Transgender issue creates controversy at UAFS

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 559 views 

Melanie Stout is angry.

The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS) student and managing editor of the school newspaper, said she has tried to follow up with involved UAFS administration in a recent conflict between the university and transgender student Jennifer Braly, but cannot find anyone willing to speak with her.

The issue began when Braly was asked by Dr. Laura King to speak on the issue of gender identity disorder for King’s general psychology classes.

The two planned lectures were on King’s syllabus, according to Braly, and were set to occur on April 20. At 4 p.m., April 19, Dr. Rita Barrett, associate professor and department head in the Department of Behavioral Sciences at UAFS, sent an email informing Braly her lectures were cancelled.

Barrett’s reasoning was that “all of my faculty are now diligently preparing for the closure of the semester.”

The email continued: “They must be in compliance with their syllabi, grading, final exams, graduation exercises, etc. and it is impossible to afford more class time to accommodate an additional speaker at one week before finals.”

Braly’s response inquired why, if it was a time issue, that instructor Charles Rogers was allowed a guest speaker the same week in his philosophy class. Braly told The City Wire that Barrett has not responded to her question.

After speaking again with King, Braly was told she could follow through with the lectures, but before she could, Dr. Henry Rinne, Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at UAFS, showed up at the class and prevented her from doing so.

“He said that he was told by administrative staff I couldn’t speak in any classroom settings, period, and that’s all he could tell me,” Braly said.

In a later meeting with UAFS Provost Ray Wallace, Braly alleged that the story had changed from being a “function of time” to being a “question of my credentials to speak on the subject.”

Braly said she is confused by the questioning of her credentials because she has “given 15 to 20 lectures on campus already” and “Dr. Nicha Otero (assistant professor, Department of Psychology at UAFS) has recommended me to speak on this subject at the university and high school levels.”

UAFS officials admit “there were miscommunications,” but that “the cancellation of the class and postponement of the student’s speech had absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter or the student’s status.”

The statement continued: “We are currently also working with this student to obtain the appropriate Institutional Review Board (IRB) review and approval on a survey instrument — a requirement that must be met prior to the use of any survey—which will allow her to continue speaking to other classes and groups and to survey her on-campus audiences.”

Braly had previously prepared a survey for the April 20 lectures, which had not met with university approval, but she was prepared to move forward and just give the lecture portions “as I’d done 15 or 20 times in the past.” She now fears the university will “do what they can to delay the IRB review and approval” in an effort to keep her from speaking.

Braly said the “survey instruments” had never been a requirement from the university for previous classroom lectures she had given.

Despite her concession on the new survey requirement, the lectures were not allowed to continue in a classroom setting, though Braly later addressed her class at the Student Campus Center, where reports of "ridicule" and "discrimination" were sent in by students in attendance, while being downplayed by university officials.

From Freedom of Information (FOI) documents attained by The City Wire, UAFS Vice-Chancellor of Student Affairs Lee Krehbiel, in response to student complaints, states he had staff monitoring the events since he could not be there in person and that there was "an unhappy exchange" between two students, which "ended quickly."

Krehbiel states in the documents that the students "both immediately left" and that otherwise he "received no reports of any drama, and none of any mistreatment of the speaker."

Stout and Lion Chronicle staff member Joshua Barnhardt reported on the incident April 20.

According to Stout, “shortly after” that time, she left a “detailed voice message” with Barrett and later approached Rinne for an interview, but was told he was “in a meeting” and that he would be given the message.

To date, Stout is still waiting for a reply, and the official statement released by UAFS isn’t going to cut it.

“It’s insulting to the entire student body to put out a statement like the one that was released. They’re always talking about how intelligent and creative and open-minded their students are, and about the diversity on this campus, and then they go and do something stupid like this, and it’s like slapping everyone in the face and saying, ‘You’re an idiot, we can’t tell you the truth, because you can’t handle it.’ Just man up and say what needs to be said,” Stout told The City Wire.

On April 23, Mark Horn, vice-chancellor for university relations, sent a preliminary statement to Wallace and Krehbiel for their review as an official UAFS statement on the issue. The statement was proposed as a response to the roughly 30 “very hateful” e-mails from students — students upset with Braly’s treatment — received by Rinne.

In the response, Horn, speaking on behalf of the university, denies “discrimination and free speech violations against this student (Braly),” stating, “We did neither.”

The statement continued: “Our actions have been taken in Consultation with the General Counsel of the UA System. Perhaps you feel that the administration could have better communicated with (redacted) and members of the cancelled psychology class; however, privacy, legal, academic standards, survey requirements, campus safety, and possible class management issues, which you could not have known about, were in play, creating additional need to proceed slowly and adding complexity. It’s simply not as simple as (redacted) to the class.”

According to the FOI documents, Dr. King had her own concerns about the university's reasons for altering the class.

In an email to Rinne, she wrote the following: "I thought I would let you know that, entirely on their own initiative, students in my classes contacted local television stations regarding the incidents in my General Psychology classes this morning. Though I mentioned to you this morning that I was considering contacting the media, I have not done so and I frankly think it’s more impactful with the students initiating the attention to an infringement on free speech and academic freedom.”

One student complaint, sent to Krehbiel, addressed the Rinne interruption of King's class, stating he was "rude and unprofessional." A second complaint noted that Rinne said, "UAFS can not support this," and that he "in some words threaten the teachers job preventing the student speaking in class about her life (sic)."

King, later in a second e-mail to Barrett, expanded on the event, stating she "spoke with Dean Rinne and that he said the directive to not allow the lectures came from the Provost (Wallace)." She did not mention the two students' accusations regarding Rinne's behavior towards her.

King's second email continued: “I expressed my concern about the violation of academic freedom that is involved when a faculty member is told not to have a guest speaker talk to a class when the faculty member has deemed it worthy and another faculty member (Otero) has heard the talk and recommended the speaker.”

King also states she does not “know all the reasons for this directive, but I am VERY concerned about the academic freedom issues involved. I hope that the decision was not based on fear of complaints by narrow-minded individuals who are uncomfortable with others who are transgender.”

An examination of FOI documents neither confirms nor disproves that the order came from Wallace. From page 11 of the PDF file, Wallace writes to Barrett and CCs Rinne, stating, “I would like to hear from you both (only) on this issue, although given what happened this morning (April 20), the stable door may already be wide open!”

While this statement may seem like Wallace is investigating the situation and is seeking Barrett’s and Rinne’s input, later in the same email, he states, “eroding academic freedom was the furthest thing from my mind here,” indicating the decision to cancel the lectures may have been his, particularly in light of King’s emails, and what she was allegedly told by Rinne.

Gaining access to all UAFS internal communications on the matter as well as UAFS's contact with any government agencies involved in the handling of Braly during her tenure at the university has proven difficult. According to Horn, "The majority of records requested (by The City Wire) constitute student education records under the Family Educational Rights Privacy Act (FERPA) and are exempt from disclosure by the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act."

The City Wire requested the documents on May 3. Horn sent the non-exempt items late Tuesday afternoon (May 8). With much of the text redacted, growing beyond the "he said, she said" could prove impossible.

Link here to the PDF of documents received by The City Wire from UAFS.