Response to Kimberly Peirce Protest

Dean of Faculty responds to student protests of Boys Don't Cry writer and director.

Kevin Myers | December 12, 2016

On November 11, 2016, at a public event on campus, Kimberly Peirce, the director and writer of Boys Don't Cry, was met with signs bearing profanity-laced slogans, and her talk was disrupted by a small number of Reed students.

John Kroger, Reed’s president, in response to the event, stated, “expressing dissenting viewpoints is central to intellectual debate, as is made clear in Reed’s dissent policy. All views, however, must be expressed in a way that does not deliberately obstruct others from sharing their ideas. Such conduct has no place at Reed College.” 

Reed’s dean of the faculty, Nigel Nicholson, was present at the event and issued a statement to the campus community in the student newspaper, Reed College Quest (full text below). He stated, “[t]he principle that a speaker, any speaker, should be treated with respect was explicitly rejected.”

Nicholson also said of Peirce, “she was very gracious in the face of considerable hostility” and “did a remarkable job respectfully and patiently addressing the concerns of the protesters.” He said, “Many speakers would not have hosted a discussion under such pressure, but the resulting Q&A led by Peirce proved to be genuinely productive.” Nicholson called for the community to “reflect on what happened and make a determination not to repeat it.”

Nigel Nicholson's letter as it ran in the Reed College Quest

How Do We Want to Treat Our Guests?
By Nigel Nicholson

Dear Reed Community,

I write today to try to prompt some serious reflection about the standards we should observe in our treatment of (all) our visiting speakers. 

Last Friday, November 11, we hosted one such speaker. Many students find her work inspirational, but others find fault with it, and that of course is their prerogative. I disagree with that position, but, of course, have no problem with such disagreements; they are a central part of what it means to be an intellectual community. We would hardly expect (or even want) unanimity over a speaker’s work.

What was deeply disappointing to me, however, was how some of the students who found fault with the work chose to express their disagreements, and that is what I want to focus on here. 

First, and most simply, some students were deeply rude and uncivil. One called the speaker a bitch. Others carried deeply offensive and accusatory posters. The atmosphere was intensely hostile. The principle that a speaker, any speaker, should be treated with respect was explicitly rejected.

Second, the actions that I saw were not animated by the spirit of inquiry or the desire to learn that usually animates Reed audiences. The students had already decided what they thought, and came to the Question-and-Answer session to make their judgments known, not to listen and engage. Some brought posters bearing judgments and accusations. Others asked questions, that, while grammatically questions (that is, they ended with question marks), were not animated by a genuine desire to explore a question, but rather sought to indict the speaker. It felt like a courtroom, not a college.

Third, some students sought to dominate the space, and to take control of the space away from the speaker. This was done by hanging posters, carrying posters, dominating the questions, coordinating questions, and rejecting the codes of conduct that usually govern such spaces. A visitor to the campus was insulted and all visitors thus made to feel unwelcome.

I was deeply embarrassed and ashamed of our conduct, and I hope that as a community we can reflect on what happened and make a determination not to repeat it.

What happened on Friday night harmed, I believe, the intellectual fabric of this community. Other community members and visitors to the community who wanted to participate in a discussion were largely denied that opportunity. Some left during the initial disturbance. Many will think twice before returning.

Moreover, what happened that night will undoubtedly reduce intellectual traffic and exchange on this campus for the future unless we can swiftly repair the community’s confidence that our guests will be treated well. Outside speakers may or may not learn about what happened, but people within the community will rightly think twice about inviting speakers, given what this speaker was subjected to. People will surely particularly avoid speakers who engage with identity politics and other topics and questions that are especially politically charged.

Is that the Reed we want to see? Is this the kind of intellectual community we want to be?

Nigel Nicholson

Dean of Faculty

Tags: Institutional