Letter to the Editor
Dear Father Shanley,
I hope you are well during this Easter season. I am now writing to you in the open forum after having tried to reach you privately in two letters dated March 17 and April 5 that have both gone unanswered. Each of those letters was charitable and sincere yet my request for a meeting did not receive acknowledgement of any kind.
My writing to you in this way follows a pattern of how I have handled this matter at each step of the way. I have always taken a respectful approach; opting for private, internal resolutions first. As a student and soon-to-be alumnus, I do not get some sort of cheap thrill in contributing to a negative image of Providence College in the public eye. But where the College has failed to respond appropriately, the public deserves to know. This especially pertains to parents, prospective parents, and alumni.
I continue to hold the position that much of what occurred could have been avoided if you and your administration acted promptly and appropriately.
The sad reality is that causes like mine do not get your attention in the way that others do. I’m not the kind of guy that is going to occupy your office. I’m not going to march around with signs or incite demonstrations on campus. I’m also not going to shame you into signing a list of demands.
Yet, you seem to respond better to these tactics and I believe you’ve encouraged immature behavior that has only further divided our campus in the process.
I’m still holding out for something better. I want real dialogue instead of shouting cheap slogans. I want robust discourse free of virtue-signaling and the attempt to score political points. I want to engage the issues in a way that a difference of ideas is not seen as an attack on one’s person but a commitment to seeking truth.
I have been unable to find this among my peers and, so far, from you.
“Dialogue” is a convenient word thrown around by many but few are interested in what it actually entails. Our campus does not know how to dialogue. Instead of superficially dropping the word “dialogue” every time a crisis arises, let’s model for the community how we can talk about difficult issues.
I still remain willing to do this and I hope you will take the opportunity to show our campus that you mean what you say when you tell us to engage in dialogue. This is far more valuable than any teach-in or training the College may offer. PC can continue to offer these initiatives, but unless our leaders are willing to do what they ask of their students, such efforts will remain fruitless.
At a college of less than 5,000 students, I sincerely hope the first time we meet will not be at my graduation.
Bulletin Board Update:
Find out more about recent developments regarding the bulletin board controversy including responses from administration, the current status of bulletin boards, and an impending Title IX investigation.
The board was displayed by Resident Assistant Michael Smalanskas ’18, and represented the Catholic Church’s vision of marriage as a sacrament performed by one man and woman, and contained the statement, “Marriage, the way God intended it.”
Due to the controversy following this board, Jana Valentine, director of residence life, made a joint decision with her staff to suspend the use of bulletin boards for communication until a task force can more properly define a function and purpose for the boards.
Smalanskas explained that his intention was to proudly display Catholic teaching on a Catholic campus and to expose the double standard he finds at the College that does not protect conservative views in the same way as others. “A good example of this is the pro-same sex ‘marriage’ bulletin board on display in McVinney in February,” wrote Smalanskas in an email responding to The Cowl’s questions. “I have been accused of abusing my power and promoting hatred by displaying pro-traditional marriage views, but this other resident assistant was not.”
A summary of the initial events that occurred within the first week of the board’s installation, including a Board of Multicultural Student Affairs (BMSA) meeting in which Kristine Goodwin, vice president of student affairs, addressed student concerns, was reported by The Cowl and can be found here: https://www.thecowl.com/featured/bulletin-board-controversy.
Since the publication of the initial article, the controversy has continued to gain attention from outside media, and the College has made additional statements regarding the incident. A recent report from the National Catholic Register cited Smalanskas as stating that a Title IX investigation is underway to investigate a cartoon depicting Smalanskas being sodomized, which was found in his dorm bathroom of St. Joseph Hall in the following days since the bulletin board was put up.
A majority of the articles published regarding the controversy can be found on the Facebook page, “Make PC Catholic Again,” which was created and run by Smalanskas to “provide the most recent news about the developing situation at PC.” In the description of the page, it is stated that “Make PC Catholic Again” is not meant to be an open forum on the topic.
“It is meant to be a place where all news coverage of the situation can be found in one place,” said Smalanskas. Some students who have left comments to the page have voiced concerns that their voices are “silenced” when their comments are deleted. “All comments, whether they are supportive of me or adamantly opposed to what I’ve done, are deleted,” said Smalanskas in response.
One specific article found on this page is a letter from March 21 to Smalanskas written by Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, reaffirming the Church’s teachings on marriage and praising Smalanskas for his proclamation of faith. While encouraging prudence and charity with every action, Bishop Tobin did reaffirm that Christians “do them no favors, and we fail to fulfill our Christian vocation, if we hesitate to present and explain the divinely revealed truth about faith and morals.”
Bishop Tobin continued to express regret for the negative reaction Smalanskas has received from his community, especially on a Catholic college campus such as PC. “I think we have the right to presume that those who teach or study at a Catholic school should accept, or at least respect, the stated identity, mission, and fundamental teachings of the Faith,” said Tobin. “Otherwise, there are lots of other good options for higher education they can choose if they really feel threatened by or are uncomfortable with the teachings of the Church.”
Two days prior to this letter, President Father Brian Shanley, O.P., sent an email to the PC community regarding the board, and stated that the Church’s views on marriage is not homophobic as homophobia is a sin. “We will never eliminate the tension between what the Church teaches and what modern secular culture professes about human sexuality and marriage,” he said. “Our challenge is to create a campus climate that will enable us to explore our differences dialogically with mutual respect and charity.”
Smalanskas, as well as Dr. James Keating, associate professor of theology and advisor to Smalanskas through the Title IX process, expressed their disapproval of the College’s initial response regarding the reaction to the board.
“The College failed in many respects to address the situation properly,” said Smalanskas, who said he repeatedly asked administration to denounce the harassment toward him from the very beginning. He explained that he felt that the rape drawing would have been avoided if the College had acted. “It also seemed like an easy task for the administration to support the content of the board but it took several weeks for the school to affirm its Catholic identity and speak against the hatred and harassment,” Smalanskas said.
Keating explained that in his opinion, the administration’s reaction to the cartoon and lack of initial response is the “strangest thing.” “As soon as someone files a Title IX violation, the school should go into extreme protection mode,” said Keating, who earlier explained he felt the administration responded to the feelings of students in response to the board and should have also responded to harassment against Smalanskas. “They should have sprang into action, but we saw an absolute flouting of Title IX protections.”
The Department of Public Safety at Providence College did remove Smalanskas from his dorm room in St. Joseph following the initial incident and housed him in another dorm room for his protection.
Goodwin addressed the issue to student leaders in an email on March 18, and encouraged students to engage in dialogue. She encouraged students to attend a “March Against Transphobia and Homophobia at PC,” organized by SHEPARD, the student organization and support group for members of the LGBTQ+ community. Mallari Bosque ’18, president of SHEPARD, explained the march was meant “to acknowledge the discomfort that the LGBTQ+ community are often subjected to feel.”
At the march, faculty, staff, and administrators affirmed that homophobia has no place at a Catholic institution, and that the purpose of the march far extends the content found on the bulletin board. For full coverage on this event, please use the following link: https://www.thecowl.com/breaking-news/pc-community-marches-against-transphobia-and-homophobia
Fr. Shanley released a second statement in an email on March 26 in reaction to what he calls “negative publicity, mostly on conservative media sites” that are “not accurate,” and increasing phone calls from angered alumni.
“The College always has, and always will, remain faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church,” said Fr. Shanley. He also denounced the hostility shown to Smalanskas in the passing weeks, and stated that the drawing was “odious” and “reprehensible.” “There can be no place on our campus for bullying, harassment, or intimidation,” Fr. Shanley said.
While this message did fulfill the initial request made by Smalanskas and Dr. Keating for the College to address the harassment and confirm Catholic beliefs, Smalanskas thought it came only after bad publicity for PC and was insulting to members of the media, alumni, and himself.
Looking to the future, this bulletin board controversy has shown a larger conflict at place at PC and within Catholic colleges across the country—how can a college maintain its Catholic identity while still being inclusive?
Dr. Keating believes that PC was not ready to address this “huge challenge” and now must decide, like many Catholic colleges, what it means to be a Catholic college not just in the pulpit or classroom but in the everyday life of students. Goodwin also stated that PC is “not alone in this struggle” and looks to professional organizations like the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities for guidance and information.
“I think about moving forward prayerfully and curiously,” said Goodwin. “It’s more important for me to understand than to be understood. Experience of students, faculty, administration, and alumni helps us move forward and we can count on professional organizations to help us in dialogue and conversations and inquiry.”
Smalanskas has continued to pursue his Title IX claim, which prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal fundraising and aims to remedy hostile learning environments. PC’s Sexual Misconduct or Relationship Policy complies with Title IX, and the College’s website defines sexual harassment as “any form of sex discrimination when the conduct creates a hostile environment.”
Investigations fall under the Department of Public Safety and are overseen by the Title IX Coordinator Dr. James Campbell. Complainants are given an adviser, in this case Dr. Keating, who has previously worked on Title VI and IX cases, and can find resources with the Dean of Students, Steven Sears.
While the investigation is ongoing, administrative figures are “reluctant to talk about an individual student” in respect of their privacy and to never compromise an ongoing investigation, said Goodwin.