More than 700 members of the William & Mary community gathered in the Sadler Center Tuesday night to discuss the campus climate after a derogatory email came to light last week. The email, sent by a student to a fraternity listserv, made a series of demeaning references to women.
“Actions that create a climate of hostility towards women – or toward any student – have no place at William & Mary,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler. “We’ve gathered here tonight because we all care deeply about this community and how the events of last week have affected us both at the individual level and as a campus community.”
The email has acted as a “mirror” to the W&M community, said Ambler, “and we don’t like or recognize the reflection that we see. We do not want to be defined by that incident, but rather by our response to it, and that is what brings us here tonight.”
About 300 people -- including many sitting on the floors or standing along the walls -- filled the Tidewater Rooms for the forum while another estimated 400 watched a live stream of the forum in the Commonwealth Auditorium. Students, faculty, staff and community members attended the event, as did President Taylor Reveley, who released a statement last week about the email, calling it “flatly unacceptable.”
Vernon Hurte, senior associate dean of students and director of the Center for Student Diversity, and Susan Grover, University Professor for Teaching Excellence at the W&M Law School, served as the event’s moderators, inviting participants to speak for one to two minutes. Participants in the overflow room were invited to submit their comments on index cards, which were read by the moderators.
Those who spoke raised a variety of concerns, ranging from on-campus safety to support and resources for survivors of sexual assault.
Alex Greenspan, president of Inter-Fraternity council, discussed action being taken by the fraternity presidents to “to educate the members of our community to let them see that this is a real issue, that we play a part in our action or inaction, and to empower those who might have just stood by before. Hopefully they won’t anymore.”
Several speakers noted that, although the email was demeaning to women, it is not just a women’s issue.
“When one group is targeted and people stand by passively, it becomes okay to target other groups,” said one student. “In light of this situation and in light of other situations that have happened on other campuses, it is completely disrespectful to stand by and do nothing because that’s when history repeats itself.”
“We should all be able to feel safe, and I hope that after this incident, we’re all going to take steps to think a little more critically about the actions that we do that contribute to rape culture,” said one student.
“If every man in this room can agree right now that we don’t use that language, that we don’t allow our friends and family members to use that language -- we cut it right then -- that goes a long way,” he said. “We underestimate our personal power and our influence and our circles of influence.”
Many of the speakers called for action, both on the cultural level and on the personal level, with each person taking a stand within his or her group of friends.
“We put a lot of emphasis on building community at William & Mary, and a crucial element of community is respect for one another,” Reveley said in his earlier statement. “This email makes clear we have more work to do. This serious lapse in community will serve as a teachable moment to that end."
The forum was but one of many opportunities for those teachable moments, said Ambler.
“A community like William & Mary is strong because of the relationships we develop, and the most meaningful teachable moments come in the context of those relationships … We need to remain open to talking about these issues in settings both public and private, and tonight is but one important step of many that will come after this evening,” she said. “At William & Mary, we know that teachable moments come every day; we just need to recognize and take advantage of them.”
“It starts with the individual, but it doesn’t stop there,” a student added. “We have to look at the systems and admit that the systems are the problem.”
Following the open forum, participants were divided into small conversation groups led by facilitator teams of student volunteers, faculty, and professional staff from Student Affairs.. Notes from those discussions, as well as the comment cards from the forum, will be used by a working group coordinated by Student Affairs to recommend possible further actions.
At the end of the night, everyone came back together one last time to share final thoughts on how William & Mary – as a community – can confront the issues made visible by the email.
“We are here tonight because we love this community, and part of being a community is that each of us does our part to change the community and to impact the community in a positive way,” said Hurte. “I hope we all leave challenged to look at ourselves and figure out how we as individual members of this community can do our part to have a positive impact ... and to push us to the place that we desire to be.”