In recent weeks, the Sewanee administration has been inundated with calls from students, faculty, staff, and alumni to revoke the honorary degree of far-right political pundit Eric Metaxas. This movement was spearheaded by and began with an online petition written by Dr. Royal G. Cravens III, an alumnus of the University. The full text of the petition can be found here.
If you’re reading this piece, chances are you are either a member of the Sewanee community or Eric Metaxas. If you are the former–Welcome! If you are the latter, (Hi, Eric!) we invite you to reflect on the vitriol and bigotry of your beliefs, and return your honorary degree—no further reading of this piece is necessary.
Eric Metaxas is an individual undeserving of recognition, and even further undeserving of praise. As a leading figure of the Christian right, Metaxas has a long history of making homophobic, racist, and otherwise bigoted comments. Recently, he has used his influence and power to sow dangerous misinformation about vaccines and the Covid-19 pandemic contributing to the tragic deaths of more than half a million Americans. Furthermore, he openly rallied support for the January 6th insurrectionists, undermining our democracy through the propagation of thoroughly debunked conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election. In short, he is a political grifter who has weaponized the sincerely held religious beliefs of many in this nation to further a political agenda of hatred and division.
In response to the calls for revoking Metaxas’ honorary degree from Sewanee, critics have accused those who support degree revocation of “canceling” Metaxas and hindering his right to free speech. As an openly leftist news publication, we at the Sewanee Spectre recognize and continue to fiercely defend the merits of free thought and expression in society. However, as an organization composed of queer individuals, allies, and supporters of democratic institutions we cannot in good conscience sit idly by as Metaxas continues to be rewarded for his vitriol. The Sewanee Spectre is an organization committed to the total liberation of all people, and the abolition of the structures of power that have allowed men like Eric Metaxas to design, build, and spread their false gospel of hatred. These actions undermine our core beliefs and go directly against the values of the University that we as a community have agreed to uphold.
Eric Metaxas is not the only one with a right to free speech and now is the time for us as an organization and as members of the University to exercise this right by disavowing the ignorance and hatred represented in Metaxas’ public persona,
Honorary degrees serve as a symbol of Sewanee’s recognition that an individual has presented notable contributions to society and has an upstanding moral character. By and large, Metaxas has neither of these qualifications. Through continuing to allow Metaxas to bear an honorary award from The University of the South we as an institution choose not just to ignore, but to endorse the oppression of students of marginalized identities. In the spring of 2018, when Sewanee chose to revoke the honorary degree of Charlie Rose, it was because we, as a collective community, agreed and loudly decreed that his actions were unacceptable and irreconcilable with the values of the University. It has now become clear that Eric Metaxas has also violated the principles of our institution, and must now, like Charlie Rose before him, face accountability for his actions .
If any student at the University behaved in the way that Eric Metaxas has in the last few years, they would face severe disciplinary action. The staff of the Spectre questions how our institution can, in good conscience, continue to lend their support, even in a symbolic way, to a man who has so clearly violated the community standards and values agreed upon by our University. We believe in the worthwhile goals of the University and our values. If these values are to be more than words on a page, we must hold our students, alumni, and recipients of honorary degrees accountable for their actions and subscription to these ideals.
Eric Metaxas has a right to free speech. While Metaxas’ speech is primarily composed of alt-right Christian nationalist drivel, he has a right to it nonetheless. However, when that speech manifests in the form of violence, Sewanee has not just the option to hold him accountable, but a duty to do so.
It is with these points in mind that the Sewanee Spectre staff lends our full support towards the petition to revoke Eric Metaxas’ honorary degree. Accountability, while hard, is critical to our ultimate goal of collective liberation. We can only hope that those in positions of power at this University choose to act with ethical conviction, rather than political cowardice.
Who am I to you all?
In a stagnant state unable to change the way I am seen
The way I’m perceived
The way I’m heard
Analyzed and alienated
A name not spoken in a knowing manner
But interrogative in nature
A real name barely spoken at all
Followed by stillness in the air
Campus quiets itself in consideration
Who am I to you?
The one thing I can control, a simple
Replacement of a name in conversation
Slipped out of minds, it’s out of hand
She, she, she
Turns from an act of forgetfulness to the call of a mockingbird
I turn around at the sound of mimicry
In an act of forgetfulness myself
Conversing with the false narrative of who
I’m meant to be
Who am I?
But a body in dormancy
A mind of its own
Chased by a pair of feet in men’s shoes
One size too big
Who am I but a passerby
Boy or girl, he or she
A student who speaks with clarity
When everything else is so unconfirmed
Who am I?
In case you forgot, here is your reminder: there are plans to tear down the SUT. You probably know about the movie nights in Blackman auditorium — an academic space with a fitting vibe — and might attend a flick or two. If you’re a first-year student, you might not even know that we have a gem of a retro theatre — a real theatre — on campus. After a summer of fun and into a semester of adventures, you might have forgotten about the SUT altogether. The Sewanee community has not received any updates on the fate of the SUT; would we notice if it was silently destroyed?
March 30th, somewhere in the daily flood of countless emails, in a particularly long one (the kind many students ignore as the workload gets heavy), something made me gasp. Shyly in the middle of the email were the following less-than-affectionate words: “…removal of the SUT structure”, where the diplomatic “removal” stands for “tearing down”, and “the SUT structure” is our Sewanee Union Theatre, one of the oldest theatres in this part of Tennessee and a cherished part of the Sewanee community.
Apparently, this had been discussed many times in the Biehl Commons Planning Committee meetings even though the specific intentions were never explicitly announced. According to them, the SUT stands between us and a great new gathering place. The Biehl Commons is not yet real, but is already a part of our campus tours. It was an easy detail to miss, but you could fill out the form further down in the email to share your thoughts. Reading that email, I couldn’t help feeling like Arthur Dent, a character from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” whose house was in the way of the new prospective bypass:
“But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine month.” “Oh yes, well as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean like actually telling anybody or anything.”
“But look, you found the notice didn’t you?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.”
(Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Chapter 1)
It did the trick: there was not much talk after the email, no signs on the Quad, no new hashtags, no Sewanee clubs posting and reposting in support of the SUT. Yet what we would lose as a community if the SUT got torn down is much more than “a structure” or an old quiet movie venue.
The SUT has been with us since the 1930s, making it one of the oldest original movie theaters in the South. The SUT has known segregated Sewanee and it has known Sewanee without female students. In the 1950s the SUT survived a violent fire, and now it is approaching a century of life on the Domain through all the steps Sewanee took to become better.
The SUT has been a scene not only for friendly personal meetings and movie showings but also a terrain of social change. Some stories are mostly forgotten: for example, a now-gone tradition of Owl Flicks — late-night movie screenings that were often the most attended nights at the SUT — is warmly remembered by older graduates. Before 1969 when women were allowed to attend Sewanee, the nature of the Owl Flicks was completely different, featuring “soft-core sex adventures”. With women matriculating into the undergraduate community, the repertoire became more socially conscious. This anecdote shows a positive social change manifested itself in one of Sewanee’s institutions: particularly, in a place of entertainment, where ideas spread easier and faster. Yet somehow, the administration seems more eager to tear it down than, for example, finalize the plans on getting rid of the hurtful signs of confederacy all around the Domain.
Not only is the SUT an integral part of our history — some of which we’re proud of, much of which we’re not, but it is also a staple of modern Sewanee and a major part of its charm. In attempts, however noble, to cater to students and follow the path of renovation, we as a community risk losing the things dear and relatable to many generations of students: things that are unmistakable as “Sewanee.” Sarah Marhevsky, former Coordinator of Global Initiatives and a Sewanee local poses an important question: “What are the ways we can hold on to things that are unique to Sewanee and set it apart from other places?”
Talking to students, community members, staff, and graduates, I could easily see how dear the SUT is to Sewanesians and how important it is to their experience. “I think that the SUT as it is now is a part of Sewanee’s ecosystem and natural environment”, explained Virginia Mcclatchey (C’21). Yet at the same time, many agree that the SUT’s current condition and attendance rate hardly match its importance: “Everybody loves the SUT, but we don’t really talk it up to each other, it’s just sort of a given, I think we all take it for granted”.
Low attendance was one of the justifications provided in the original email: “Attendance at the SUT averaged fewer than 25 patrons per night during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years.” Last year with fewer students, lower energies, and COVID policies, it was probably even worse. However, this does not mean that the SUT should be deemed disposable. Another great thing Sarah Marhevsky said to me was this simple truth: “Rethinking is harder than tearing stuff down”.
Re-thinking is what the SUT needs; or rather, re-energizing. We can’t “re-energize” community spaces by tearing them down. The SUT has not only a beloved place in the hearts of the community, but also a great potential that is so far unrealized. The drop in attendance is mostly a consequence of the lack of input and the lower priority of the SUT among both the students and the administration. It doesn’t mean we don’t love the SUT: it only means it’s being unfairly overlooked.
The last big renovation of the SUT happened almost 30 years ago in 1994-95, not including the purchase of a new digital projector back in 2013. From the outside, one wouldn’t even know there’s an old cinema theatre in the building: in place of some exterior ambiance, there’s a modest plaque and a bleak wooden door. Investing in upgrading the equipment and infrastructure could improve the quality of the movie experience. As of now, the theatre can’t even boast a working vacuum. At the same time, many students note that old shabby interiors actually appeal to them and create a unique atmosphere that they wouldn’t trade for a new modern theatre building. This not only means that the needed renovation will be less costly, but also testifies to the fact that the SUT is loved and needed: old but well-maintained, clean, and taken care of.
Yet the biggest energy we could gift to the SUT is not money or equipment but enthusiastic management, interested students, and clear impact. The SUT has been a vital venue for student organizations: it is probably the easiest and the most engaging way to screen a movie without having to worry about the set-up, the weather, or refreshments. Student organizations on campus often hosted events at the SUT: Spectrum, the WICK, Russian House, and Asian House, to name just a few. More involvement would help both the SUT and students organizations boost attendance, diversify their activities, and potentially increase their impact. Greek organizations have not been as engaged with the theatre, but there are ways to interest fraternities and sororities in the SUT and build a mutually beneficial relationship. Nearly two-thirds of students are in Greek Life, so they сan pour a lot of energy into the student theatre. We have a lot of work to do in re-examining our local culture, broadening our perspective, and being more engaged: a community theatre like the SUT is a promising location for that.
If we think outside of the student body, keeping the SUT and investing more effort in it could also help us bridge the gap between “town” and “gown”. Building a close relationship between the University and the community has always been a challenge, and the SUT is absolutely in a position to provide a meeting point and a shared platform for students and locals. In the past, the SUT has collaborated with organizations such as girl scout troops and Cumberland Center of Justice and Peace (CCJP). It had always welcomed staff, faculty, Sewanee locals, and even visitors from the nearby towns. Since the introduction of COVID restrictions, many community members have been really missing going to the SUT. With such an affordable price and a familiar venue, the SUT could become a vibrant social hub on central campus.
Re-engaging the SUT with students, locals, and organizations would, of course, involve some effort. Back in 1978-79, the SUT would send out questionnaires to the students and the community to find which genres were the favorite, what showtimes work best, and what would improve the movie experience. The SUT folder at the University Archives is full of report sheets and findings, followed by proposed changes in the SUT operation. A similar study could help find a good development path for the SUT, integrate the actual needs and desires of moviegoers into the theatre operation, and give students an opportunity to practice their research skills while leaving a tangible impact on their alma mater.
Last, but definitely not least, is the potential the SUT has to provide “alternative things to do on campus that aren’t alcohol based”. Party culture has always dominated the social scene, and replacing a quieter and sober alternative like the SUT with another party venue would only add more gravity to the party scene while taking away social options from students and the community as a whole. After all, on some nights, all you want is a dark room, a passive social interaction, a bag of chips, and a guilty pleasure movie.
Any decision that involves destruction should not be taken lightly. Here, however, we’re talking not just about destruction, but about loss. The Sewanee Union Theater is more than a student theatre: it is a piece of our history, a place with a very special atmosphere and distinct significance, a learning and working space, a social hub, and an untapped potential. It is “the happiest place on campus,” as our University’s website states. Moving screenings to Blackman or opening another theatre elsewhere simply won’t do. ‘Re-energizing’ the Quad should involve re-engaging the SUT, which is going to be a collective effort. As for the Biehl Commons patio, on a 13,000 acre campus there’s bound to be a place for it that doesn’t require tearing down the places that truly matter. This is especially true now that we know from Arcadian training that there are plans for another patio some thirty feet away from the SUT. Even the brightest plans and most promising designs shouldn’t blind us when it comes to seeing what Sewanee is and what Sewanee needs. We need to remember the SUT because as far as we know, its existence is not guaranteed. If the SUT is dear to you, too, and you haven’t yet voiced your opinion, make sure you fill out the feedback form on the Biehl Commons with your comments on the SUT. Ask administrators about their plans for the SUT, and make your concerns heard. Keep your ears cocked for updates. For all we know, it might make a difference.
When the Covid-19 Pandemic was beginning in the winter of 2019, we knew that it could last a month or a millennium. Either our institutions of power and production would mobilize towards a victory that would be quick and absolute or slow and pyrrhic. The administration of the University of the South has chosen the latter.
At the time of writing this, there have been over 600,000 deaths from Covid-19 in the U.S. alone. These deaths are recognized as operational and infrastructural failures by the Trump Administration and various state governments which have received ample criticism throughout 2020 for mishandling pandemic responses. During this time, the University of the South was acknowledged as a shining example of how the spread of Covid-19 could be stopped with thorough institutional action. Yet, the email sent to the University community by Vice-Chancellor Reuben Brigety on September 4, 2021, expresses a major institutional shift. Operating with “the expectation that all students and employees take personal responsibility for their own health and, importantly, to do their part to help protect our community” is a grave mistake.
The notion that one can remain healthy through personal responsibility alone is a myth, and this pandemic has provided ample evidence of that. There are plenty of stories of people who did everything right according to institutional guidelines, yet were infected by members of their household who were essential workers or were not taking the same precautions. Though we know that it is impossible and undesirable to be fully isolated, there is security in having the safety net of regular testing, quarantine space, gathering limits, and distance learning options. These have all been gutted by the University. We fear for immunocompromised and at-risk community members, as well as for the children of the community who are too young to get vaccinated. For those wanting a guarantee of safety, their only option is complete distrust of everyone and total personal isolation, a strategy that would affect their mental health. Every classmate could be a threat, every neighbor a risk, and every friend a potential carrier. This shatters our concept of Ecce Quam Bonum, the cornerstone of virtue at the University.
It is still possible for us to avoid this potentially catastrophic direction and live reasonably well on campus. Allowing virtual learning, maintaining testing for unvaccinated people, and developing University quarantining spaces are necessary steps to protect the health of our community.
The University’s recent decision maintains a lack of intersectionality in its approach that will devastate marginalized and vulnerable communities. In an email sent to students currently in quarantine, Dean Lauren Goodpaster asked students to vacate current quarantine housing within 48 hours and return to their communal living spaces or homes. Additionally, the email told students in need of food that they were “…free to go to McClurg or go through a drive-through, etc…” a suggestion that jeopardizes fellow students, as well as low-wage workers both on campus and in the surrounding communities.
For many students, simply returning home is not an option due to socio-economic restraints, immunocompromised family members, unsafe living conditions, distance, or regionally overwhelmed healthcare systems. With this decision, the University has endangered residents of the South Cumberland plateau, who like many in Appalachia, do not have access to reliable healthcare or the means to quarantine safely. Sewanee’s decision may be sustainable for the most able-bodied and wealthy among us, but for too many in our community, it stands only as a demonstration of their expendability.
Months ago, vaccination was proposed as an end to these problems. Unfortunately, the rise of the Delta variant has proven to be a hindrance to this dream. While vaccination does significantly reduce the risk that an infection will prove fatal, it still has flaws, as all vaccines do. The past week has shown that breakthrough cases are not as rare as we have thought, and while young people are less at risk there are still serious long-term effects of Covid that we must contend with. Some immunocompromised people and all children under 12 are not eligible to receive the vaccine. The Delta variant is considerably more contagious than the original strain of Covid, and while severe cases among children are relatively rare, there have been fatalities. Because of this, and the university’s decision to halt virtual learning, the administration has callously put faculty, staff, and their families at unprecedented risk not even two weeks into this school year. This risk also applies to community members with no close connection to the University as Franklin County only has a 32% vaccination rate. Let us be clear, we deeply resent the resistance to vaccination that has been promoted by populist politicians in the South. However, despite the resentment with which many liberals speak of their conservative, Southern countrymen, it is our conviction that despite political differences, our people do not deserve to die for their ignorance.
Throughout the pandemic, we have seen Covid-19 mutate to new, more contagious variants, of which Delta is the most prominent. It is not unfounded to claim that in letting Covid become endemic, we are allowing more dangerous and vaccine-resistant variants to propagate. In chasing normalcy, we are running towards danger.
Critics may say that our views are alarmist and a call for a tyrannical end to the liberties of collegiate youth, but it is because of our love of this place that we write to save her. Attending Sewanee has been one of the great joys of our lives and is a privilege unrivaled by any other life experience. The friends we have made, the memories forged, and the topics studied, shine golden in our hearts. It is with this love that we wish to fight against this pandemic: a neighborly love not to see our fellows destroyed with reckless abandon. While there is freedom to enjoy life, there must also be freedom from disease. We wish to see neither death nor suffering.
To battle a pandemic, we must be willing to make necessary concessions. Our gatherings, physical connections with loved ones, and the very socialization which makes us human must all be altered in order to protect human life. However, while we must give up many things, we can never allow ourselves to sacrifice morality, ethics, and virtue. The University’s decision to halt testing, end isolation, and replace our Covid infrastructure with a policy of personal responsibility alone, our University has decided not just to fall back, but rather to surrender in the face of hardship due to exhaustion, finances, or a lack of care. Though we are not advocating for an extreme policy, we are asking for an institutional effort to protect us all. Together, we can continue to weather and even thrive in this storm, but only if we remember that above all our petty concerns must be our commitment to the highest virtue of all: to love and protect the people who dwell beside us.
When an anonymous student removed the bust of General Leonidas Polk from its perch in duPont Library and delivered it (unscathed) to the University Archives, and when Provost Berner later discouraged such “individual action” in a letter to students and faculty, I was led to wonder why we discourage the individual action that removed the bust but not the one that brought it to Sewanee in the first place.
Note: We’ve receivedmultiple requests that Dr. Berner’s email be linked within this article. As it was not a public post made on any website, but rather an email to Sewanee students and faculty, we’ve included the full text in the comments below.
Dear Dr. Berner,
We write regarding your recent email encouraging students to refrain from “individual action” against racist artifacts and symbols at Sewanee. The University’s unwillingness to celebrate a material protest against an artifact of the Lost Cause is discouraging, especially after the Board of Regents’ decision to finally disavow the Confederacy and the Lost Cause last September.
The individual who removed the sculpture sent two letters explaining their decision and treated the bust with respect, despite Leonidas Polk deserving little in life, and even less in death. It’s not that Polk, and many other people who are enshrined as icons across campus, “might be considered problematic.” Unquestionably, “Sewanee’s Fighting Bishop” was a vile, murderous, treasonous slaver who tried to overthrow the United States government by force of arms. Even by the standards of 19th century ethics, Polk’s legacy is indefensible. Any critic of the anonymous student concerned with “presentism” would do well to remember that roughly half of the United States was against slavery when Polk died. His greatest service to Sewanee (and humankind) was his generous decision to step in front of a cannonball at Pine Mountain. Are we really expected to wait until June of 2022 for a committee of academics to confirm what a five minute Google search would reveal about Polk, or any other bigot commemorated on this campus?
Many of the greatest revolutionaries, peace makers, and activists throughout history began their work as individuals precisely because larger groups and systems were not doing enough. An anonymous student at Sewanee thought critically about the harm that this institution caused their peers, then acted on their conscience. The act of taking Polk’s bust was a profound statement of individual morality over institutional bureaucracy. It took the University over a century to confirm what the Union Army decided in 1865; it’s no wonder students have lost trust in University committees.
We should encourage students to seek justice within harmful institutions. It’s defeatist to assert that real change cannot be introduced by the actions of a single person, and that’s the message that comes across in your email. Reckoning with the past begins with discomfort in the present, and that was demonstrated by the necessary and ethical removal of Polk’s bust from duPont.
Our face is not who we are. It is ephemeral, changeable, and shallow. And yet, in our society, it dictates how we are seen, heard and valued. Over this past summer in the United States and in the past week at Sewanee, I’ve witnessed the pain of Black citizens and students over the effects of blatant racism. More disturbing still is the indifference of the majority that enables the systems that hurts communities of color. It made me deeply sad that my Black friends felt unsafe, unvalued, and unheard. Originally all I wanted to do with this project was what I could to make people feel happy and loved, but I also wanted to pair that with conversations and learning. Since our society chooses to base so much of a human’s worth on their skin, yet favors “colorblindness” over acknowledging the reality of color, I thought I could accept the importance and beauty of skin, in full color and in all its glory by painting it, while pairing it with the voice of the human underneath it. I asked some of my Black classmates if they would be willing to be painted and share some of their thoughts regarding their experience of race at Sewanee. It is my hope in sharing this with a wider audience that it will become easier to harmonize the beautiful superficiality of skin with the deeply internal lived experience that it implies. These are our classmates, our friends, and our brothers and sisters, and they are beautiful and valued. I would encourage you to look as well as listen, and if you are a Black community member at Sewanee, I would love to paint your portrait and hear your thoughts.
Just to be clear, I sympathize with my classmates’ reactions towards the new 10-person limit on student gatherings. I’m also upset and frustrated by the actions of the University and their apparent lack of trust. It’s unfair to change the rules as quickly as they did. The new 10-person limit amounts to a petty collective punishment for the actions of 11 unnamed Greek organizations on Shake Day. Not everyone at Sewanee is involved in Greek life, and it’s unfair for other organizations and individuals to be held accountable for mistakes they didn’t make and rules they didn’t break. However, we need to discuss the language we’re using to voice our discontent.
I love our gowns. Aside from the Vice-Chancellor’s pancake dinner or the post-comp hazing ritual, they’re perhaps Sewanee’s greatest tradition. I’ll freely admit that most, if not all, of my admiration is purely material. Gowns look fabulous, especially when worn while riding a bicycle in windy weather. Little about Sewanee is classier than a black gown billowing behind a student on their three-speed. Yet for all its aesthetic value, the gown is a tradition in need of existential change. By which I mean: we ought to end the practice of gowning as a reward for grades, and we should open the Order of the Gown to all Sewanee students. I want gowns for everyone, from day one of freshman year to the moment of graduation.