Letter to the editor from the president of Tarleton State University

Posted on 26 Mar 2010 at 8:59am

The president of Tarleton State University sent this letter to the editor clarifying the school’s position on the controversy that has arisen about a class project that involved production of an except of the Terrence McNally play “Corpus Christi.” Click here for original story.

To the Editor:

In the past week, our community has heard and read passionate statements as a result of a student’s decision to present selected material from the play “Corpus Christi.”  The opinions expressed in the emails and phone calls received at Tarleton range from those declaring the play blasphemous and degrading to those stating the need for us to support the freedom of speech rights of the student.   Emotions surrounding the issue were heightened by some misunderstanding about Tarleton’s association with the production.  Please allow me to give some information.

  • The university does not endorse the play.
  • The play is not a University-sponsored production in the Fine Arts series at Tarleton.
  • The play is a project for a class.  It is not intended for the public any more than a student’s math assignment.

  • The performance is part of the student’s project.  It is not open to the general public.  The audience includes only the class members and family members invited to attend.
  • The play is a class assignment in an advanced directing course.  Students in the class were allowed to pick any play in order to produce an abbreviated workshop performance.
  • Direct costs associated with the production are paid for by the student director.
  • The actors are volunteers and no student is required to be in the play.
  • Any student in the class who finds the material objectionable will not be required to attend.
  • There are eight other abbreviated performances being presented as part of the class, including such classics as “The Importance of Being Ernest” by Oscar Wilde.

Although Tarleton has not endorsed “Corpus Christi,” the university is receiving many emails and phone calls asking why we are permitting the play to occur.  As a public university we are legally bound to allow the student production to go forward.   We have had many conversations with the Office of General Counsel for The Texas A&M University System and they have made it clear to us that this is an unambiguous freedom of speech (First Amendment) issue.  The Supreme Court of the United States has consistently held that public universities may not engage in the sort of censorship that prohibiting this student’s project would involve.  This concept was reaffirmed by the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act which stressed that students should not be intimidated, harassed, or discouraged from speaking out.

Like every citizen of the country, the student who chose to direct excerpts from the play enjoys his right to free speech.   This right is protected by law even if the speech is offensive to others.  But, again, it is important to understand that this is not the university’s speech; it is the student’s speech.

When actions and words are particularly offensive, the freedoms we enjoy can often lead to lively debate.  As an educator, I believe the debate should be conducted with civility and respect.  That is exactly what I expect from our Tarleton family and that is what I have seen from the campus community.

As you might imagine, many people have shared with me quotes, excerpts and even video clips of the play.  My personal reaction is that I see no artistic or redeeming quality in the work.  I believe, as many have opined, that it is offensive, crude, and irreverent.  It is my sense that there are significant numbers of faculty, staff and students at Tarleton who share my views of the play.

I am deeply saddened that so many people offended by the play believe that the University is endorsing it.  We are not.  I am hopeful that people will judge us against our 111 year history of providing exceptional quality educational opportunities for students rather than against this one unfortunate event.

By this letter, I want the community to know we have listened and understand your concerns.  I regret this matter has caused so much worry about the university to which you have shown such loyalty and affection over the years.  To those who have written, called or stated your thoughts to me or others at Tarleton, I want to say thank you for taking the time to express your opinions.  My hope is that one and all will see the university is committed to abiding by the law of the land and to being an important and valuable asset for our community.

Sincerely,

F. Dominic Dottavio, President

Tarleton State University

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