Professor Barbara Regenspan’s Official Statement to the Colgate Community

Profesor Barbara Regenspan

To the Maroon-News:

In response to the Maroon-News’ generous invitation to me to present “my side of the story,” I include here a summary of the kind of responses I have received in the wake of my initial response to Matt’s speech, and my responses to them.  I have learned a great deal from them. I understand that my messages have “gone viral” around the Internet. I have intentionally avoided looking into these links, which I understand are from sites with no connection to Colgate.

I have received numerous visits to my office from supportive students who listened with great compassion to my assessment of the challenges facing us and what they could learn from my mistakes in addressing these challenges. I want to especially thank Professor Spencer Kelly, Matt’s advisor, for setting me straight about numerous issues and modeling heartfelt and appropriate loyalty, warmth and respect for his hard-working and serious student advisee, and to Professor Chris Vescey, who is taking seriously the significance of all that has occurred as worthy challenge for our professor’s union, the AAUP.  Many people at Colgate including the director and other officers of Campus Safety, Lynn Rugg and Kim Taylor have expressed concern for my well-being and safety. 

Although three out of four of the over fifty email messages to me convey appreciation for what is described as my “courage,”  “correct critique of the campus climate”and support for students who feel excluded from the campus culture, there have been some shockingly crude messages, including one rape threat and one murder threat.  (Neither of these two came from Colgate students, and I forwarded them to Campus Safety.)  

Supportive students have referred to crude and sexist comments in both Colgate lists and the external websites. Apart from a few incoherent messages, I responded to all of the messages generated by Colgate students that were addressed to my e-mail account here. Interestingly, alumni who found my wording and rude stereotyping of Matt intolerable ended up discussing their own serious battles with alcohol addiction, and expressed gratefulness that I was attempting to address a serious issue that has apparently received little attention in the alumni network. To these alumni in particular I took great care to apologize for my tone of sarcasm, especially in my second message to Matt (intended to be a purely private communication), especially in the wake of his apology. I stressed that I regretted reinforcing the stereotype of the spoiled white and rich Colgate male. However, I explained the depth of my anger and anguish about my assessment that we at Colgate are failing as an institution if any student, particularly a student leader, thought it could be appropriate to recount tales of heavy drinking so disruptive that Campus Safety had to respond- this told at an event intended to honor faculty and students for their dedication to working together for mutual growth and learning.  In particular, I stressed that many members of both students and faculty despair about the way unaware privilege and its related drinking culture dominates campus life at Colgate.  

A sad illustration of the above is provided by the fact that three of my favorite students, all serious students, have transferred from Colgate during my time here, charging a fundamentally anti-intellectual student culture characterized by excessive, sometimes dangerous drinking; many faculty have similar stories.  A student in my first FSEM, who has since gone on to earn numerous awards and admission at a prestigious graduate program, was raped by her drunken boyfriend as a first-year. That incident cost her a year of her life and me incredible anguish.  Since then, a Colgate rape culture has been acknowledged by numerous campus groups, evenly formally addressed in official programs sponsored by the University.  This rape culture is certainly fueled by drinking.

Some of you are aware that issues of social class are prominent in my research areas of philosophy of education and curriculum theory. Thus I am acutely conscious of how profoundly negative town-gown relations are shaped by the assumption of many students that their drinking is their own business. The idea that students do extensive damage to campus and community property- damage that has to be repaired by other people, almost always people without the economic and related social privilege of the students doing the damage, should be appalling to all of us. The idea that any human being should have to attend to drunken students and their disruptive and destructive behavior at any hour of the day or night, should be a source of shame to all of us as well. Furthermore, there are students at Colgate whose parents do that very sort of work, cleaning up the messes of those more privileged. As we move towards our stated goal of need-blind admissions, we should have more such students on campus. Can you imagine how it would have felt to have been such a student in that luncheon audience?

In my e-mail messages to Matt I saw myself as a tough-loving surrogate parent. I now recognize that this role was inappropriate because I had no previous relationship with him. I also now see that I was wrong about the circumstances of Matt’s medical school interview that he recounted in his speech. I have since realized that he was actually making the point about learning from mistakes, and how appreciated that was at his interview. Ido still stand by the assertion I made to him that people of color and women are less likely to get brownie points after having confessed to a drinking issue to a future graduate program or employer. But this is not something we need to debate here. I apologize to Matt for having misinterpreted the point he was making by telling that story about the medical school interview, and I certainly never intended to suggest that he came by his acceptance without hard work. It was especially patronizing of me to use the words “stupid” in relation to excessive drinking and asking Matt to “join the human race.” Nevertheless, I stand by the assertions behind my unfortunate wordings: our Colgate graduates need to recognize their responsibilities as citizens of the world to work for sustainable patterns of living, both privately and collectively.

Clearly, I unfairly took out on Matt all of my frustration about a campus culture that seems never to successfully challenge patterns of entitlement and excessive drinking that is related to our rape culture as well. And for all of the pain to Matt and to myself in the wake of the irresponsible social networking of private communication, if there is one less rape on Colgate’s campus next year because one or two students have decided not to drink excessively, then all of the ugliness that has been provoked was worth it.   

I in particular want to apologize also for sending e-mails instead of proposing a face-to-face meeting with Matt while pursuing my broader concerns about the campus culture with faculty, alumni, the administration, and the board. I believe that Matt would have welcomed a meeting with me and that we could have experienced constructive dialogue; indeed, even now Matt has graciously acknowledged that he has had another useful learning experience.  And I have certainly been assured by members of the faculty that this series of unfortunate events beginning with the senior luncheon will lead to renewed vigorous attention to issues of our campus culture.

Finally,I also hope that the Colgate community is concerned by the threats of retaliation to me that have been carried apparently not only on anonymous websites with ridiculous names, but also on student e-mail chains in the past couple of days. If it is true that Colgate students are using words like “cunt” to describe a professor (or anybody for that matter), then I think that should bother people more than my wrongful projecting onto Matt of my despair about the campus climate. These postings have been very disturbing to many members of the campus community, including numerous students, faculty and alumni who have contacted me with messages of support. They too believe that our campus culture is threatened by some very immature and under-educated fellow students.  I know that Matt is not directly involved in any of that behavior, but I believe he can appreciate the connection between valorizing out-of-control drinking and student behavior that is morally and legally out-of-control more generally.

I certainly appreciate the love for Colgate that has been expressed by so many students and alumni who have written to me, mostly supportively, in the past few days. In the end, I share their love of this institution, which has been very good to me. I have some renewed hope that there is energy to work towards greater mutual respect in all of our relationships with one another. But to do so,we’ll need to address issues of power, unearned privilege and sometimes competing conceptions of democracy and its acceptable limits; these discussions will be challenging and painful.  We may have reasonable differences in our assessments of where the roots of our problems lie. I can only hope that dialogue around such differences will always be possible.  

Sincerely,

Professor Barbara Regenspan