Monday, June 2, 2008

Background Letter

Below is a letter I wrote to GS students who had contacted me wanting to know what was happening at GS. They had organized themselves into several action groups but were asked by Michael McElreath to stand down and take no action. This is the letter I sent to them and asked them to pass amongst themselves in response to several requests I had for information.

It was the first time that this whole story had been put down as a narrative and there are errors of time in it because of that. You may also access this at

Open Letter to Governor’s School Students

Many of you have contacted me, asking about what has happened at GSE. I understand Michael McElreath has asked the Governor’s School Alumni Association to keep silent about what is going on; he has asked me to do the same. I haven’t gone public about my experience because I believed that the administration of Governor’s School would apologize for their behavior and recommit themselves to the stated values of the Governor’s School program. I no longer believe that any level of the administration will stand up to defend Governor’s School from the attack it is currently undergoing. The GSE value I believed in most was that there was no topic so difficult that we could not find a way to discuss it responsibly and respectfully. I still believe that to be true and think it perhaps more important to practice now than ever before. In that spirit, I hope you will forward this note to anyone you know that went to Governor’s School at any stage.
As an educator, as an academic who often writes about pedagogy, sexuality studies, and the intersection of the two, and as a human being who openly identifies as queer, I feel the only responsible action I am left with is to introduce a public discussion about this issue. Being quiet, I fear, only aids the agents of oppression and discrimination located both inside and outside the Governor’s School administration.

I began teaching at Governor’s School in 2002. The year before there was a Gay and Lesbian Film Series offered as an elective. Since I worked with queer theory in my academic work and had taught classes in Sexuality Studies, I was asked to collaborate on the series. The series has followed the same format since then. I gave a brief lecture about a contemporary issue in Sexuality Studies and we watched a film that reflected concepts from the lecture. In 2004, David Mills, the then DPI Director of Governor’s Schools, after watching the films I planned to offer in the series, asked me to remove Hedwig and the Angry Inch and I complied with his request. Also this summer, he asked us as a faculty to try to avoid controversial issues if possible; “Just don’t go there” was the phrase he offered.

We were given this warning because a parent had become concerned that her son had been introduced to homosexuality (and was perhaps “turned” homosexual) at GSW several years before. This parent’s expression of personal pain attracted the attention of the Carolina Journal, a publication associated with the Pope Center for Higher Education and the John Locke Foundation. Articles published in the Carolina Journal came to the attention of the Alliance Defense Fund, a group located in Arizona that uses its large bankroll, powerful contacts, and substantial email list to threaten litigation that will “protect the freedom of religion, guard the sanctity of human life, and preserve marriage and traditional family values” ( This means the group regularly works to limit the basic civil and human rights of homosexuals.
The Alliance Defense Fund threatened to file a lawsuit against Governor’s School and the Exceptional Children’s division of DPI. It was hoped, I now believe, that the ADF would grow tired of monitoring Governor’s School activities and turn their attention to the next thing. Of course, seldom does a bully grow bored of a victim that responds.

In 2005, we began posting GSE events on the web, and we had parents approve of the movies their children would watch over the summer. While this took away some of the spontaneity of GSE, I thought it was a wise response. It indicated that as a program, we had nothing to hide and we believed in both what we were doing and how we were doing it.

In 2006, I was told I would not be allowed to offer the Human Sexuality Film Series at all. It was not a matter of the topics, the lectures, or the appropriateness of the films. In fact, I was assured, the film series was exactly the sort of thing that GSE should be offering students: an introduction to contemporary academic work presented in the proper format. I was also asked to censor the novels I would be teaching in my Area I class and told to remove any reference to sex they contained. I was assured these actions would be taken for this summer only, that the ADF had threatened to watch us closely this summer and would file a lawsuit if they felt we were including any material that was inappropriate, including any work that presented homosexuality as anything other than immoral. This they felt, violated North Carolina’s abstinence-only sex education policy. I did not offer the film series, censored the books, and discussed with students what it felt like to be a teacher taking actions that were homophobic and violated basic tenets of academic freedom. Our students that year also offered several thoughtful, reflective explorations and responses of what it meant to be students under such a system.

In 2007, although I had been assured the Human Sexuality Film Series would be brought back, I was informed the first week of school that Tom Winton, the new DPI director of Governor’s School, would not allow me to show the four films I had listed for the film series. These were the only four films he ordered us not to show, despite the fact that all but 8-9 parents had already approved their children to watch these films. Michael McElreath convinced Tom to allow us to show Ma Vie En Rose, the first film in the series. Michael also asked me, per Tom’s order, to remove the word “sexuality” from the film series title, as the title would go on the website. I renamed the now lecture-only elective “The Film Series That Dare Not Speak Its Name or Show a Film”.

Tom had asked us earlier in the summer to plan our curriculum being aware of what someone outside of GSE might think if they saw it on the website. As a faculty, we had expressed great concern that planning what to teach and how to teach it based on what an imaginary group of people (Tom refused to confirm that he was asking us to base curriculum in response to the desires of the ADF) might think (a) violated the basic idea of Governor’s School, (b) was generally pedagogically irresponsible, and (c) could never be successful since it was impossible to predict what would upset imaginary people.

As a faculty, we wrote a letter to Tom Winton and Mary Watson (the Director of Exceptional Children, under which Governor’s School is housed) expressing our belief that homophobia lay at the heart of censoring the Human Sexuality Film Series, as well as its title and that planning curriculum to placate a right-wing political organization in Arizona followed neither the general tenets of academic freedom nor the stated values of Governor’s School. When Tom came to meet with us as a faculty, he told us he hadn’t read our letter; we were assured we would not be fired or punished for signing the letter and were asked not to make this situation public outside of the Governor’s School community. Student initiated topics and conversations, however, would be allowed.

During the Talent Sharing program (a combination of the Faculty Recital and Talent Show programs of before), the Dance program choreographed a piece that investigated what it was to be performers and educators at a time of censorship and homophobia. As part of the piece, a member of the Theatre faculty read portions of the letter to Tom and Mary in a stylized, performative manner. At the end, faculty members who had signed the letter stood and recited their names. The students gave the performance a standing ovation. Neither Tom nor Mary attended this performance nor was there a recording made of it.

An Area III class did a class presentation about the ongoing problem of censorship at Governor’s School. As part of their research, they interviewed both Michael McElreath and I, asking us as one question what we thought DPI’s response should be. I expressed my desire that all levels of Governor’s School administration defend the stated values of Governor’s School and protect its faculty members and students instead of attempting to please ADF. Tom and Mary attended this student presentation, as did I, and we all expressed our pleasure at both the quality and quantity of research the students had undertaken.

The semester ended with a faculty that was gravely concerned about how Tom, Mary, and Michael would continue to react to the threats of the ADF; at the same time, we were looking forward to the continued discussion of an issue that currently challenges many campuses. While many of us hoped that the administration would finally stand up for Governor’s School, its faculty, its students, and its alumni, we also believed the negotiation would continue between all the players as it had for the last 4 years.

The Friday before Christmas, I received a 3 sentence letter from Mary Watson indicating they would be taking my position in “a different direction.” There was no reason given; despite six summers of outstanding evaluations and student reviews and no complaints about anything I had taught or how I had taught it, I was being let go. I found out that the Dance faculty and one member of the Theater faculty has also been let go. They were informed their dismissal was because they had taken part in the performance at Talent Sharing; I was never given a reason for being let go.

About six weeks later, the four other members who had been dismissed were given meetings with the administration and were offered their positions back. I have yet to be given a reason for my release, although Michael has expressed his belief it was because I appeared in the student film. While he offered to meet with me and discuss this, I declined. Michael has assured me he did not want me fired, so I feel Tom and Mary trotting him out to recite their “explanation” is insulting to both Michael and I. I believe I deserve the same treatment offered the other dismissed (ultimately rehired) faculty members.

Neither do I believe I was failed to be rehired because Mary was upset that I appeared in a student film. Mary has been an administrator and has risen to a position of responsibility in DPI; if she fired everyone who questioned her policies, I doubt she would have attained her position or been able to keep it. Much like teachers, administrators are used to people who question decisions and do not dismiss every person who disagrees with them. Both are jobs that require a thick skin. (Can you imagine being kicked out of GSE for questioning why you couldn’t go to Arby’s or your curfew?)

Instead, I believe I was fired very simply for who I am and what I teach and as a direct result of the continuing attack from the ADF. I publically identify as queer and identified myself as such to Tom when he came to speak to us. (I expressed that systematically removing anything vaguely associated with homosexuality was homophobic, alienated queer identified faculty, and was dangerous and unfair to students who might be dealing with their own sexual identifications.) Tom, Mary, nor Michael has ever expressed any displeasure with my teaching; in fact, I’ve only received praise from all the directors I have worked under. No student or parent has ever expressed any concerns about any of my classes or electives and my student evaluations have also been outstanding.

Very simply, I was not fired for doing anything wrong. I was fired because, either directly or indirectly, my presence serves as a point of attack for the ADF. A simple Google search finds both academic and activist work I have done regarding sexuality in general and homosexuality and queerness specifically. I think dismissing me is, again directly or indirectly, an attempt to placate the ADF and avoid a lawsuit. Therefore, the failure to rehire me (over the wishes of Michael) is based on homophobia and is an active example of violating basic tenets of academic freedom.

No one loved Governor’s School and its pedagogical theories more than I did. I learned more from students and colleagues than I ever taught and being a member of that community was the highlight of my year. Teaching has a host of metaphors associated with it; I always thought the best metaphor for GSE was building a dwelling. As a faculty, we had to find out what skills each student brought to the table, teach a variety of new skills, review the history of dwellings and highlight the strengths and weaknesses of each style, provide materials students might need, and make sure everyone was building safely. Some students reconstructed the houses of their parents, while others went with a whole new style; some built with materials they were familiar with, while others wanted to try more innovative methods. The role of faculty was not to issue blueprints, but to monitor each student’s construction, helping when asked or when required for safety. Watching you all, on the quad, in the classroom, in the cafeteria, in the gyms, and even at Whole Foods, construct yourselves and your community always touched me deeply and made me proud. My greatest sadness out of all of this is that I can’t be a part of that process again.
As a teacher, you always hope that both you and your students will always continue to learn, will always find learning situations in life. I believe this is such an occasion for both Governor’s School as an institution and for the individuals who make up the Governor’s School community. You have been asked to keep the challenge Governor School faces to yourself. I believe you must each determine what you want your response to be; it is for neither Michael McElreath nor me to determine what your response should be. I have reached the point where I can no longer sit quietly and complicitly with discrimination, where I must fight for the heart of the institution, not just to continue the institution in name. Once you decide where you are with this situation, below are some possibilities for action if that is the path you choose.

Support GSE faculty. They are in a difficult position and at the center of a maelstrom of competing forces. I do not envy their position and they need to know you, as I do, believe that they will make the best decisions they can throughout this challenging process. Drop them a line or give them a call and let them know you are thinking about them. Ask what they need for support, now and this summer.

Contact Mary Watson and express your concerns for Governor’s School as an institution. Let her know about your own experience at Governor’s School and what you as an alum believe Governor’s School is, was, and should be. or 919.807.3969

Contact Tom Winton and express any concerns you have. Let him know about your experiences at Governor’s School and what, as an alum, you want Governor’s School to be, do, and value. or 919. 807.3982

Contact your local state representative and tell him or her about your experience at Governor’s School and urge them to find out what is going on there now and to contact Tom and Mary.
Contact your local media and tell them about what is currently going on at Governor’s School. Urge them to investigate and to contact Tom and Mary.

Inform students that are going to Governor’s School this summer what is going on there currently. Urge them to contact Tom and Mary with any concerns.

Talk to and support each other, particularly students who identify as queer. They may be having particular challenges with this situation.

Consider what you define as a form of appropriate protest. Share that with others, along with your own hopes and fears. Use the support of the powerful group that you are.

Read about Terry Sanford and the origins of Governor’s School, as well as its theoretical underpinnings. If you can find one, you should read Opening Windows Onto the Future: Theory of the Governor’s School of North Carolina. Published in 1974, it still contains basic pedagogical theories Governor’s School follows today. North Carolina has much to be proud of for the program and everyone associated with it should be proud of being a member of this community. Knowing your heritage is crucial to defending it.

I hope this will give everyone a chance to remember what was best about Governor’s School, what you learned while there and how your experience shaped you, for better or for worse. Thank you for including me as a member of the GSE family; it was an honor and a privilege. Despite the ugliness and disrespect in its ending, the experience has made me a better teacher, a better student, a better person, a better citizen, and a better friend. My colleagues were and are people I like, respect, admire, and will miss. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help anyone during this time or with this situation. The time has come to see what we can build, both separately and together.

Tanya Olson Area I-English/Area III Instructor GSE 2002-2007

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