President Apologizes for Not Taking a Stand

When others walked out of sexist speech at University of Portland awards banquet, he did not.

April 18, 2018
 
Reverend Mark L. Poorman

The president of the University of Portland apologized Tuesday for not doing more when a sexist speech led others to walk out of an awards banquet honoring athletes at the university.

The speech was by a tennis player -- since removed from the university team roster -- who was acting as the emcee of the event. Multiple news accounts indicate that he spoke about his goals as an undergraduate of having sex with white women, and that he used explicit, degrading language to describe these goals. The speaker focused on his experience as one whose parents moved to the United States from India, and talked about how this shaped his desire to sleep with white women.

Some female athletes and university officials were so angered that they walked out. But the president remained. An initial university statement condemned the speech. But the president -- the Reverend Mark L. Poorman -- issued a new statement Tuesday in which he apologized for not doing more.

As word of the incident spread on campus, Father Poorman sent an email that condemned the student's speech but also seemed to offer an explanation for why he stayed put during the talk. "These offensive statements do not reflect us, and they do not reflect our mission," he wrote. "This important tradition was the purpose of the evening, and I did not want what happened on stage to take away from the recognition of others in attendance. I apologize to all of you that this occurred."

But on Tuesday he issued a new statement.

"As president, I was in a unique position to stop the proceedings, and I should have done more. I am deeply sorry for what happened and for what should have happened, but did not," Father Poorman wrote.

He added, "In a community where we work so hard to ensure all members feel safe and respected, sometimes it is through experiencing events like this firsthand that we can truly learn. Sometimes we teach our students, and sometimes our students teach us. As members of our community have so eloquently stated, it is our collective duty to stand up and make our voices heard. We cannot afford to remain bystanders. If we see or hear something that violates our standards of conduct, we must speak up, speak out and ask questions. We all must take responsibility for each other."

Father Poorman added that he has asked university leaders to set up forums for students and others to discuss the incident and its implications.

The previous day, the Associated Students of the University of Portland issued a statement that condemned the awards banquet speech as misogynistic and that said students needed to take leadership in tackling issues of sexism and sexual assault on campus.

"Having the courage to do the right thing, to stand up for yourself, for your peers and for your community in situations similar to what happened last night is difficult," the statement said. "It is all too easy to watch, to critique, to say how shocked we were. We too often look toward our leaders -- toward the top -- for direction, but in moments like last night, the responsibility to do what is right and just lies with each and every one of us."

In an essay in the student newspaper, Olivia Sanchez, a senior at Portland who was at the event as an athlete, described how she felt unable to remain in the room as the remarks went on and why she walked out.

“Tonight, I had two options. I could stand by and listen to [the speaker] perpetuate rape culture and violence against women, or I could stand up and walk out, and risk coming off as a ‘crazy lady’ who ‘can’t take a joke,’ ” Sanchez wrote. “I felt trapped. This event was mandatory. I had friends who were being honored. I have woken up at 5:00 in the morning nearly every day of my college career. I have pushed myself physically, mentally and emotionally to achieve success. This night was supposed to be about me. About all of us.”

Sanchez's essay noted her appreciation for others who walked out -- including male athletes, not just women. But she noted that the university president "remained seated in the front of the room."

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