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Does Providence College See Me as a Virus?

The events of the last week have been dizzying, and I would like to clear up the record on several matters.

In February, Christopher Arroyo, an associate professor of philosophy at Providence College—a Roman Catholic, Dominican institution—invited me, with the support of multiple departments, to give a lecture on same-sex marriage. We set a date for September 26. Last Saturday, in an e-mail sent to the Providence faculty, Provost Hugh F. Lena abruptly canceled the lecture. But then on Wednesday he announced that the college had “rescheduled” my event, this time in the form of a debate with Sherif Girgis, a co-author of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense.

First, I want to make clear my belief that a Catholic college—indeed, any college—has the right to choose speakers consistent with its mission. Obviously academic freedom does not mean that I may speak wherever I want: I have to be invited.

I was invited to Providence College. My planned event was sponsored by the black-studies department, the Development of Western Civilization program, the Feinstein Institute, the global-studies program, the philosophy department, the pre-law program, the public-and-community-service department, the sociology department, and the women’s-studies program. My concern, therefore, is not for my academic freedom, but for that of the nine unit heads who were suddenly overruled by the provost, on the basis of a policy that he has since admitted is written nowhere.

The original arrangements were for a lecture followed by a question-and-answer period. Just last week I agreed to a change in format that would have included an “official respondent,” a theology professor at Providence College, Dana L. Dillon. But the provost decided that Professor Dillon was unsuitable as a respondent to me, initially declaring that she would have insufficient time to prepare and later claiming that “philosophical and legal arguments” were outside of her realm of expertise.

As Fred Drogula, president of Providence’s Faculty Senate, pointedly asks, “Is the administration henceforth to rule on whether and when each of us is prepared to speak in our areas of expertise?” (Drogula’s letter, which has been posted to Facebook, is worth reading in full.)

Second, notwithstanding the current spin from Providence College’s administration, my event is not being rescheduled. It is being replaced with a different event.

I agreed initially to give a lecture; then I agreed to a lecture with an official respondent. Now I am being invited for a debate. These are three different kinds of academic events, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. I have plenty of experience with all three, and (as I’ve long said) I’d be happy to do a debate at Providence College.

What I’m not happy to do is to aid the administration in the pretense that “the September 26 event was merely being postponed, not canceled, until we could be sure that it went forward in the format in which it was originally proposed,” as Provost Lena’s statement said.

Last, but certainly not least, there is the personal side to all of this. In his “rescheduling” statement, Provost Lena (quite rightly) apologizes to Professor Arroyo and Professor Dillon. As for me, he simply says that the decision to cancel “had nothing to do with Dr. Corvino.” But of course I am the person whose visit he abruptly canceled, in an e-mail sent on Saturday to the faculty. (He has not communicated with me at all.) In two decades of public speaking, on more than 200 college campuses, I have never felt quite so bounced around.

Yesterday a friend asked me how I was doing, and I responded that the media attention was exhausting. “Yes,” he pressed, “but how are you doing? You were uninvited to speak. That seems hurtful, even if not intentionally personal.”

The truth is that it’s difficult not to feel as if the Providence College administration regards me as a sort of virus that might infect students if not blocked by some administration-approved surgical mask. The feeling is sadly familiar, to me and to any gay person. It is the malaise of the closet, the notion that some features of oneself are unspeakable. I am the Other. And if I feel that way, I can only imagine how young gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender Providence College students must feel. It is for them that I remain most concerned.

That’s where “damage control” should be focused right now: the personal harm to LGBT Providence College students, not to mention faculty and staff members and alumni. Pope Francis has called for a “new balance” in the church’s pastoral ministry, and there is an opportunity—yet unrealized—to implement that balance here.

John Corvino is chairman of the philosophy department at Wayne State University and the author of What’s Wrong With Homosexuality? (Oxford University Press, 2013). This post is adapted from a statement on his Web site, johncorvino.com.

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