: “Does it not occur to you that the very faculty being honored today are opposed to the rich white boys drinking club and its network that is one (unfortunate) aspect of the Colgate experience, and forms a relatively small part (I have to believe based on my own wonderful dealings with one city’s association) of its otherwise inspiring alumni network?”

             Many students have taken issue with the negative characterization of Colgate’s social scene and drinking culture.

                   “It is not Professor Regenspan’s place to tell a 22 year old boy of legal drinking age that he should make a commitment to stop getting drunk,” senior Dana Paolucci wrote in an email, which is also available on the Maroon-News site,  to President Herbst.

                      Other faculty members echoed Regenspan’s distaste and emphasized their role as educators.

                   “I was appalled by the drumbeat of drunkenness, the orgy of self-absorption, and the denigration of the academic enterprise. If those speeches were said to represent the spirit engendered at Colgate, I would say that we have failed as educators,” Harry Emerson Fosdick Professor of the Humanities and Native American Studies and Religion Chris Vecsey said.

                   Regenspan sent two emails to Levitsky, one after the brunch and another after Levitsky replied to her to apologize for his remarks. Many students took offense to the language in the second email, especially its sign-off “So try apologizing to me again, and see if you get closer this time!”

                   Paolucci writes: “”I also understand [Regenspan] was writing out of anger and personal distaste for the ‘Event on Whitnall Field.’ Her second email, however, was entirely uncalled for, and provocative in the most negative sense of the word.”

             In a private email to Levitsky, Regenspan apologized. She told the Maroon-News, “I had no right to mistrust the genuine nature of his apology, which I now believe was completely sincere. I have made a complete apology to Matt for my sarcastic tone and for assuming that he fit the stereotype I was helping to reinforce of the spoiled rich Colgate white boy. I agree with everybody that stereotypes are damaging. “

                   Regenspan’s language that most outraged students seemed to be her characterization of Levitsky as a “spoiled brat” and the following recommendation: ” you should be making a commitment to stop getting drunk and to stop telling drinking stories. First, excessive drinking is stupid, and second, telling drinking stories is stupid.”

                   Paolucci wrote “Considering this is a top 20 liberal arts college, I would argue that the student body at Colgate is perhaps one of the smartest and brightest in the country. Perhaps she meant to refer to us as “immature,” or “irresponsible.”

                   Regenspan has since explained her language.

             “In my replies to Matt I saw myself as a tough-loving surrogate parent,” Regenspan said. My use of the word “stupid” to describe excessive drinking and the telling of excessive drinking stories by somebody who, along with his fellow student graduates, needs to be thinking about how to improve our collectively non-sustainable lives on this planet, was purely descriptive of very specific behavior which I continue to contend is stupid.”

             Although Levitsky’s remarks explicitly referenced the drinking culture at Colgate, Regenspan correlated such excessive drinking with issues of privilege and race. In her preliminary emails Regenspan disparaged Levitsky for othering international students and students of color.

             “Do you think that an international student and/or a student of color would be helped in his medical school interview by reports of such in-group bonding jokes at an interview?” In Regenspan’s second email, she alluded to students who are not participant in the “drinking culture. “And are you unaware of the reality that some Colgate students either don’t drink, or have a policy of never getting drunk?  Why was it okay to give a talk at such an important event that would leave them out?”

             Levitsky has since explained that his allusion to discussing his altercation with Campus Safety with interviewers was part of the mandatory act of divulging his disciplinary record to medical schools.

             Regenspan stands by her critique of Colgate’s culture.

             “I will never show respect for the valorization of excessive drinking and unaware privilege.  I think both are destroying the culture of an institution in which I continue to love to teach, an institution that has been very good to me in many ways.”

            Some students echo Regenspan’s concerns about Colgate’s climate and the type of discourse that has followed, many describing it as “unproductive.”

            “Professor Regenspan brought up a lot of important issues related to race, class, gender and privilege on this campus and in society more broadly,” senior Laura Jaffee said. “Even if you disagree with the way she conveyed that message, choosing to attack the messenger is a poor excuse to continue evading an uncomfortable but much needed discussion about which students have what type of experience at Colgate and why.”

                   Many have attributed the heated language and the rapid student response to tensions between students, faculty and administrators that have finally come to a head. Some students have also expressed distaste for the culture at Colgate, albeit for a variety of different reasons.

                   “I believe that the social media reaction is a result of the student body feeing as though our opinions do not matter to the administration,” Paolucci wrote. “We claim to foster close student teacher relationships, yet it is becoming more and more evident to us that the majority of the administration despises us, and we have also grown frustrated with some evident breaches of privacy over the course of the year.”

                   Other students have extended their discomfort for the situation to their prospective relationship with the institution in years to come.

                   “If we can’t expect courtesy from our faculty and administrators in the face of disagreement, who can we expect it from?” senior Emily Silverman said.

The brunch also marked a moment in which the Colgate Alumni Corporation began to court the class of 2013 as potential donors.

“It makes me sad to think that I am graduating with less confidence in the future of this institution then when I arrived four years ago,” Silverman said. “On that note, it is unlikely that I will choose to support Colgate financially or otherwise in the near future.”

                   Threats against Regenspan have been made on the BarstoolSports blog and, according to Levitsky, “Campus Safety had been contacted because there have been rumors that some students are trying to figure out where a certain professor lives.” Both Levitsky and Regenspan expressed that the threats do not appear to be from students that are directly involved in the correspondence.

            President Herbst has yet to officially contact students about the controversy.

            There has been an outpouring for support for the Senior Class President, who has served in his position for four consecutive years. Regenspan also reports that she has received “mostly positive” support from colleagues and students.

                   The dialogue continues over social media, comments on BarstoolSports and, as many seniors depart for Myrtle Beach this week before commencement weekend, in South Carolina. Both the content of Regenspan and Levitsky’s correspondence as well as RateMyProfessor and BarstoolSports posts are being discussed.

            “Professor Regenspan’s reaction to our class president’s speech was disrespectful and provoked a response from the student body that was far from the intelligent conversation that should have taken place,” senior Elise Sidamon-Eristoff said.  “Professor Regenspan’s email to Matt raised some important issues that do need to be addressed on this campus.  Although her approach was inappropriate, the underlying issues that she addressed became even more apparent in the way that some of my classmates chose to respond.”

            In a Facebook status update Levistsky thanked his classmates for their support and called for ongoing dialogue.

                   “I encourage you all to remain vocal if you feel strongly about the events of the past few days […] As Colgate students, we have learned to express ourselves respectfully and confidently, and we are certainly all entitled to have and share our opinions.”