Burton-Conner housemaster response to front page photo of ‘postering’
I write in my capacity as the Housemaster of Burton-Conner to respond to the campaign of retaliation that began on Sunday night Sept. 22 and was continued by your publication in The Tech on Friday, Sept. 27 of a poster indicating that Burton-Conner was “subject to legalese and scare tactics” because “Students [were] attempting to communicate.” This poster and related ones were posted throughout Burton-Conner and in buildings across campus on or about Sept. 22/23, by a group that identified itself as “Concerned Connerside,” but reportedly involved students from many parts of campus. “Legalese and scare tactics” must refer to my raising a Title IX concern, since that was the only rationale given, and repeatedly, by MIT for removing certain murals and graffiti from the walls of Burton-Conner.
By posting this image, in which the text of the poster can be clearly read and hence its message clearly communicated, but without any accompanying story to put the poster in context, or to offer another point of view, the Tech has effectively spread the postering effort to an even broader compass of the MIT community, including those who are not on campus regularly but do read The Tech, in its online version for example. This cannot be construed as a “neutral” news item when only the poster itself is allowed to speak to this wide forum. I was not interviewed about this poster.
This controversy began when we raised a concern to the Division of Student Life about a potentially harassing environment on one floor of Burton-Conner as evidenced by the totality of the wall art and permanent graffiti in its public spaces. (Once again, I will forbear from making public what was found on those walls, with the exception of two examples below, because it had not been my intention or role to publicly humiliate any residents of my dorm. Certain residents, not I, saw fit to take this matter beyond our dorm, and repeatedly so.) They agreed that the material on the walls and the décor of the lounge were inconsistent with the values espoused in the MIT Mind and Hand Book and likely to run afoul of Federal and State civil rights and anti-harassment legislation, which among other things highlight the well-established nexus between intoxication and sexual harassment/violence. The material at issue was removed, “immediately” as Federal Title IX guidance explicitly requires, and some students have been angry ever since.
I do not want here, however, to respond to the substantive issues of either U.S. civil rights law (more comprehensive than many in the community seem to realize), or First Amendment protections of free speech (more limited than many in the community seem to realize — it cannot be used as a shield for sexual harassment, for example). I am not an expert in this body of law, nor the person on this campus designated with being so. I will note that such experts and designees do exist. My colleague Professor Chris Capozzola is teaching a course this fall term titled, “Gender and the Law in U.S. History” (21H.320J/WGS.161J). He is an expert. Dean Barbara Baker is the MIT Title IX Coordinator for students. Her counterpart for employees is Alison Alden, Vice President for Human Resources, and as of Monday Sept. 30, MIT has a new Title IX Investigator, Sarah Rankin. They are all charged with the communication of these regulations to the MIT community, as well as the enforcement of them for the protection of all members of the community.
What I do want to do in this letter is to tell a story; a story which informs every aspect of the decision making I have engaged in since first discovering the harassing material on the walls of the residence hall that has been entrusted to my care by MIT.
In the twilight hours of Labor Day in 1979, my family, while driving home from a weekend backpacking trip, was struck by a drunk driver. Our car was hit broadside at considerable speed, rolled over twice, and crushed my brother who, as the driver had taken the brunt of the impact. My father, who had been sitting behind him, suffered a broken back and numerous internal injuries. I was lucky. I had been asleep, and when thrown from the car, I woke up only gradually with a broken collarbone and a series of relatively minor lacerations on my head. My mother, who had escaped from her seatbelt physically unscathed, suffered the much worse trauma of witnessing the carnage alert and in possession of her full faculties. Our beloved family dog ran off into the forest, blessedly emerging three days later at a Ranger Station, hungry and scared. We were later told that she was only lured home by an entire box of Oreo cookies.
Because this accident occurred in the mountains, and at the close of a holiday weekend, the nearest hospital was far away and ambulances were in scarce supply. My father was evacuated first as the person with the most serious injuries, and accompanied by my mother. I was left to ride to the hospital in a second ambulance alongside the intoxicated young woman who had driven into us, suffering a broken nose as a result. As the paramedics settled us into place she managed at some point to ask me casually if anyone had been hurt. Not one to mince words even then, I informed her that my brother was dead, and my father possibly dying. She became hysterical, so much so that she had to be sedated. And I was scolded by the paramedics — what I remember is being yelled at, but that is not a memory I fully trust — for having “upset” this woman, who through her own selfish indulgence had just changed our family forever. Those adults told me that I was supposed to ‘shield’ her from the consequences of her actions. I was 16 years old.
That would be experience enough to make me wince at expectations that in my role as Housemaster I “shield” students from the consequences of their behavior, as so many in the MIT community have suggested to me over the last two months. But there is more to this story of mine that further informs my actions this summer and fall. My brother had been born with only one kidney, and that one in near failure. He had been sick his entire life. His first surgery was conducted prior to his first birthday, and virtually every year after that saw at least one more, culminating in a failed kidney transplant when he was 13. He spent the last five years of his life on dialysis three days per week, dying at 18, from a cause none of us had anticipated. I cannot tell you how many (well-intentioned?) people told my parents after the accident that they should be grateful that it had been Paul who died and not me — after all, I had a future ahead of me and he was likely to have died soon anyway. The wrongful death settlement from the boyfriend’s father’s insurance company reflected the same thinking — it was modest, because the life lost had been of such limited economic value. My parents did not sue. They valued their sanity over money. And there was no justice, as the young woman, a foreign national, fled the country in anticipation of her court appearance. It was the money from this settlement that paid for my first two years of college tuition. Prior to our accident my parents had no savings, having had to declare bankruptcy a few years before on account of my brother’s escalating medical bills.
But let me say a bit more about my brother. His problems had not just been medical. As I suspect many of the readers of this story know all too well, there is something much worse than surgery: bullies. Without properly functioning kidneys my brother’s growth had been stunted, and his facial features were odd. He was covered in scars from years of dialysis needles and too many surgical incisions. For years he had been the butt of merciless jokes, pranks, taunts, and even physical assault. Most adults at the schools we attended then were sympathetic, but frankly useless. No special accommodations had been made for him in the PE locker room. His life must have been a kind of hell that even as his younger sister, I could not comprehend. Who would stand up for such a boy? I tried to all the time, but it was relentless. One day someone else did too; someone I had thought of up to that point as very clever, with a sharp and cutting wit, very tall, and terribly handsome – not someone kids dared to make fun of, but not someone I expected to be compassionate either. That person eventually became my husband, impressing me with his courage to abandon the path of least resistance, to stand up for someone it would have been so easy to either ignore or join in the sport of making fun of. He is still standing up for my brother, every day when he goes to work as a civil rights attorney.
I think one of the reasons I wanted to spend my life as a professor is because college was such a refuge for me: a refuge for my mind, away from the narrow confines of my beach-side, large, public high school; a refuge for my soul, far away from the bullying which had pervaded my childhood school experience; a refuge for my heart, (temporarily) away from my grieving parents who had to figure out how to be a partnership again in the wake of their great tragedy. I also have a debt to repay: a debt to my brother, who in the most literal sense possible paid for my college education. I do not feel this debt as a burden though. I feel it as a gift; as an opportunity to be someone who takes notice, who intervenes even if the cost is high, who holds people to account, but also helps them to restoration and a new way of being in this world.
So let me set the record straight from the many rumors circulating widely around our community. I am not opposed to alcohol consumption. But drunkenness to the point of interpreting a kiss from an underage female as consent and locking protesting freshmen in a trunk (two bits of removed graffiti I do share here) impresses me about as much as throwing stones at a puppy. I am not opposed to sex. But sex used as a weapon of power by the strong against the weak, I have no tolerance for. I am not in favor of censorship. But words and images that are used to intimidate or demean members of our community in ways that do not permit the possibility of dialog or rebuttal, have no place on the walls of this Institute. I will not apologize for defending the law. It is in place precisely to protect those who are vulnerable or fear the kind of retaliation I have been subjected to in these last few months. And I will not be intimidated by a campaign to tarnish my reputation or accuse me of small-mindedness. I have ridden in an ambulance with the intoxicated woman who killed my disabled brother. I will not be deterred in my responsibility to protect the entire Burton-Conner community from harassment by some anonymously authored posters that do not speak the truth.