University retracts invite, ignites backlash
Miller was scheduled to lead a workshop April 16-20 but the offer was rescinded on Monday, Feb. 20 due to differences between University ideals and his work. COURTESY OF TIM MILLER
Miller was scheduled to lead a workshop April 16-20 but the offer was rescinded on Monday, Feb. 20 due to differences between University ideals and his work. ELIZABETH EA/ THE VILLANOVAN
The University chose to rescind a previously extended invitation to prominent gay performance artist Tim Miller on Monday. Miller, known for his often confrontational and thought-provoking shows, was originally scheduled to visit campus April 16-20.
Miller has performed globally at many prestigious universities and seminars, including religiously affiliated institutions such as the Claremont School of Theology, Southern Methodist University and DePaul University, the largest Catholic institution in the country.
Despite this, the University, in a public statement on Monday afternoon, said it "had concerns that his performances were not in keeping with our Catholic and Augustinian values and mission."
The statement also reaffirms the openness and inclusivity of student life on-campus.
This press release came days after numerous Catholic organization blogs, such as one by the Cardinal Newman Society, denounced the event, condemning the University's plan to host what they referred to as a "radical militant gay rights performer."
Beyond the six-sentence statement, however, University administrators were widely unavailable for comment, and faculty, including event organizer and communication professor Heidi Rose, were told to refer all inquiries to the University Office of Communication, as they were not authorized to speak to media.
"I was really troubled by the weird, mealy-mouthed, unsigned Villanova statement, especially when they say I am not consistent with Augustinian values," Miller said, noting that his most recent book, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, "1001 BEDS: Performances, Essays and Travels," contains an epigraph from St. Augustine.
The passage, from "The Confessions," reads, "In the immense court of my memory…I come to meet myself," a line that Miller regards highly.
"That could have been the tagline for all my work and definitely my performance workshop at Villanova," he said. "Remembering, telling the truth and being aware of ourselves is exactly what we would have done in the workshop."
In her original invitation e-mailed to all communication students and faculty, Rose emphasized the togetherness and cohesive learning that would take place throughout Miller's workshop. The event was open to participants, both students and faculty, and required an application.
"The performance workshop will thus take you through an intimate process of self-discovery and exploration, focusing on identity and culture, questions of diversity and difference, knowledge of self and others, etc.," she wrote.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Miller learned of the cancellation through Rose Sunday night. The University, as of Tuesday evening, had not formally contacted Miller or offered an explanation beyond the press release, leading many, including Miller himself, to believe that the decision was result of anti-gay sentiment.
"I can only see it as garden variety anti-gay bigotry," he said. "Some extremist bloggers started telling lies, and the Villanova administration capitulated and collaborated with those lies. [This shows] such cowardice from Villanova's leadership. I feel so bad for the students at Villanova and some great faculty who are being bullied by their superiors."
Miller noted the dichotomy between the image that the University is projecting with this cancellation and the University-approved Gay Straight Coalition.
In its website, the coalition says it hopes to "educate the community regarding issues of sexual orientation, to foster a welcoming community for gay and lesbian students and to combat homophobic attitudes on campus."
Given the recent developments, Miller alleges that this goal is not being accomplished and that homophobia is apparent.
Rev. Kail C. Ellis, O.S.A., PhD, the vice president for Academic Affairs proclaimed otherwise in a statement.
"Villanova's decision not to host Tim Miller is not related in any way to Mr. Miller's sexuality, but rather, the concern is about the disrespect of our tradition and values that many experience from his performances, activity and website," Ellis said.
While his performances in the past have included nudity and sexual content, Miller maintains that his usage of such elements is purely artistic.
He portrays himself as an advocate for marriage equality and against social injustice. His website contains video content portraying an intimate gay relationship which features highly sexualized images of himself in provocative situations.
The status of the University as Catholic and private permits administrative decisions that have religious motivations, as the values of the Catholic Church are necessarily reflected in the University's mission.
However, according to the original e-mailed promotional materials, the workshop was to focus neither on sexuality nor religion, but rather on expression of the self.
Coincidentally, today, Will Sheridan, Class of '07, a former men's basketball team member and openly gay recording artist, will speak regarding his own personal experience as a gay athlete. While disturbed about the news regarding Miller, Sheridan is quick not to judge the community as a whole.
"Villanova University is not homophobic," Sheridan said. "It's interesting that this is coming out the same week that the University booked me to be on campus to speak about my life and experiences. As for Tim Miller, he's openly gay, talented with a message and that's awesome."
While Sheridan may be supportive, the University, and University President Rev. Peter Donahue, O.S.A., who served as chair of the theater department for 14 year prior to his appointment as University president, do not view his work as appropriate for the Catholic institution.
The refusal has ignited a controversial debate that has garnered both campus and national attention.
Miller will still be performing at the InterAct Theater April 12-15 in Philadelphia and is actively working to organize a disaffiliated workshop similar to the originally scheduled event.
"Though freedom of speech and thought is being curtailed at Villanova, it will still happen off-campus!" Miller said.
Sheridan said the controversy about the cancelled event will only stimulate valuable dialogue. A petition to change the University's decision is already circulating campus.
"Tim Miller gets more people checking him out—he wins," Sheridan said. "Villanova University students, faculty and alumni are having thought-provoking conversations about censorship, religion and sex—great, we win, too!"
Kendra Davis contributed reporting.
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