Bryn Mawr College books performance artist Villanova canceled

Posted: February 23, 2012

Bryn Mawr College will host a workshop by a gay performance artist whose program was canceled by Villanova University this week, officials said Thursday.

The announcement came as concern about Villanova's abrupt reversal on hosting Tim Miller's weeklong workshop continued to build, with students planning a forum next week, and several groups and communication and theater professionals issuing letters or statements against the university's decision.

"Bryn Mawr College is a community of scholars with a long history of honoring freedom of expression," the women's college said in a statement. "... Bryn Mawr's commitment to freedom of expression means that speakers who conduct themselves within the college's general guidelines are entitled to express their ideas without hindrance, no matter how unpopular or controversial their ideas might be."

Villanova president the Rev. Peter M. Donohue said earlier this week that the Catholic university canceled the workshop because of the "explicit, graphic, and sexual content" of Miller's work, not because of his sexual orientation.

Miller's workshop at Bryn Mawr will be held from April 16 to 20 in the Hepburn Teaching Theater at Goodhart Hall, and Villanova students will be welcome, Bryn Mawr officials said. The workshop will be hosted by Bryn Mawr's gender and sexuality program and the theater program.

Bryn Mawr theater professor Mark Lord denounced Villanova's decision but said he was gratified that his college filled the void.

"I feel very proud to work at an institution that values freedom of inquiry in a very deep way," he said. "The process of self-discovery that's a part of a liberal arts education can't be limited by somebody else's rules. You need to have the opportunity to explore everything. I believe that as an artist, and I believe that as an intellectual."

While the Cardinal Newman Society criticized Miller's work for nudity and simulated sex, Miller said he had not used nudity since 2003 and had never simulated sex on stage.

Lord emphasized that the point was moot because Miller is not coming to perform. He is leading a workshop on helping students explore identity.

Even if nudity were featured, that's not uncommon for art, Lord said. Bryn Mawr is hosting a dance performance this weekend by the John Jasperse Company that will include nudity.

Villanova's decision also brought criticism from others, including Soyini Madison, department chair of performance studies at Northwestern University.

"What is wrong with explicit, graphic, sexual content in the service of human equality and literally saving lives? I embrace it as purposeful and necessary in the service of human rights and dignity," she wrote in a statement. "The indecency that Miller is accused of is nothing compared to the indecency of marriage inequality, HIV/AIDS, the brutal violence against LGBT communities across the planet, and the rising numbers of child/teenage suicides."

The Pennsylvania Student Equality Coalition, a statewide lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth organization, and the Philadelphia-based Peace Advocacy Network issued statements against Villanova's decision.

Students are planning a private forum for Tuesday involving administrators and faculty to explore what occurred in the Miller decision.

"We just want the administration to be open with students and students to be able to get their ideas out there," said Ryan Foster, 19, a sophomore from Chicago who belongs to the school's Gay Straight Coalition.

Foster said that while he was upset about the decision, he does not find the campus to be homophobic and does not believe the decision to cancel Miller was based on sexual orientation.

"It's definitely not a hostile environment," he said. "I'm openly gay and I don't have any issues with students."

He noted that former Villanova basketball star Will Sheridan was scheduled to speak on campus Thursday on being a gay athlete, an event sponsored by the coalition.


Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.

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