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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Last-Minute Uninvitation: Shame on OSU

For those of you who haven't heard, Tristan Taormino (of sex-ed, puckerup.com, and feminist porn fame), booked to give the keynote speech at the Oregon State University Modern Sex conference (scheduled for February 15th and 16th), has been UNINVITED from the event. The university representative who uninvited her cited her "résumé and website" as the reason.

What?

You read right folks. A speaker who was booked to give the KEYNOTE talk at a conference was uninvited for the very body of work that made her worthy of being invited in the first place. But it gets messier. Read on for the story:

On October 28, 2010, organizers of the OSU Modern Sex conference booked Taormino to give the keynote talk; they confirmed the date and agreed to fees, and Tristan’s management received a first draft of the contract on November 1. That contract was incomplete and sent back to OSU for revisions. As with many negotiations, the contract was pending as all the paperwork got done, but in late December, OSU again confirmed Tristan’s appearance and conference organizers told her manager to purchase airline tickets, for which OSU would reimburse her.

On Tuesday, January 18, 2011, Steven Leider, Director of the Office of LGBT Outreach and Services contacted Colten Tognazzini, Tristan Taormino’s manager, to say that the conference had come up short on funding. Tognazzini told him that since the travel was booked and the time reserved, they could work with whatever budget they did have. Leider said that would not be possible: “We have to cancel Ms. Taormino’s appearance due to a lack of funding. It has been decided that OSU cannot pay Ms. Taormino with general fee dollars, because of the content of her resume and website.” At OSU, ‘general fee dollars’ include taxpayer dollars given to the University by the Oregon State Legislature to defray various costs. They differ from ‘student activity dollars,’ which are part of every student’s tuition and help fund student groups and activities.

Tognazzini spoke to a source at OSU who speculated that the University feared that when it went before the legislature in regards to future funding, legislators would use OSU’s funding of a “pornographer” on campus as ammunition to further cut budgets. This source, who wishes to remain anonymous, told Tognazzini, “I think they’re uninviting Tristan because they don’t want to have to defend her appearance to conservative legislators.”

Now, I won't talk about the politics of caving here and why it's a messed up situation from an ethical or sex-positive standpoint. Instead, I want to talk about this issue from the perspective of a student event-organizer at a university; I want to touch upon the process of organizing events and what that entails. Bringing in speakers isn't easy, especially if you're at state-sponsored institutions and trying to book people who are in some way "radical" or just not mainstream. I'm privileged because I attend a private institution that, in many ways, is very pro-student and fiercely + eloquently defends our freedom of expression and education (if the way administrators handled last year's KinkForAll Providence, Get Your Heart On: Sex Educator Showdown, and Sex Week 2010 issues with cranky conservative critics is representative of this). For those reasons, and because of my passion for quality sexual education & frank discussion about these things, I use that privilege to the best of my ability. I organize dozens of events for my campus and the community at large (I aim to make all the events I coordinate open to the public), but I couldn't do as much if I didn't have the support of my peers and University.

Mind you, when I say support, I don't mean Brown condones or accepts the things my speakers talk about, necessarily, but the University actively supports their RIGHT to say them and the importance of having a dialogue on campus--of showing different, empowering, and educational perspectives (many of which are also fun and very engaging, not just academic). Brown supports my rights as a student to be an activist, to fight for what I believe in, and to shape campus in various ways. For that, I am thankful. At the same time, I'm saddened that not everyone is in such a position. We see a case of this lack of support at OSU. From what I can see (and what I deduce), the organizers for the conference aren't the ones who decided to last-minute cancel on Tristan; the decision came from higher-ups who feared retaliation from those who control their funds. It is this fear that drives many decisions regarding comprehensive sex-education, and while it's a shame (and something I endeavor to help change), I can understand it. The job of a university administrator isn't easy, and we must understand why sometimes they're put in double-binds that force them to take actions like this one.

HOWEVER, organizers shouldn't confirm events or speakers for which they do not have funds definitely secured (or means for securing them), especially in cases like this. Furthermore, event-planners should have enough self-awareness and knowledge of their institution's policies to understand which speakers might be deemed "controversial" or "problematic," know what the system could do to them (e.g. cancel an event) & why they would have reason to, and have plans to handle situations if they arise. In those cases where one is attempting to bring someone who could be criticized by the opposition and cause problems, it's important to speak with university administrators and see what their stance is (ideally in writing!), so the ball doesn't get rolling on something that will have to be canceled at the last minute. Still, shit happens, and sometimes universities cave, stomping all over students' most carefully laid out plans in the process. In those situations, however, organizations (and universities) should be prepared to do SOME form of damage-control.

Honestly, my first question here would be "well, why were they planning on using the general fee dollars in the first place instead of the student activity dollars?"

While I'm not going to bash OSU for the decision to cancel Tristan's talk (though I don't agree with it, of course), I think it's shameful that they're not going to reimburse Tristan for the costs she has already incurred. While they hadn't signed a contract, they had been in negotiations and told her everything was set, and to reserve her plane tickets. If OSU is going to uninvite her, the least the could do is reimburse her. That would at least leave them with some amount of grace and dignity; as it stands, however, OSU's position is not one I can respect. Honestly, it's clumsy and unprofessional. I only hope that they rethink this and make the right decision, or at least one that's better than this one. While they may not be able to use general funds, there are many other ways to raise money, and the bodies responsible for booking Tristan should be responsible for figuring out a way to make this situation right.

Check out Tristan's full press-release here.

***
Note from Tristan:
Don't Let the Anti-Sex Conservatives Win!

If you support free speech and my mission of sexual empowerment, please voice your opinion about OSU’s decision to cancel my appearance at the last minute (and not reimburse me for travel expenses) to the following people. I would really appreciate your support —Tristan

Larry Roper
Vice Provost for Student Affairs
632 Kerr Administration Building
Corvallis, OR 97331-2154
541-737-3626 (phone)
541-737-3033 (fax)
email: larry.roper@oregonstate.edu

Dr. Mamta Motwani Accapadi
Dean of Student Life
A200 Kerr Administration Building
Corvallis, OR 97331-2133
541-737-8748 (phone)
541-737-9160 (fax)
email: deanofstudents@oregonstate.edu
twitter: @deanmamta

Dr. Edward J. Ray
President
600 Kerr Administration Building
Corvallis, OR 97331-2128
541-737-4133 (phone)
541-737-3033 (fax)
email: pres.office@oregonstate.edu

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