The following is a statement from President Taylor Reveley regarding the Sex Workers Art Show. -- Ed
Last February I became William & Mary’s interim president. The College community on campus and off was in turmoil. One factor fueling the turmoil was a recent appearance at W&M of the Sex Workers Art Show (SWAS). Some believed the show had artistic and social value. Others found it degrading and offensive.
Several student groups have asked that SWAS perform again at William & Mary this spring. For the last three years – 2006, 2007, and 2008 – SWAS has appeared on campus. There is no other place in Williamsburg and the surrounding environs for it to perform. In 2006, the show attracted little attention. But in 2007 and 2008, it fed the cultural conflagration in which William & Mary was then caught.
Right now is an unusually critical time in William & Mary’s long life. We are struggling every day with a very bad economy that shows no signs of getting better soon. We have a huge amount of strategic planning to do during the next couple of months. There are significant legislative challenges ahead. Reweaving the ties of trust and affection within the William & Mary family remains a work in progress. In short, diversion of time and energy from the tasks at hand will cost the university dearly.
Against this background, I am personally very disappointed – and quite frustrated -- to find that the university must think yet again about SWAS. This breeds controversy. It lessens our capacity to move the College forward. This would have been a good year, in my judgment, for SWAS supporters to have called a time out – taken a break.
Despite my disappointment and frustration, there is a very important William & Mary practice that I support. The College has long placed great faith in its students to choose the speakers and performers they invite to campus. The elected representatives of the student body approve the use of student fees to help fund these events, not the administration. This experience in self-government is part of our learning process.
We let this process run its course, even when it results in controversy, rather than try to play the censor. As most efforts at censorship have shown, they’re hard to run – endless lines must be drawn in the sand, many controversies must be waged, and a lot of energy gets diverted from matters of greater importance. For practical as well as philosophical reasons, I will not play the censor.
It is also true, however, that a very important commitment of the university is to the Jeffersonian notion that the free play of ideas is the best route to truth. An example – one of my early efforts as interim president last winter was to reassure people that William & Mary remained a welcoming community for everyone. Just a few weeks into my tenure, I was appalled to learn that a student group had plans to bring a “white separatist” to campus to speak. Other students came to me, anguished, saying I must block the speaker’s appearance because his views were incompatible with university policy, threatened our core values, and might shatter our still fragile sense of community.
The thought that this speaker might tear the campus fabric was chilling. After struggling with what to do, I decided the best course was to let him come and say his piece but urged that he not get a free kick. If he came, he should take questions and engage in conversation with those who chose to attend the event and contest his views. This is what happened. People showed up and debated. The evening proved to be a living, breathing instance of the Jeffersonian ideal in action.
Repeated performances by a controversial group like SWAS, year after year, without a robust opportunity for the free play of ideas does not serve the Jeffersonian ideal. Such a pattern is a singularly sterile way to explore ideas of artistic expression and sexual exploitation. The sponsors of SWAS and its performers must do much better on the Jeffersonian front than they have to date. In addition to performing, they need to provide means for a serious discussion about pertinent issues, conducted with the intellectual rigor and civility characteristic of William & Mary. By the same token, those who find SWAS degrading and offensive should show up, prepared to articulate and defend their views.
I believe people on both sides of the SWAS controversy have the best interests of the College at heart. That being the case, let’s focus on issues of radically greater importance to the long term success of the university than this one.