The Ole Miss Incident: The University is Tested Once Again

Submitted by Charlton Stanley (Otteray Scribe), Guest Blogger

Ole MissThe Laramie Project is a play by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project about the torture-murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student in 1998. Mutilated and almost dead, he was found tied to a barbed wire fence just outside Laramie, Wyoming. That fence was the inspiration for the play’s logo. Matthew Shepard died of his injuries shortly after being taken to a local hospital. The murder was called a hate crime, but in 1998 there were few hate crime laws, and there was none in Wyoming.

Shortly after Matthew Shepard was killed, Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project went to Laramie and interviewed dozens of local people about the murder. The play draws on over 400 hours of interviews with residents of Laramie, as well as company members’ own journal entries and published news reports. The Laramie Project is divided into three acts. Eight actors portray more than sixty characters in a series of short scenes.

The play has been performed all over the US and internationally as well. Venues have included high schools, colleges, and community theaters across the US. As of this writing, The Laramie Project has also been performed at professional playhouses in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. Not surprisingly, Fred Phelps and his merry band of haters have frequently picketed The Laramie Project.

The Laramie Project Playbill Credit: Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Mississippi
The Laramie Project Playbill
Credit: Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Mississippi

This week, The Laramie Project is on the playbill at the University of Mississippi, known to students and Southeast Conference sports fans as Ole Miss. The play has been well received, and presented without incident until last Tuesday evening. About 20 freshman football players are taking a course in the arts and part of the course requirement is for them to attend a certain number of plays. Tuesday night, the players allegedly instigated a disruption and heckling in the audience. I say “allegedly” because the investigation is still ongoing. Among other things, audience members, allegedly egged on by the players, began yelling homophobic slurs at the cast. Catcalls of “faggot,” “fag,” and worse were heard coming from the group. They encouraged other audience members to join in with the heckling, taking pictures, and generally behaving badly. Play director Rory Ledbetter said the audience reaction was “borderline hate speech.” Cast members and the characters they were portraying were heckled for their body types and sexual orientation, among other things. Ironically, only one member of the cast is gay.

“I am the only gay person on the cast,” Garrison Gibbons said. “I played a gay character in the show, and to be ridiculed like that was something that really made me realize that some people at Ole Miss and in Mississippi still can’t accept me for who I am.”

As soon as theater faculty figured out the heckling had started in the group of football players, House Director Lyda Phillips, who is a theater major and an athletics ambassador, called a coach, who then called Drew Clinton, the Associate Director of Academic Support, asking him to come to the auditorium. According to the person I talked to on campus, he was furious, ordering the student athletes to apologize for their behavior. After the play, the players went backstage to meet with the cast. One of the players acted as spokesman for the group. Some of the cast members cried at the apology.

Ole Miss Theater Department Chair Rene Pulliam was quoted by the Daily Mississippian, the student newspaper, as saying. “…I’m not sure the players truly understood what they were apologizing for.”

Rory Ledbetter told reporters, ““The football players were certainly not the only audience members that were being offensive last night, but they were definitely the ones who seemed to initiate others in the audience to say things, too. It seemed like they didn’t know that they were representing the university when they were doing these things.”

Thursday morning, head football coach Hugh Freeze sent a Tweet that has been picked up by sports media tweeted Thursday morning: “We certainly do not condone any actions that offend or hurt people in any way. We are working with all departments involved to find the facts.”

By way of background, for those who may have seen the movie, The Blind Side, Freeze was Michael Oher’s high school football coach. His real name was not used in the movie; instead, he was called “Coach Cotton.” Freeze has a reputation for being a strong leader who does not tolerate nonsense, and demands his players behave themselves at all times, insisting on excellence both on and off the playing field. As my on-campus informant told me yesterday, “Hugh Freeze is no Joe Paterno.”

The University also issued an open letter to the public and students over the signatures of Chancellor Dan Jones and Athletics Director Ross Bjork. The letter condemns the actions of the group, and makes it clear that such behavior will not be tolerated. The entire letter can be seen here.

The William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation is named after former Governor William Winter. The Institute has been active after other controversial incidents on campus, and I just learned the are now involved with this incident. They are making plans to keep more incidents like this one from happening on campus again. There are plans underway for athletes and students to attend some sort of cultural sensitivity training sessions.

Last spring, the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs created the Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT). Its mission is, “…to support the university’s efforts to establish and sustain the university’s expectations around inclusivity and to provide an atmosphere that supports a healthy curricular and co-curricular experience.” BIRT Co-Chair Merrill Magruder said the cast and crew of The Laramie Project have stressed they did not want to see punitive action, but rather make this an educational opportunity for those who were in attendance.

This morning, University officials investigating the incident say they are having difficulty making positive identification of who was involved. For the individuals who have been identified, officials and faculty are not sure about the degree of involvement. Part of the problem is the fact the theater was dark.

Adding to the University administration concern is the fact that October is LGBTQ month at Ole Miss. Last Thursday there was a reception at Bryant Hall. Chancellor Dan Jones, Athletics Director Ross Bjork, and other campus leaders spoke at the reception.  Student cast members and faculty advisers were also at the reception. Next week, during LGBTQ month, the University will host Pride Week.  The last thing the University administration and student body leadership want is another incident.

At any rate, there will not be enough time to determine exactly who did what, and what must be done before the Auburn game today. In the body of this story I have provided links to the Daily Mississippian so the reader can follow events as news develops.

It will probably be sometime next week before decisions are made. What do you think is the most appropriate way for this university, or any other school, to handle this situation or one like it?

127 thoughts on “The Ole Miss Incident: The University is Tested Once Again”

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  3. Thanks for that piece Elaine. Looks like the bigots and haters are in full battle cry. I remember when James Meredith was vilified as part of a cabal that wanted to “mongrelize” the white race when he tried to enroll at Ole Miss. “Swiftboating” did not originate with the Kerry for President campaign. Vilifying the hated “other” is as old as the hills. There are some who will go to any length, tell any lie and totally abandon logic in an effort to give their hate some kind of legitimacy.

  4. Sandy Rios At Values Voter Summit: Matthew Shepard’s Murder Was ‘A Total Fraud’
    By Christina Wilkie
    Posted: 10/11/2013

    WASHINGTON — Radio host Sandy Rios on Friday said the characterization of Matthew Shepard’s brutal 1998 murder as an anti-gay hate crime was “a total fraud,” and that Shepard, who was beaten to death by two men near Laramie, Wyo., was being used as “propaganda” by gay activists.

    Speaking at the annual Values Voter Summit, a gathering of conservative Christians in Washington, Rios painted a picture of a nation under siege by homosexuals.

    Rios, the former president of the conservative Christian group Concerned Women of America, referenced a recent story in The Advocate, a national magazine geared toward LGBT readers, that challenges the narrative of the Matthew Shepard story. The article examines a new book by Stephen Jimenez, The Book of Matt, which suggests Shepard’s murder was drug-related.

    In Rios’ retelling, however, Shepard’s murder was part of a long-term plan by liberals and the LGBT community to create a society that is accepting of gay people.

    It is up to Christian conservatives, Rios argued, to stop that acceptance. “We can’t let [gay people] keep breaking hearts and taking lives,” she said, one of a number of references Rios made to her theory that gay men are responsible for the AIDS epidemic.

    “You think youth is worshipped in heterosexual sex? It is top of the line [for gay men]. And they like young men, young virile men,” Rios told a crowd of hundreds in the ballroom of the Omni Shoreham Hotel. “You get old and you’re a gay man? There’s so much rejection.”

  5. In other news from Ole Miss, the report of the Extended Sensitivity and Respect Committee was released. It was broad and covered many topics that have needed to be addressed for at least forty years. I hope these recommendations are taken seriously by both the administration and student body.

    The student body has changed a lot since the upheaval when James Meredith showed up on campus in 1961. Apropos of nothing, here is a video made in the Student Union a couple of years ago.

  6. DM: It is not thought police, it is action police. You are welcome to imagine raping the women you see in the mall, when you act on that fantasy you prove to us you are incapable of controlling yourself and we have to sequester you from society for that.

    Bias in the mind is fine, you are welcome to hate gays all you want (as we know you do despite your denials), when you act on that hatred you have proven yourself a societal danger to a subset of society that must be protected from you.

    There is no thought police involved, it is not illegal to be biased, to speak your bias, to hold signs declaring your bias, to protest or vote on your bias. The police are for when you harm others, and if your motive for harming others is bias, that shows a lack of the self control it takes to limit the exercise of your bias to legal outlets (like speech, assembly, protest, boycott and voting), and increases the chances the harm you caused will not be limited to an isolated incident. That is a basic psychological principle as old as time; once you are no longer a “virgin” to an intentional act of harm your chances of repeating that action are increased greatly.

    And future chances are exactly what we are trying to influence and protect against; the purpose of the punishment is to discourage others from the actions by increasing the costs and to prove to the public and the perpetrator that the consequences are real, so they will be taken seriously, and incarceration or the death penalty is to protect the public from the probable future actions of the perpetrator.

    You are welcome to your vile thoughts, David, but if you act on them we have to take actions to protect ourselves from you, in proportion to the danger you pose. If your action is a hate crime, that danger is increased, and the punishment should be proportionately more severe.

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