I did my undergraduate work at a small liberal arts college in Atlanta, Georgia, Oglethorpe University. While I was there, I found a group of friends and professors who were not only accepting but often would encourage young people to find their voice and use it to do good in a larger society. Unfortunately, there did not exist a Gay/Straight Alliance and there was no safe place to go if you were part of the LGBT community. That was 21 years ago. I would have thought things at Oglethorpe would have improved exponentially. Alas, just the opposite has occurred.
Oglethorpe which calls itself a “liberal arts college” seems to have lost the identity and meaning of that illustrious concept. One friend, Brad Fairchild, a local playwright/artist and gay alum of Oglethorpe sent me some very disturbing news about a lecture series taking place at our alma mater. Matthew Franck, the leader of a right wing think tank and a notorious homophobe who hides his bigotry under a very thin patina of academic legalese, was invited by tenured Professor Joe Knippenberg (who equates homosexuality with incest), to deliver the lecture on March 7, 2011 from 4-5 in the Talmadge Room. I feel the need to underscore here that this particular lecture series is being funded by the Koch brothers, the same very uber-wealthy Koch Brothers who continue to fund Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union activities in Wisconsin as well as a long list of anti-gay Tea Party Candidates.
I immediately picked up the phone to investigate what was going on at Oglethorpe. I was informed that University President Schall is out of town and would not be back until March 8. I explained to his assistant, Terry, “I’m sure he has a cell phone and I would appreciate it if he could call me as soon as possible.” Terry was quite nice and responsive. Within five minutes I received a phone call from the acting Provost, Dr. William Shropshire. I remember Dr. Shropshire from the mid 1980’s as a kind and avuncular man. Here is our interview:
The Solipsistic Me (TSM)–Are you disturbed by Matthew Franck coming to Oglethorpe to spread hate?
Dr. Bill Shropshire (BS)–I don’t think it is hate. It has not disturbed me. This is a series of talks about the constitution. For example there is also another talk on Health Care and the constitution and other talks all of which are based on constitutional issues.
TSM–You do realize these talks are being funded by the extreme right wing Koch Brothers Industires?
TSM–Are you not afraid of the message this sends to all of the LGBT Youth at Oglethorpe, not to mention the message it sends to any LGBT faculty?
BS–These people should be able to come here, but they can be shut down by reason from the student body. You should be proud for having an open forum for discussions and ideas.
I wish I could share Dr. Shropshire’s optimism in the face of a not so transparent agenda. Given that the lecture series is funded by the Koch Brothers Industries, and organized and promoted by a powerful faculty member ,we are not on a level playing field. There is a power dynamic that I was disappointed Dr. Shropshire missed. Students may protest, but at the end of the day it is people like Professor Joe Knippenberg who decide grades and write (or do not write letters of recommendation. Dr. Shropshire pointed out that he himself has volunteered for Georgia Equality, for which I commended him. However that does not justify inviting a purportedly academic speaker to spew venom with a transparent agenda under the guise of academic inquiry.
I must also acknowledge that Dr. Shropshire was quite respectful during the interview, but not wholly aware of his status and privilege as a white heterosexual male, with the power and OBLIGATION to ensure a safe learning environment for all students.
I also questioned Dr. Shropshire on the tenured Dr. Joe Knippenberg’s equating homosexuality with incest. Click here to see Knippenberg’s own words as he articulates his bigotry towards the LGBT community. One should also note that aside from the ties to the Koch Brothers, Oglethrope also has two board members that are tied to Chik-Fil-A, yet another HATE group. The overarching question is, how can we rely or count on any type of integrity or objectivity from organizations that have a proven record of bigotry toward the LGBT community? As I asked Dr. Shropshire: “How can any one in the LGBT community feel safe at Oglethorpe?”
Impact on LGBT Alumni: Jonelle Thomas, “I’m so disappointed that OU is allowing this stain on its reputation to persist. I’m really quite baffled by it…” Julian Draven, “As a private institution, is it within the bounds of OU to become an ultra-conservative right wing school? Is that what they are aiming for? Perhaps I am remember my collegiate experience with rose-coloured glasses, but I do not think such a thing would have flown 20 years ago. I shudder to think that one day I might be seen as a neo-con because I attended OU.” Madeleine Picciotto, a former O.U. faculty member on Matthew Franck: “We should not be taken in by faux-intellectualism, and Franck’s insistence on playing the victim card.”
For me, this reminds me of the FRC being offended that the SPLC called them a hate group. Sorry, Franck, you don’t get to be both the persecutor and the victim at the same time. Finally, faculty and administrators need to realize that what they look at as lofty academic discourse is involving real people’s lives–the personal is political. From the perspective of a young LGBT student it would appear that these academicians hide behind “intellectual” discourse without regard to the real impact on people’s lives.
I would like to thank, Brad Fairchild, Troy DeGroff, Jonelle Thomas, Julian Draven, and Madeleine Picciotto for their help and inspiration in creating this article. As long as Olgethorpe continues to make choices that endanger LGBT students I will not donate any money. Furthermore, I encourage all people that support equality to protest Matthew Franck appearance and STOP DONATING MONEY TO Oglethorope. I welcome comments on this blog and am still waiting to hear from President Schall.