My Goddard College MFA-IA Port Townsend Experience
I graduated from Goddard’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program in Port Townsend, Washington in March of 2011. Goddard prides itself on being an inclusive institution. The Non-Discrimination Policy:
Goddard Non-Discrimination Policy
Goddard College does not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, color, national origin, marital/civil union status, age, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, veteran/uniformed service status, disability or other legally protected classification in any of its policies or procedures – including but not limited to those related to admission, employment, the provision of educational services, and the granting of financial aid – or in its services, facilities, privileges or benefits in compliance with and to the limits of applicable state and federal laws. All Goddard scheduled and sponsored programs and activities are open to men and women on an equal basis or on the basis of gender identity or expression. (source)
During my spring 2010 residency, Goddard offered a student-led workshop that was described as being “specifically for women.” The workshop included information about Qigong, a subject that is integral to my art practice. Since the description on the schedule seemed to suggest that men were not welcome I asked the workshop leader, Roslyn, if I could attend. She said no. When I asked why she said, “Because you don’t have the right parts.”
I asked if I could just listen and explained that I was interested in Qigong and that her workshop was the only time during my education at Goddard that anyone offered a learning opportunity so directly related to my movement arts practice. Roslyn again told me that I was not welcome and particularly because I did not have the right parts. When I asked how she knew I didn’t have the right parts Roslyn told me that I could show up, pull my pants down, and the participants would decide if I had the right parts or not.
Another student, Johnny, overheard our discussion and asked, “What if a transgendered person wanted to attend the workshop?” Roslyn said they would not be welcome because they too did not have the right parts. Johnny asked, “What if they just wanted the experience?” Roslyn said it would be too bad. Her message was clear; a transgendered person was not welcome in her workshop and neither was I. Corey, a Goddard support staff member, was in the room and witnessed the entire conversation.
The next morning in the cafeteria, Corey told me that he thought it was good that I asked Roslyn about her workshop because she told him she didn’t expect to be questioned by anyone. Faculty member Laiwan was sitting next to Corey. She overheard our discussion and told us that women need their own space. Corey and I felt that Goddard was an inclusive educational institution but Laiwan felt that we should not have questioned the situation at all. Corey and I agreed that the topic was interesting and worth discussing.
Laiwan said it was not interesting, that there was no discussion, and that our questions had been asked and answered throughout time. She felt that the Goddard men should have held our own workshop to discuss how we have treated women throughout history. Laiwan ended the conversation by pointing at us and telling us that because we were straight, white males we should know better than to ask such questions. Then she walked off.
During the start of that same residency, I was standing near the ping-pong table when something touched my buttocks. I turned around to find faculty member Alrick smiling and tapping me with his ping-pong paddle. I thought he was indicating that I was too close to the table, moved several steps away, and continued my conversation with another student. The second time, Alrick repeatedly thrust his paddle into my buttocks in a mocking manner—in front of other students in the middle of the community room—and laughed as he did it. Shocked and surprised, I moved further away. Then he did it again. The third time it happened he had to walk ten feet to get to me. I wanted to react strongly but worried the community would misunderstand or blame me for lashing out. Instead I made a joke about feeling awkward and left the room. As I walked out my classmate asked, “Are you hiding?” I said I was being molested and so yes, I was leaving.
Later that night, after a college presentation, Alrick walked beside me as we exited and said he didn’t mean to pick a fight. He also mumbled something more; I believe he said, “sorry.”
After those incidents I went to Bonnie, the Program Director, and asked if I could have some private time to talk with her. She did not schedule a meeting but instead said she would come and find me when she had the time. Days passed. On the evening of the last day of residency I noticed Goddard employees Bonnie, Lori, Erin, Joyce, Michael, Laiwan, and Corey sitting at a table in the cafeteria. There were no students present and there was no time left in the schedule for private meetings—we were about to have the final night celebration and I was due to leave in a carpool early the next morning. I approached the table and asked if I could talk to Bonnie. She invited me to sit down. I said I felt more emotional than expected. She said she could see that. I said I was going to speak my mind and Bonnie encouraged me to do so. Everyone got quiet and listened intently.
I told Laiwan that I was offended by what she said to me, that I had been banned from a workshop based on my sex, explained that a male from Goddard had touched me inappropriately and that it made me uncomfortable, and added that I had felt discriminated against in previous semesters by my advisors for being a white male whose artistic studies included business and Chinese martial arts. I did not name Alrick because he was not present. Also, the faculty revered Alrick and I feared that my story about him would reflect poorly on me—that they would label me a racist.
Laiwan responded by saying that she was happy those things were happening to me. She told me that my grief was nothing (she held her finger tips close together) compared to the oppression others have suffered throughout history (she held her hands far apart). She said that I was just having a reaction and added, “Some people live with this sort of thing every day.” I was visually frustrated, excused myself, and left the table.
The next morning after breakfast, Bonnie asked to talk with me in private. She explained that I was inappropriate the night before. I realized that I had brought up an issue in front of people who were not directly involved and could see why faculty and staff might have felt uncomfortable. That morning, before closing circle, I apologized to everyone who was at the table for exposing them to my issues (except for Michael who I apologized to via email the next day).
Laiwan accepted my apology but said what I did was not okay. Erin said she didn’t mind but wished that I hadn’t done it front of “certain support staff.” Lori gave me a silent hug as Joyce watched and smiled. I never heard back from Michael. I also apologized to Roslyn for giving her shit. She replied, “You can give me shit anytime.” With the exception of Alrick, nobody apologized to me.
I wished that I never said a word, tried to put it all behind me, and went home.
Four days later I got an email that was sent to the entire Port Townsend student body. It came from Dean Lucinda and included an email correspondence with Laiwan that explained how occurrences on both campuses warranted the dissemination of the 94-page Diversity and Difference Toolkit. (A paper noose had been found on the east coast campus but I could only wonder what happened on the west coast.) The toolkit contained scholarly articles about white male privilege and behavioral advice for white guys. I read the entire document, which suggested that I discuss the contents of the toolkit with others.
I emailed students and staff and invited them to talk with me about the toolkit. Two students responded and said they planned to read it. They never did. Bonnie encouraged me to post a thread on G-Net because she wanted students to be enticed to use the new online system. She did not respond when I suggested that she post her thoughts about the Toolkit in the online thread I had created. I emailed Laiwan directly and invited her to discuss the document. She never responded. I gave up.
Prior to the fall 2010 semester, Bonnie invited me to co-host a discussion at the residency about the Diversity and Difference Toolkit. I declined her offer. (The Toolkit instructs that white guys should turn down leadership positions so women or people of color can take the role.) Bonnie reacted by questioning my integrity, which led to a mutually frustrating email exchange. In our dialogue, Bonnie revealed that she thought I was the author of several negative anonymous residency feedback comments—because they came from a male. She was mistaken and did not apologize about her accusation. Instead she offered unsolicited advice about my communication style. Meanwhile, Bonnie could not recall anything I had said at the table in the cafeteria during the prior residency but could recall that the subject seemed very important to me. She offered me a 30-minute telephone slot but, due to her tone and previous reaction, I didn’t feel safe to share my story with her again.
During the Fall 2010 residency, I attended the Diversity and Difference Toolkit discussion. Towards the end of the session it seemed that students were on the verge of voicing previously undisclosed issues and concerns about the MFA-IA program. I pressed for a second meeting, which my classmates also wanted. Bonnie authorized it. The second meeting was highly anticipated and students talked it up on campus beforehand. We said that we were going to speak our minds about college issues that had us feeling disgruntled. Students became emotional when discussing their concerns in private.
At the second meeting some people expressed social insecurities but none of the students stated publicly what they had privately claimed that they would say. Folks who were passionately vocal hours earlier remained silent during the meeting. With all of the faculty and staff present, the circle was intimidating. I too was going to stay quiet but felt it would have been hypocritical if I did. I took a chance and told about how I had been barred from attending a workshop because of my sex, that a faculty member had mocked me by repeatedly thrusting a ping-pong paddle into my buttocks in front of others in the community room, that another faculty member took pleasure in my discomfort, and said that it made me feel bad. In an attempt to get my message heard, I remained calm and did not name names. I ended by saying that I cared very much about the Goddard community and wanted the school to be a place that embodies its mission statement.
Out of all the people who confessed their concerns during that meeting I was the only one who was rebuked. Roslyn accused me of thinking only of myself, said I focus on the negative, and claimed that she didn’t let me into her workshop because she wanted her female friends to feel safe. That’s when Marc, the PT Student Service Specialist, said we were out of time and ended the meeting.
I offered to stay and talk with anyone who was interested to discuss the issue. The majority of people left. Laiwan left. Roslyn left. Bonnie, Ju-Pong, and several students stayed.
At the start of the after-meeting, Bonnie set the tone by expressing in front of everyone that she was “stepping out of her role as Program Director” so she could tell me that—upon discovering what it was about—she was incensed by my story. She looked directly at me and blurted, “You’re so privileged!”
Faculty member Ju-Pong told me that by not mentioning names I had made Laiwan “invisible.” How she knew Laiwan was involved I do not know. Ju-Pong felt that Roslyn preventing me from attending her workshop based on my sex was not discriminatory. Ju-Pong also said there are several definitions of discrimination and that my definition was different than Goddard’s definition. Fifteen minutes into it, Bonnie announced that the meeting was over.
Afterwards, Bonnie and I spoke privately and she admitted that she should have followed up with me sooner. After that, Lori suggested Laiwan and I have a mediated conversation. I agreed but was warned that it might not make a difference because Laiwan was “pretty set in her ways.” Days passed. On the last day of residency Bonnie emailed me and explained that Lawian declined to meet with me because she was concerned about taking energy away from my portfolio semester and wished me luck with my writing.
During that same residency, Bonnie asked what it was that I do (as an artist) and acted confused that I identified as a storyteller. “But everyone’s a storyteller,” she rebuffed. She also informed me that I was going to have to “really explain” myself in my portfolio. Petra was my primary reader and my portfolio semester advisor. Separately, Petra also told me that I’d need to “really explain” myself because she was unfamiliar with my work. She wanted to understand my “obsession with money” and warned me several times that there’s a danger in working with an advisor who I hadn’t worked with before. She repeatedly asked what I was and suggested the titles “agent provocateur” and “trickster.” I rejected those monikers because they had negative connotations.
Also during that residency, a fellow student came to me in the community room but stopped talking mid-sentence when Bonnie entered. After Bonnie left my classmate said quietly that she and other students felt I had raised valid points and that they supported my speaking out—yet she relayed this information to me in secret.
My first G5 portfolio packet contained a short draft. Petra said it didn’t look anything like a portfolio, which was true. My grandfather passed away and my writing was stinted in the first few weeks. My second packet contained 125 pages complete with red text at the start of each section written directly to Petra, pointing out specifics and asking her questions. Her response did not address anything I wrote, advised me to “stop seeking external validation,” and suggested I could take an extension semester if I was feeling pressured.
My third packet included a full draft sent to Petra and Michael, my second reader. I revealed and explained myself as per Bonnie and Petra’s advice. Unfortunately my efforts did not meet their graduation requirements. Both advisors dismissed my prior work, questioned if my art was indeed art, and told me they didn’t like my (previously credit worthy) reading list. Michael said my already approved artwork from my first semester didn’t belong in my portfolio. Petra consulted with Bonnie who advised that I might need an extension semester, or quite possibly another full semester, to make new artwork in addition to an extension semester.
In the final weeks of my five-semester education they were telling me that I might not graduate for another 8 to 16 months!
Michael apologized and said he knew how frustrated I must have felt. Petra told me to take deep breaths and not to take it personally. Naturally I had questions but neither of my advisors wanted to be bothered. Michael was in Thailand and Petra was in Australia. Petra refused to answer my inquiries because she felt it would take up too much time and instead deferred me to Michael’s previously written comments. Michael thankfully did give response—more than my primary advisor—although many of his answers were vague and dismissive. For instance, when I asked why they didn’t accept my explanation of Tai Chi Chuan as a legitimate art form (I had to justify every part of my interdisciplinary art practice) Michael replied, “I understand your frustration, but for whatever reason, neither of us felt it was a convincing argument.”
When I asked Petra for more actionable advice beyond her, “At the heart you need to reveal yourself, reveal your work, and reveal your intention. If you can do that you will have transformed yourself in art practice,” she told me I could contact Bonnie if I didn’t like her communication style. When I asked why my artwork had been credit-worthy up until that point she told me, “I can’t really answer about your previous work, David, as I’ve never worked with you before.” When I referenced the red text written to her in my portfolio draft she said she never noticed it and added, “Ah well, nothing much we can do about that at this point.” When I asked for specific examples of the kind of revealing she prescribed, she told me to go to Port Townsend and read some portfolios. I did read portfolios. In fact, my classmate Kristin and I exchanged portfolios.
Kristin was a G5 as well. Her primary advisor was Michael and her second reader was Petra. The very criteria that Michael said were not up to par in my portfolio were non-existent in Kristin’s final work.
Kristin read my portfolio and advised me to be more mysterious. She said I explained too much. She described how she specifically ignored the degree criteria and instead went for something more cryptic. “Goddard loves that stuff,” she told me. For her it was true; Michael and Petra praised her portfolio! In fact, she was officially allowed to bend the rules with regard to layout and line-height while Petra denied my request to print at 1.5 spacing instead of double.
With my advisors telling me that my previously accepted artwork had no business being in my portfolio and my previously credited reading list was suddenly deemed unacceptable—and all of this with four weeks left in what I thought was my last semester—I literally had a hyperventilating-on-the-bathroom-floor nervous breakdown.
Determined to pass, I reached out to Goddard students. They invested in and helped me far more than my advisors. Classmates felt that I was being punished for speaking out. Some graduates had been through similar treatment but got caught later in the semester and were forced to take an expensive and time-consuming extension. In the final four weeks I wrote 24/7, revamped my entire portfolio (as Michael suggested) and submitted what was mainly an argument and justification for my 2.5 years at Goddard College.
Meanwhile, I contacted Marc to discuss my concerns. He felt that I was carrying incompleteness from past interactions with Bonnie into my relationship with Petra and suggested I talk to Bonnie. I agreed and we set up a phone meeting with Marc as the moderator. In an effort to balance the sexes, I asked Lori to participate. She did. During that call I retold my story and named names. Bonnie reacted as if she was hearing my tale for the very first time. She expressed confusion and concern because she had prepared to present information about Petra and my portfolio semester. She said she could see why I was upset but told me that my portfolio semester had nothing to do with things that had happened prior. I disagreed.
When I asked her to explain the role of my white privilege in the situation Bonnie could not answer. When I asked why she publicly called me privileged at the residency she said, “Because you are.”
That phone call was the first time Bonnie or Lori heard it was Alrick who goaded me with the ping-pong paddle. Marc accused me of waiting a long time to tell my story but I pointed out that I went right to Bonnie when the incidents first happened. With regard to the Diversity and Difference Toolkit, Bonnie explained that it was not an official Goddard document but was instead just Laiwan’s opinion.
I asked how students were to distinguish between a faculty member’s individual behavior and their professional, College-representing behavior during residency. Bonnie could not understand my question and told me that I have a confusing communicating style. I asked for a written statement of where she stood as a representative of Goddard and also requested that students be made clear about College policy. Because I had been publicly reproached, I wanted my classmates to know that what happened to me was wrong and that students should not be afraid to stand up for themselves. I wanted Goddard to officially stand by its rules and state to students that it’s against college policy to reject someone from a workshop based on their sex, that it’s insensitive to take pleasure in an individuals’ discomfort based on their sex, color, or orientation, and that it’s inappropriate for faculty to prod a student’s butt with a ping-pong paddle.
In Bonnie’s official response she said it was a student who banned me from the workshop, not the college. She added, “Had the matter been brought immediately to the attention of appropriate faculty and academic staff, an alternative outcome might have been possible.” She never mentioned addressing the students.
With regard to Alrick, I was told that she didn’t know it was him at the time and therefore couldn’t do anything about it but would follow up with him, that I could choose to send in a written account of the incident to be included in his ongoing performance evaluation, and that I could go to Dean Lucinda if I was unsatisfied. Since it was Dean Lucinda who sent out the Diversity and Difference Toolkit, it seemed to me that shutting up would be the best thing for improving my odds of graduating.
After the conference call I had a private phone discussion with Lori, the Student Affairs Coordinator. She listened to my story and made the assessment that nobody involved handled the situation well. She simply agreed with me when I described Petra as condescending. Lori said it sounded like I had “my own little run-in with racism,” that where Roslyn comes from it might be okay to tell someone to show up and pull down his or her pants, and that if I only knew Alrick like she knew him then I would understand what a good person he was. She also said she’d talk with Alrick and get back to me. Neither Bonnie nor Lori ever followed up with me about the conversations they said they’d have with Alrick. The Goddard redress procedure was moot—I was complaining to the people I was complaining about. What’s more, Lori has a relationship with Alrick outside of the college.
Soon after, Petra and Michael passed my final portfolio submission and I graduated with my classmates.
After graduation, I tried to gather my classmates to collectively share our stories and program suggestions with the president of the college in a positive fashion. They expressed fear and refused. After much deliberation, I wrote to President Vacarr of Goddard College to tell this story and request a partial tuition refund. That was August of 2011, six months after I graduated.
Four months after receiving my letter, Goddard replied and told me my request would not be considered because it was, “...outside of the published timeline and procedures stipulated in the Graduate Student Handbook for academic appeals and student grievances of a non-academic complaint.”
While they were sorry I was disgruntled, they continued to wish me the best in my life-long learning goals and hoped that my student experience, degree and continuing alumni connection all serve me well in my current and future pursuits.