By Gauri Mangala, News Editor
On Tuesday morning, Apr. 23, Joshua Wagner ‘19 was announced to the senior class as the student Commencement speaker for this year. Later that morning, print-outs of an article Wagner had written for The Gettysburgian’s 2018 April Fools issue entitled “13 Places Safer than FIJI Basement on Friday Night: Number 11 will Shock You!” were pinned to bulletin boards on the first floor of Glatfelter Hall with a Post-It note attached reading “Your Commencement Speaker.” Portions of the print-out were highlighted: “Safer than FIJI Basement,” “Joshua Wagner,” “6. OJ Simpson’s bedroom,” and “10. The extras’ dressing room on the Cosby Show.”
Cassie Hays, Assistant Professor of Sociology, pinned up the articles after being forwarded the speaker announcement. She also went on to discuss the article in her “Race and Ethnicity” sociology course. Specifically, the class discussed whether or not the fact that the article was a satirical list intended for humor was okay.
“There’s many things we have that we consider to be satirical that we longer find to be acceptable — blackface, for example, that’s satirical. That’s a satire. We no longer consider that to be acceptable,” said Hays. “We maybe don’t fire Governors of Virginia but we at least, you know, put them on notice. The Garthwait photo — there’s another example of a photograph of someone dressed up imitating or as a character in a satirical TV show wearing this sort of Nazi regalia. And, certainly, I think a lot of students felt that satirical representation to be unacceptable. Is there a line for sexual assault? Is joking about sexual assault – for whom is it acceptable and for whom is it not? What does that say about one’s positionality and power? So that’s another thing that came up a lot in our class yesterday. Who gets to see this as abstract enough that it’s funny.”
Hays met with Vice President of College Life and Dean of Students Julie Ramsey on Thursday as College Life found the posters a potential violation of the Policy and Guidelines for Public Expression, Invited Speakers, and Distribution of Written Materials on Campus of the college. Section 3(d)a states, “Any postings must clearly identify the name of the organization or individual responsible for the posting. In addition, contact information for the organization or individual must be included. Specifically, a valid Gettysburg College email address or valid Gettysburg College group alias email must be clearly visible on the poster.”
Hays has since put up more posters. “I mean these are his words right?,” she said. “And confronting somebody with their own words, not even on their private Facebook page – this is a public forum, it is meant to represent our college, it is meant to vetted by various levels. He put this out there, he thought this was funny, presumably. There are certainly students who have been walking through [Glatfelter] cackling about that and laughing about them… People get to have their reaction to it.”
Some of the posters hanging now have notes written on them, circling the part of the print out that says “April Fools’ special edition” saying things like “read more carefully. get a sense of humor.” and “what should we be angrier about, a JOKE article or rape culture on campus?”
In regard to the notes, Hays commented, “The acceptance of this and the laughing of sexual assault is actually support for rape culture. This [article] itself is evidence of rape culture on this campus. I think that by laughing, by treating sexual assault as a joke, and then by also saying that ‘it’s as scary as all these black and brown people around the world, let’s demonize some black men, some scary black men’ that itself sort of supports rape culture on this campus. This is not an article critical of rape culture. This is actually an article supportive of rape culture.”
In response to the resurfacing of the article, Wagner said, “By printing the article in the Opinions Section, I was hoping to start a dialog about what we were doing to stop sexual assault at Gettysburg College. I in no way meant to trivialized the matter. In tackling this problem, I think that we should use all of the rhetorical tools at our disposal including satire.”
Emma Stejbach ‘19, who was an unsuccessful nominee to be the commencement speaker, remembered the article from its publication last year. Two weeks after the publication, Stejbach, who was at the time president of the Panhellenic Council, Colin Kowalski, then-president of the Interfraternity Council, co-authored a response opinion entitled “Not a Laughing Matter: Greek Life’s Perspective on Sexual Assault Awareness.” In the piece, the pair wrote about the efforts of Greek organizations on Gettysburg’s campus to improve student safety, especially during April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Stejbach recalled to The Gettysburgian, “When it initially came out, Colin and I were both not only in charge of both the governing bodies, but we worked in the OSAGL [Office of Student Activities and Greek Life] office, so we were very aware of the way that it impacted people. For Colin, just being closer to fraternity life, [he] was very concerned with potentially painting an incorrect narrative about fraternities. I was more concerned with what it means for rhetoric like that to go unchecked.”
Stejbach went on, “When we had reached out to him to [say] ‘if you want to come and express your concerns, if you have a valid concern about student safety, why don’t you come talk to us.’ And those emails, to the best of my knowledge, were not answered.”
When Stejbach heard that Wagner was up for speaker, she reached out to Director of OSAGL Jonathan Allen. “I said, ‘Heard this is the commencement speaker. Just so you know, there will be reactions if this goes through.’ I sent the link. … I became involved because I had voiced that concern to Jon and found out five days later that he decided that he was not going to share that information.”
Olivia Lanctot, President of the Class of 2019 and member of the committee that selected Wagner, spoke about the students of the committee’s discomfort with being in the dark.
“The committee and I were not aware of this article prior to voting,” Lanctot said. “A student came forward to voice their concern to the administration prior to announcement. However, the administration withheld the student concern from the selection committee. The vote for the student speaker was a tie, and the administrators involved broke the tie and selected Josh as the speaker.”
Allen suggested that this year’s selection process was the same as in year’s past and that he did nothing out of the ordinary.
“I cannot stress enough that this year’s process, with the exception of the written speech review and the addition of more student representatives, followed the same established process that has been used for years,” he said. “Regarding the concerns that students feel I withheld information, I don’t believe this to be true. I do believe I acted appropriately and in accordance with our process. The article in question has been part of the public domain, through print and online distribution, for over a year. While I was aware of it when it was published, by the time our selection process started I would not have been able to recall most of the content or the author if someone had asked me. It was only after the committee had voted to nominate Joshua Wagner that I was reminded of the article.”
After the announcement of Wagner’s selection, a petition circulated by Stejbach has been disseminated via a variety of email aliases around campus, called “Petition to Replace the 2019 Student Commencement Speaker.”
The preamble of the of the petition reads: “Josh Wagner was recently named the 2019 student commencement speaker. He authored an article in the Gettysburgian last year that used sexual and domestic violence as punchlines for an April Fools’ Joke article. When given multiple opportunities to express concerns about sexual assault on campus, provide a clarifying statement, apologize to those affected, or retract the article, he chose not to. Student concerns about this article, which were raised with the administration, were withheld from the voting committee during the selection process for commencement speaker. Many students, including some members of the voting committee, are concerned about valorizing someone as a representative of the Class of 2019 who promotes this problematic discourse around sexual and domestic violence on campus. Signing this petition indicates your support for the committee to replace the speaker.”
The petition calls for signatures from students, faculty, administration, parents, support staff, and alumni. As of 8:00 pm on Thursday, April 25, Stejbach said the petition has received 272 signatures. Stejbach did not reveal the names of the creators of the petition, but provided The Gettysburgian with a comment from them.
“There have been comments from mostly students, but also parents and alumni,” she said. “It ranges from being personally affected as victims of sexual/domestic violence, to the administration not doing enough about this, to feeling as though Josh is not a good representative.”
Wagner said that none of the petitioners have contacted him directly about the article.
“The petition seems misdirected to me,” said Wagner. “The organizers have not reached out to me concerning the article, but I hope that they know that I do take sexual assault seriously. If they had a petition that tasked the administration to stop sexual assault at Gettysburg, I would be the first to sign it. As an advocate against sexual assault, I am saddened that they are using me as a symbol of a broken system.”
Allen added that circulating the article to the selection committee would have subjected Wagner to heightened scrutiny that other candidates had not received.
“A review of publication, social media posts, or other public forms of expression are not part of our selection process,” said Allen. “As previously mentioned, the candidates are judged on well-established criteria related to the speech they wrote and their ability to deliver it. To judge Josh with additional criteria that other candidates were not held to is fundamentally unfair.”
Todd Sammis, Secretary of the Class of 2019, voiced to The Gettysburgian a need for a better process of selecting class speaker.
“Through the selection process, the only factors taken into account were the speech and its delivery,” he said. “The committee neither collected resumes from the candidates nor asked for any submissions to any on-campus publications. To be clear, neither the Class of 2019 officers nor the greater selection committee endorse the Gettysburgian article in question, nor the use of sexual assault as a punchline.
However, we take pride in our conduction of the selection process and therefore stand by the results of it.”
He added, “Following a discussion with administrators, we have found that there has been backlash upon the announcement of the student Commencement speaker before. Situations like these in the past have proven themselves to demonstrate the potential for personal growth and development at Gettysburg College and hope that this situation can be a continuation of that.”
For the college’s part, Ramsey said in an email Thursday afternoon, “I met earlier today with the faculty member who reportedly put up the posters. She now has a copy of the policy and I have encouraged her to comply with the spirit of the policy. I have also met with the sponsor of the petition, the senior class officers and the selected Commencement speaker to encourage them to come together for productive dialogue around these concerns.”