Condoms & Crosses at WKU

I am sure most of you have heard about the art student who draped condoms on the Hilltoppers for Life “crosses” display on WKU’s campus. The reaction of the university is an outrage! I sent this to Rachel Maddow today. Help us blog and get the word out that there are two side to this story!

Greetings!

I am professor in the gender & women’s studies program at Western Kentucky University. Recently Rachel Skyped with one of our journalism and broadcasting classes and it was fantastic! I attended as an invited guest.

I am writing about an incident that recently occurred on our campus with the college right-to-life student group, Hilltoppers for Life (led by male students by the way). Here is what happened (from our local news station): “Hilltoppers for life had placed nearly four thousand crosses in the school’s old football stadium to represent the number of abortions that take place in a day. But on the last night of their University approved display, the president of the pro-life group says he captured footage of a student and her boyfriend placing condoms onto some of the crosses.” Unfortunately, Fox News Radio picked up the story and it has gone viral; almost 100% supporting the right-to-life students.

The format of the LIFE project was visual. It was not a letter to the newspaper, a speech given on campus, or a leaflet handed out to passers-by. The HFL chose to participate in public activism by installing their work in a public University space. Their project literally asked for feedback within their installation. So, the art student chose to provide feedback by draping condoms on the crosses. As a professor of gender studies, I feel like this is another attack in the war on women. The display itself was an attack then was exacerbated by the treatment of the art student who countered the “voice” of the right to life students.

The administration is referring to this as an “unfortunate” and disgusting” act. They have called for a public apology from the student and she has refused. Others are calling for the faculty member to not give her a grade (or give her a failing grade) for the course; a direct violation of our academic freedom policy. A simple Google search on “WKU +Art +Condoms” yields hundreds of hits with only negative reactions to the art student’s action. It has been picked up by every right wings news blog and magazine in the country. What bothers me the most here is it seems there is no support for the student or acknowledgement of HER freedom of speech.

The faculty member teaching the class sent me this email:

As we teach our students, actions do not exist in a vacuum and context is important when establishing meaning.  The context into which the Hilltoppers for Life placed their 4,000 crosses project is important in understanding the reaction to the project created by an art student.

First, the topic covered by the HFL installation was controversial, and the group who installed the piece was aware of and emphasized the work’s shock value.  (The scale of the piece was enormous.  It appeared seemingly overnight and without warning early on a Monday morning.  Questions posed were inflammatory, ie: “How do you justify abortion?”)  The work was placed not in front of a church, or in front of the University Center or dormitories.  It was placed in front of an academic building, engaging itself in an academic conversation.  The project was intended to offend some of those that saw it, and did.  As the artist says in her statement: “I had worried that my idea might offend some. However, after giving it a lot of thought, I came to believe that it is no more or less offensive than the original installation of thousands of popsicle-stick crosses, each representing an aborted fetus.”

The student also spoke to me about the voicelessness she and others felt when viewing the installation.  She stated she felt let down by the administration who should have anticipated negative reactions in students and done something to somehow counteract or speak to alternative points of view in an issue so deeply controversial and potentially personal.  “How would someone who had had an abortion feel if they came in and saw that without warning?  They would feel terrible” she told me when I asked why she felt compelled to react to the work.

For wider context: within FAC [our humanities academic building], we sometimes have art exhibitions that we anticipate might offend some viewers.  We are always conscientious about these, and careful to ensure no one accidentally stumbles upon something they might find upsetting.  The students in FAC were not given similar consideration, coming in Monday morning to find their building hemmed in by 4,000 crosses.  As the art student who reacted to the piece stated, she was offended, and concerned for others who might see the piece.

Moving into the present: students in an art class for the Spring 2012 semester have been creating outdoor art installation projects on campus, clustering primarily around the Fine Arts Center (FAC).  Over the past ten weeks, they have created 45 art installations in and around FAC.  A major rule of the class is that installations cannot alter their environment (buildings or plants) permanently in any way, and that any alteration made to a space or structure must be reversible and must be reversed if requested.  To date, including in this instance, this rule has not been broken.

For the week of April 16, an installation of popsicle stick crosses and plastic tablecloths was placed over the entire set of bleachers in front of FAC.  The cloths spelled LIFE when read from the fourth floor, the floor that houses the art department. Pads of paper with a question written at the top and pens for responses were placed in front of the bleachers.  Students from Hilltoppers for Life stood in front of the installation and asked passers-by to respond to questions.

The crosses were placed in the exact spot as an installation done by a student in the art installation class the week previous, and faced three art installations on the FAC lawn.  Whether it intended to or not, the fact that the LIFE project was a visually based installation placed in direct proximity to other art installations, that it was placed immediately in front of the building housing the art department and composed to be read primarily from the art department’s windows (there are no other classroom windows facing the colonnades) made it speak directly to students in FAC and forced the project to read in part as a response to the art projects installed previously in this area.  As the student who made the work stated to me: “I thought – they’re speaking my language, they are speaking to me. They had a powerful visual message.”

To many within FAC, the 4,000 crosses project was an aggressive, politically-oriented piece with one point of view aimed at them, done in poor taste to make them angry and uncomfortable.  Many of the art students in the installation class felt the piece was done with a nod specifically to them, as a reaction to the installations they had made in class, and believed the HFL group was using the tools and language of art.  Based on the words spoken in the video of the encounter between the HFL students and the art student that the HFL recorded, provoking a reaction, potentially from the art students, was an intent of the HFL project.  As spoken by the HFL videographer as he was approaching the artist on the bleachers: “This is the response we are getting from them …. We knew something would happen …. It very well could be an art installation.”

The fact that the HFL students “had permission” to use the bleachers and ampitheatre begs the question of what permission to use a public University space includes. The bleachers and ampitheatre, a heavily trafficked area used by a large number of the campus community for reading, studying, teaching class, eating lunch, etc – were completely covered by the installation and made unusable for any other purpose for the duration of an entire week.  The HFL installation was impossible not to see when entering FAC from most every major vantage point.  The campus community was remarkably respectful of the way in which their communal space had been altered and consumed.  However, on an active college campus, it is naive to think that work placed in public will not be interacted with in any way.  It is also difficult to imagine that rights to use a public space would completely supersede others’ competing rights to use that same space, particularly when a large, well-used space is taken over for a substantial length of time.

To take account for the competing needs and rights of public space, in teaching the installation class, students are reminded that making the decision to place work into the public University arena in a non-classroom space automatically asks for engagement by the public, and the students have to be willing and prepared to take the consequences of that engagement. Additionally, asking either implicitly or specifically for engagement (the HFL work specifically asked for feedback) invites the public to participate in the visual dialog, and such participation should be anticipated.  Nearly every project my students have installed for class has been altered, with three removed completely.  Campus administrators reinforced the idea that students placing projects in public on a busy college campus should prepare themselves for the ways in which their projects might be interacted with, by making it clear to me that if student projects were altered or damaged by public interaction, it was the student who installed the project’s responsibility to “clean up” what was left, not the campus’ responsibility to protect the projects to ensure that they were not altered in the first place.

This art student chose one of many methods available to her in making her voice heard and to engage in the request by the HFL for dialog. Dialog ­ the in-depth discussion of issues from multiple angles such as the type of discussion encouraged on college campuses ­ is complex, takes time, and involves listening in addition to talking. Various ways of stating a point of view, and what the different impact and consequences are of choosing each of these methods, is exactly what a University teaches.  Hands on and active learning are methods we are encouraged to practice, and asking our students to engage publicly in debates of the day and making critical thinking and action relevant to their daily lives is something faculty are asked to do as a matter of course.

Learning and debating are not always pretty or polite processes.  Critical engagement with ideas can get messy.  If we are asked to introduce our students to all the tools of debate and engagement, they will use these tools.  The use and discovery of tools, and the use and discovery of voice is exactly what is occurring on our campus, on both sides of this current discussion.

Unfortunately, this is not a local campus dialog, although it disguises itself as such.  This is an orchestrated, national-scale, politically motivated propaganda machine targeting colleges and universities.  This project pretends to be one about opening a dialog on the issue of abortion.  But instead, it is designed to frustrate and bait students into a response, a response that the National Students for Life of America followers are encouraged to video record and send to the national organization for their distribution and use. In the end, the real danger is that WKU and our students on BOTH sides of this issue simply become pawns in a larger political game and real learning is lost.

We sure could use some help in getting some positive publicity on this matter. It truly is a prime example of the war on women we are facing in this country.

Thank you,

Dr. Molly Kerby

 

 

 

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to Condoms & Crosses at WKU

  1. Kanya says:

    AWESOME letter! I certainly hope this story can be discussed in the media on both sides of the issue. I hated reading the responses on the Fox news page.

  2. So, I work for WKU and this is the first I am hearing about this situation. That being said, I actually heard about it from a political blogger on Tumblr. I wonder if not being aware of the situation is the case for the majority of the staff and faculty on campus. I feel outraged for this young woman and I am outraged that the University wants her to apologize.

  3. Molly Beth Kerby says:

    I think you are right! That’s what I am up to :-)

  4. Jamie Scruggs says:

    Sure, it was the art students right to exercise her freedom of speech. It is also the right wing’s right to exercise their free speech by calling her act disgusting and classless.

  5. EA says:

    I wonder if a pro-choice group asked to use the colonnades for an equally large display if it would be allowed?

  6. Jill says:

    I was with you until the “war on women” part. When I first heard about this, I landed on the side thinking this student was way out of line. After reading your piece, I’m seeing it a little differently and have a better insight into the overall situation and setup of the HFL display and others on campus. It’s unfortunate that the so-called war on women has been brought into it, though. Keep in mind that while pro-choice groups believe the war is on women’s right to choose, pro-lifers believe there is a war on women’s right to be born (considering that many of the babies aborted are female), as well as women’s rights to be fully informed of the choices they’re making and alternatives if they are interested. The phrase is used almost exclusively to support a pro-choice argument, however, and apparently is going to be pulled out any time someone disagrees with the expression of pro-choice views. While I can understand the student’s desire to respond to the statement made by that display, apparently the fact of the HFL students making the statement in the first place (and responding to her actions) constitutes a war on women.

    It is rather presumptuous, after all, to consider simply being pro-life part of a war on women, since a huge number of pro-life people are, in fact, women, and are far from being at war with others of their gender. Simply look at any pro-life group — whether at WKU or the tens of thousands of people every year at the March for Life in D.C. — there’s no denying that more women than you might like to think believe that babies in utero are just deserving of protection as everyone else.

    War on women? It’s war on the idea that it’s okay to kill people for your convenience. Whether you agree or disagree with that stance on the issue, that’s what pro-life people are talking about, and your reference to propaganda should include using wording like “war on women” to try to distort that fact.

  7. Katie says:

    Hi,
    I’m interested in covering this for Jezebel! Could you email me? katie@jezebel.com. Thanks!

    Katie

  8. SR says:

    Way to go Molly. You said it perfectly. I hope this story and your letter gets picked up by the media.

  9. FA says:

    Thank you for this blog. I’m ’10 graduate of WKU and after living abroad, I was disgusted that on my first visit to my old campus I saw that inapproriate display of crosses. At first, I wondered if it was a memorial to soldiers or charity fundraiser for victims of disease. When I finally saw the sign, my stomach churned. Surely, I thought, this was not happening on my campus. Mostly, I dont understand how the administration could have approved this kind of visual moral assault. For me, the display felt violent and not because of the death it supposedly represented but because of the judgment and brimstone mentality that seemed to stand behind it. I applaud the student who drapped condoms. Brava for taking a stand for her rights as a woman, excercising her freedom of speech, and making sure that another side was represented. Any displinary action taken would be unjust and I would happily stand behind her.

  10. Pingback: Abort the Choice? « The Good Days

  11. Mary says:

    Thanks for posting this. It raised some questions about the nature of campus life that I think are not often discussed.

    Firstly, college should be a forum of ideas. It should talk about ideas that affect the world at large, but are also close to home. Abortion is very close to home for nearly all of us. It is worth discussing. What better place to discuss it than a place that should be most open to ideas: a University.

    Having once been a student at a university and being a part of different organizations, I learned that at a public university, as long as you are complying with the University’s policy, you have the right to put voice your opinion, loved or unloved by the public. At WKU, the policy is that you must request the space where you are going to express your opinion. You must give a description of your plans so as to ensure that you are not going to interfere with the rights of others. If the HFL went through this process (which is has been stated several places that they did), then they have a right to their message- loved or unloved.

    As you commented, they were seeking commentary. I went to the display, and there were huge commentary boards, even one that simply asked for general comments. There were people there who were ready to talk to folks, to allow them to speak. That was PART of their display– the promotion of dialogue. I witnessed some very heartfelt and thought provoking dialogues, and it was refreshing to know that people still know how to do that.

    Dialogue only happens when you allow another person’s comment to stand, uninhibited. Anything else is a trampling monologue. This did not seem to be the intention of the HFL. They invited people to look at their comment, and then respond.

    Was the action of the art student a part of dialogue? Yes, she had something to say. I’m glad. While many students choose not to respond to topics such as these, she had an opinion. But her actions were that of altering the original comment. While she wanted to respond on a large scale, in all fairness, she needed to go through the same channel through which the HFL must have been required to go. That was the only way that they were able to say what they desired to say. In the spirit of dialogue, I would love to see her own display on the colonnades, and may another discussion begin.

  12. young single college MOTHER says:

    I don’t think so, that girl could have made her own display and not bothered someone else’s. She could have gone through her own troubles of getting her “art” approved if she felt she needed to respond. They gave her plenty of space even IN their project for her to respond however she felt. What she did wasn’t art, it was just destructive to someone else’s property which actually on a grander scale they have laws against. She was behaving immaturely and should expect all the negativity that follows. This isn’t a war on women, this is a war on babies. If it were all about women being able to choose what to do and not to do with their bodies, why aren’t you people fighting not being able to be prostitutes as well? Let’s grow up and get real people. College is turning out to be a liberal joke.

  13. Nelson Wells says:

    I am a WKU alum and I am extremely disappointed in the administration’s response. I think they are the disgusting ones here.

  14. Kelly says:

    I’m sorry the student was baited & think it’s better to just ignore it. The claims on websites that the pro-life students’ rights were violated are baseless. I can see that they Lund condoms on crosses disrespectful, just as I find the crosses representing abortions disrespectful. But the student removed the condoms, so that should be the end of the story. Start a campus conversation; don’t bait the members of the university community so you can get national attention & pretend you’re doing something to reduce abortions.

    You know why some countries similar to the US in other respects have a far lower abortion rate? Easily accessible contraception.

    Condoms are awesome!

  15. Kelly says:

    I’m sorry the student was baited & think it’s better to just ignore it. The claims on websites that the pro-life students’ rights were violated are baseless. I can see that they find condoms on crosses disrespectful, just as I find the crosses representing abortions disrespectful. But the student removed the condoms, so that should be the end of the story. Start a campus conversation; don’t bait the members of the university community so you can get national attention & pretend you’re doing something to reduce abortions.

    You know why some countries similar to the US in other respects have a far lower abortion rate? Easily accessible contraception.

    Condoms are awesome!

    • Kelly says:

      Sorry for the double post above (damned auto-correct). Just watched portions of the videos, and John Sohl acknowledges that the art student is not vandalizing, says he’s not trying to stop her, & says he’s doing what the national organization told him to do & will tell him to do, which says a lot about whose speech is represented by the display. The anti-abortion sites are twisting the story and manipulating local students so they can Liam to be victims of free speech violations. Tiresome. Parody would seem the appropriate response: “someone expressed a different opinion from mine! My free speech rights have been violated!” One web site is even claiming possible legal action. Way to display sound reasoning skills!

  16. Jimbo Brown says:

    You are clearly quite opinionated, and I appreciate that. However, your bias towards women comes off as “reverse” sexism… I’m sure it was as difficult for you to read through the positive articles of this event, as it was for me to read through your negative account of this event. You seem to be very into yourself, and into women. As you age, I am sure you will become more open to the idea of loving others more than yourself.

    Yours Truly
    -Jimbo

  17. Anonymous says:

    What I got from this is that a request for dialog constitutes outright sabotage of a politically-oriented message, and that anyone speaking for the pro-life movement is a trying to indoctrinate the collegiate population into their belief system by brute force. As annoying and inconvenient as the project was, they had every right to display their opinions, and anyone directly trying to silence them or make a farce of their ideals has infringed the rights guaranteed to them by the first amendment to the Constitution.

    • “anyone directly trying to silence them or make a farce of their ideals has infringed the rights guaranteed to them by the first amendment to the Constitution.”

      No. The Constitution and more specifically the first amendment does not give you the liberty to say whatever you want to say where ever you want to say it without fear of repercussion for your words/actions from other citizens. The only thing the first amendment does is it prevents the government from infringing on your right to speak. The government is not involved in this discussion.

      Though what you do have is a school administration attempting to bully a lone student into complying with their desires because the administration is bowing down to an anti-choice group that’s being backed by conservative media. And WKU doesn’t want the bad press.

  18. Ashley says:

    This is such a wonderful letter and you’ve made excellent points about the issue. I was completely disgusted when I read the comments on the Fox News page. As a student at WKU, I find it to be very disappointing that the university asked the girl to apologize for her actions.

  19. Jonathon says:

    With all due respect Dr. Kerby, what would your reaction be if the situation was reversed, and the HFL member was the one “providing feedback?” Quite frankly, if it’s ok to adjust someone’s art simply because they disagree with the message, is it then ok for someone to walk into the art displays that are housed inside FAC and make changes that would suit them? Why is there a double standard that allows liberals to say or do anything and it be ok, yet if a conservative does the same thing, it’s attacked and demonized? Personally, I think both sides could have done things different…

  20. Attractive element of content. I just stumbled upon your web site and in accession capital to assert that I get in fact enjoyed account your weblog posts. Any way I will be subscribing for your feeds and even I achievement you get entry to constantly quickly.

  21. parenting skills
    My sister appreciated this, thank you parenting skills

  22. Holly Hudnall says:

    I am a Folk Studies graduate student, and my department is also housed in the Fine Arts Center. For a week, every day, several times daily, I got to see the enormous “installation” that covered the bleachers in front of my building. It prompted discussions–though perhaps not the kind of discussions HFL was encouraging. Topics included:
    –We could flip every one of their little crosses upside down in protest.
    –I think I need to make a pro-choice sign and dot their “i”.
    –Can we make a “choice chain” up the sidewalk?

    The “interactive boards” were also places where students placed messages of protest, though I confess many of them were in poor taste, both in matters of grammar and public decency. I sympathized, however, with the irritation of those who posted those messages. The stadium-sized display amounted to a visual assault. HFL’s message of “life” could not be easily read from the elevation from which students normally enter the building, so that many students were simply confused about why the bleachers where we often eat lunch, study, and congregate were covered by crosses and red and black material.

    While I firmly support HFL’s right to speak freely, I think a week-long installation of such magnitude was intrusive, and I fully support the art student’s right to publicly respond to such a display. She wasn’t the only one considering it, she was simply the one voice that responded, in kind, to the display. Personally, I applaud that one voice, and thank her for speaking out on my behalf.

    –Holly Hudnall

  23. So, this went up last night: http://wkuherald.com/news/article_1b89f40e-8ff4-11e1-b2c2-001a4bcf6878.html#user-comment-area

    I cannot say how disappointed I am in Ransdell for attempting to put words in the student’s mouth.

    And the student should get full credit for the assignment, she followed the professor’s instructions and did not alter the primary display permanently. What the anti-choice group is doing is nothing short of petty revenge and bullying.

  24. Catalina says:

    what you provide is very good, i like it so much, thank you, the article you wrote is perfect!http://www.pisconsulta.com

  25. Neha Angal says:

    Thank you for your letter. Frankly, I am surprised that the HFL saw this as an art instillation in the first place. Their booth and large anti-abortion signs directly in front of the display screamed political demonstration. Although I did find this display less offensive than the ‘hell-fire and brimstone” preachers who come to campus and harass people outside of DUC, I did feel it was inflammatory. The most ridiculous part of this whole mess was Ransdell’s choice to pick a side in a situation that was clearly politically motivated. He has made a fool of WKU’s entire campus by choosing to endorse one politically motivated action over its opposite, and by calling for the punishment of those who were exercising their first amendment rights. I am now disappointed to say I go to WKU.

  26. Pingback: The Double Edged Sword that is Freedom of Speech « Saira Says

  27. Former Student says:

    I am somewhat pro-choice, a former WKU student and a professional painter, but vandalism is not art and condoms on crosses is lude.

    While I believe this young lady was within her rights, her display was crude and message-less. Great art must move people, fill them with an emotion for something, but it must also make a point. I may very well be wrong about this – I did not see the display, but I don’t believe HFL was stating in this display that they were against sex, just against the abortion of life created via that medium. So then how does the draping of condoms over crosses representing fetuses already created make a valid statement? I’m just asking the question here because I believe it is a valid one that does not necessarily call for an apology from the student, but a reexamination of her project for quality of work.

    Merely doing something shocking does not qualify said work as something of quality if the work itself is senseless. If that were the case, it would be quite easy to attain an “A” in an art class at WKU. I can hardly wait to see what media attention students seeking shock value without inhibition will cause on campus if this is not dealt with in an academically professional way.

  28. Pingback: A WKU Alumni: Crosses and Condoms « A Bookish Beemer

  29. former art student says:

    I am a former sculpture student at WKU having just graduated with my Bachelor of Arts this past December. Although I am of two minds about this since the freedom of speech is touched upon in this story, I am in strong support of what the art student did as a reaction to the Hilltoppers for Life project. Abortion is a very touchy subject and the members of HFL should understand that when a project like that is done, people are going to be offended. So when an art student completes a project that was meant to counter theirs, they should have seen that coming. HFL did use their freedom to speak what they felt about abortion, but so did the art student and since she countered HFL’s project by place those condoms on their crosses, HFL really had no right to attack back.

    Another thing that I do not agree with is Gary Ransdell made her apologize for what she did. By doing that he violated her right to speak freely and indirectly spit in the faces of the whole art department because speaking freely is the big part of being an artist. For a man who spent 100′s of thousands of our tuition money to purchase all the art around campus that reminded him of the Spirit of Western, his choice to punish the art student instead of the student group for the situation in general is highly hypocritical of him.

  30. This paragraph will assist the internet users for creating new webpage
    or even a weblog from start to end.

  31. Pingback: Get Young Tomorrow and with AntiAging Techniques | Wefindz

  32. Encߋre un mɑgnifiquе poste : j’espère een discuter pluѕ tard avec des amis

    My web site; vieille Nymphomane

  33. Excellent post. I was checking continuously this blog and I’m impressed!
    Very useful information particularly the last part :) I care for such info a lot.
    I was looking for this particular information for a very long time.

    Thank you and best of luck.

  34. performance says:

    I do not even know the way I stopped up here, but I thought
    this put up was once good. I do not realize who you’re however certainly you are going to a well-known blogger in case you aren’t already.
    Cheers!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>