On Jan. 31, the VSA endorsed a letter that marked a week’s worth of campus criticism. Days earlier, Dean of Campus Life and Diversity Ed Pittman announced that the LGBTQ and Women’s Centers would host a faculty fellow after the departure of the Centers’ former director, Judy Jarvis ’07. Pittman named Professor and Chair of the Drama Department Denise Walen as the new face of these community resources until the College finds a new director. Despite the Administration’s optimism, many students reacted to the news with serious concern. The charged response to this announcement stemmed from many students’ assertion that Walen has a problematic record dealing with transgender students.
One of the letter’s central tenants is the lack of student consideration in the decision to appoint Walen. As it reads, “The appointment of Denise A. Walen to the position of Faculty Fellow was done without student input, particularly the input of transgender students. Had such input been sought, those students would have told of the repeated misgendering and disrespect experienced in Professor Walen’s classes.”
One student, M McKee ’17, was dismayed by the announcement of Walen’s appointment. Reflecting on the two courses they took with Walen, they wrote in an emailed statement, “I (along with at least two other trans drama majors) was disturbed when I heard Professor Walen had been appointed to this position…Throughout the whole semester, she used the wrong pronouns for me, even when corrected by other students.”
McKee’s concerns were not isolated. JD Nichols ’17 wrote and presented the letter to the VSA. At this meeting, the VSA joined several Spectrum-affiliated organization leaders and members in unanimously endorsing the letter and condemning Walen’s affiliation with the LGBTQ and Women’s Center.
According to Pittman, administrators supported Walen’s appointment. He wrote in an emailed statement, “Professor Walen was chosen from a list of faculty members who have previous commitments to supporting and advising students and based on trusted feedback.” In conjunction with the Dean of Faculty Office, Walen will keep the position until a new Director is found.
The Faculty Fellow is a non-administrative position. As Pittman explained in an emailed statement, the Faculty Fellow is more akin to a House Fellow than an Interim Director as the Fellow helps with programming and support.
Nevertheless, critiques of Walen continue to ring out. Nichols was concerned with a message they felt the administration was sending. In response to their concerns they heard mostly a downplaying of Walen’s administrative authority. But as Nichols states, “The problem is administrative details are the least of our worries. It’s the support capacity that we are most worried about.”
A leader of an identity-based student organization who wished to remain anonymous agreed with Nichols. They said in an emailed statement, “All LGBTQIA students, but especially trans students, already face exclusion and discrimination in every area of their lives and it’s insulting for the school to bring that exclusion into a space that is supposed to be for them.”
McKee’s views echoed these frustrations. They explained an especially excruciating moment during which Walen led a discussion of McKee’s performance as a female character in a play. In their eyes, Walen’s words became invalidating when she emphasized her opinion that the play’s production “boldly put a male body in a dress” despite the fact that McKee had openly explained that they did not identify as male. As McKee recalled, “Her comments struck me as deeply transmisogynistic, and I reached a point where I felt neither respected nor safe in her classroom.”
Walen’s only comment for this article was an emailed statement that read, “I’m looking forward to working with students this semester.”
While cognizant of this student backlash, Pittman’s response suggests that the administration will be cautious to embrace radical changes to their decision. As Pittman wrote, “There are certain opportunities for student input, but personnel decisions are made by administrators. When this decision was made we utilized available input and considered the benefits of Professor Walen’s experience as a faculty member and Class Advisor among other factors…I have confidence in Walen’s ability to support all students who see the centers as welcoming and inclusive spaces.”
Nichols’ comments questioned this assertion. To them, the issue still spoke to a lack of consideration for a particular group the LGBTQ and Women’s Centers are meant to serve: transgender students. As they said, “Obviously the campus body loves [Jarvis]. I don’t think anybody believes that she would knowingly suggest someone who has disrespected transgender students but the problem is administrators aren’t all-knowing.”
They continued, “Some things just won’t have been brought up. Some things can only be relayed by transgender students and when those students are left out of the discussion, stuff like this happens, good people get together and appoint someone who isn’t at all suited for the job.”
Pittman notes that although there are certain limits to student involvement in administrative decisions, everyone may voice concern. As he explained, “I have invited students to meet with me and ultimately with Professor Walen to understand any concerns that exist…My hope is that we can create bridges for dialogue and open conversations where students concerns can be heard.”
In the meantime, however, the fallout from this controversy has left a cloud of confusion hanging over the LGBTQ and Women’s Centers. As McKee expressed, “I expect empathy and respect for all students from anyone associated with the LGBT or Women’s Centers, let alone their leader. I found neither of those in Denise Walen’s classes, and I don’t expect to find them in what was once a safe place.”