Response to Providence College’s “Rescheduling” of My Event

Yesterday evening I was informed that Providence College had “rescheduled” my event there—this time in the form of a debate with Sherif Girgis. The announcement was made in a statement from the provost.

The events of the last several days have been dizzying, and I would like to clear up the record on several matters.

First, on academic freedom, a concept that is easily distorted: I believe that a Catholic college—indeed, any college—has the right to choose speakers who comport with its mission. Obviously, academic freedom does not mean that I may speak wherever I want: I have to be invited.

I was invited to Providence College. On February 16 of this year Professor Christopher Arroyo, with the support of multiple departments, invited me to give a lecture on same-sex marriage, and we set a date for September 26. Last Saturday Provost Hugh Lena abruptly cancelled the lecture. So the concern here is not my academic freedom, but that of the nine Providence College department or program heads who were suddenly overruled by the provost, on the basis of a policy that he has since admitted is written nowhere. Moreover, Provost Lena decided that one of his own faculty members, Professor Dana Dillon, was unsuitable as a respondent for me. As Professor Fred Drogula, President of the Faculty Senate, pointedly asks, “Is the Administration henceforth to rule on whether and when each of us is prepared to speak in our areas of expertise?” (Drogula’s letter, which has been posted to Facebook, is worth reading in full.)

Second, notwithstanding the current spin from the Providence College administration, my event is not being rescheduled. It is being replaced with a different event.

In February I agreed that I would come to Providence to give a lecture, which would be followed by a Q&A period. Although Professor Arroyo and I had previously (last Fall) discussed the possibility of a debate, that idea was dropped for budgetary reasons. Then, just last week, I agreed to change the format so that I would have a lecture with an official respondent. Now, finally, I am being invited for a debate. These are three different kinds of academic events, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. I have plenty of experience with all three, and (as I’ve long said) I’d be happy to do a debate at Providence College. What I’m not happy to do is to aid the administration in the pretense that “the September 26 event was merely being postponed, not cancelled, until we could be sure that it went forward in the format in which it was originally proposed,” as Provost Lena’s statement said yesterday.

While it is possible that what was proposed to me and what was proposed to the administration were entirely different events, Professor Arroyo assures me that this is not the case.

Last, but certainly not least, there is the personal side to all this.

In his “rescheduling” statement yesterday, Provost Lena (quite rightly) apologizes to Professor Arroyo and Professor Dillon. As for me, he simply says that the decision to cancel “had nothing to do with Dr. Corvino.” But of course, I am the person whose visit he abruptly canceled, in an e-mail sent on Saturday to faculty. In two decades of public speaking, at over 200 college campuses, I have never felt quite so bounced around.

Yesterday a friend asked me how I was doing, and I responded that the media attention was exhausting. “Yes,” he pressed, “But how are you doing? You were uninvited to speak. That seems hurtful, even if not intentionally personal.”

The truth is that it’s difficult not to feel as if the Providence College administration regards me as a sort of virus, which might infect students if not blocked by some administration-approved surgical mask. This feeling is sadly familiar, to me and to any gay person. It is the malaise of the closet, the notion that some features of oneself are unspeakable. I am the Other. And if I feel that way, I can only imagine how young gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender Providence College students must feel. It is for them that I remain most concerned.

That’s where “damage control” should be focused right now: the personal harm to LGBT Providence College students, not to mention faculty, staff, and alumni. Pope Francis has called for a “new balance” in the Church’s pastoral ministry, and there is an opportunity—yet unrealized—to implement that balance here.

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