A response from Sean Janda
This past Tuesday, Jan. 25, Washington University’s Treasury approved a $20,000 appeal to bring Bristol Palin as the keynote speaker and a panelist for a discussion about abstinence in college during Sex Week. Regardless of whether one agrees with Ms. Palin’s political beliefs or lifestyle choices, the fact remains that this grant is deeply troubling.
It appears as if proponents of Ms. Palin’s appearance are advancing two main arguments in support of this funding decision. First, according to Treasury member Daniel Bernard (as quoted in Student Life), this event is sure to draw a large crowd, which creates value in itself. Second, according to Student Health Advisory Committee (SHAC) President Scott Elman (also as quoted in Student Life), Sex Week has been criticized for being too liberal, and Ms. Palin brings a different perspective to these issues, which should create dialogue.
Both of these arguments have fundamental problems, however. Although Ms. Palin may pack Graham Chapel and spark dialogue, her appearance will fundamentally shift the discourse that this event will create. Instead of discussing issues regarding abstinence in college, students will discuss the suitability of Ms. Palin as a keynote speaker. In this way, Ms. Palin’s appearance will suppress dialogue about the issues that Sex Week is meant to address and, instead, spark dialogue about Treasury’s use of its money.
Moreover, events are only useful if they create an engaging, enriching dialogue. While it may be entirely true that a more conservative voice was necessary to create some ideological tension in Sex Week, there are worlds of more qualified and relevant individuals that could provide that tension. In addition, these individuals could spark the conversation that SHAC and Treasury wish to create without the distracting dialogue about their suitability to speak on these issues.
In addition, the choice of Ms. Palin as the keynote speaker for this discussion is problematic for a variety of other reasons. First and foremost, Ms. Palin does not bring a unique and engaging perspective to this issue. There are presumably thousands of individuals just in the St. Louis area that went through teenage pregnancies that have the exact same perspective that Ms. Palin does. Although I have no issues with Treasury paying for individuals that will provide an enriching perspective on campus, it appears to me that, in this case, Treasury is paying for a name. In terms of the actual content of her speech and the framework for her discussion, she is by no means unique, enriching or engaging.
Moreover, Ms. Palin is simply not qualified to speak about the challenges facing individuals who wish to remain abstinent in college. She has done no scholarly research on the issue, she has never worked in a job that brings her into contact with large numbers of students struggling with these issues, and she neither remained abstinent nor attended college. Although I am sure there are some topics on which Ms. Palin may bring a qualified perspective, this discussion is simply not one of them. Our money would be much better spent on bringing in individuals who have struggled with the challenges that they will be discussing.
Furthermore, Ms. Palin is far too polarizing for this particular situation. First, as I’ve already mentioned, the choice of Ms. Palin has already shifted the discourse surrounding this panel from issues regarding abstinence to issues regarding Ms. Palin. With this shift, the entire point of the panel discussion is lost, and a very good opportunity to engender thought-provoking dialogue is wasted. In addition, the issue of abstinence in college is one that ought to be treated in a respectful, thoughtful way. Ms. Palin’s appearance on this panel simply destroys any chance for the discourse around the event to evolve in the manner that it deserves.
In addition, Ms. Palin’s appearance on this panel is troubling because of the extraordinarily high opportunity cost. Treasury’s mission is to fund engaging, enriching programs throughout the entire year. Spending $20,000 of the rapidly dwindling appeals account for Ms. Palin makes me seriously worry about the quality of programs for the rest of the semester. Wasting this money on a speaker that, in my opinion, brings nothing uniquely substantive to this discussion is very disturbing.
Finally, this entire situation makes me wonder about the transparency of Treasury’s decisions. In the end, seven students out of Wash. U.’s approximately 6,000 undergraduates voted to spend this money. Although I understand the need for a representative system, Treasury’s agendas are not publicized in any meaningful way prior to their meetings. As a result, yesterday, almost nobody on campus knew that Bristol Palin was even being considered at Treasury’s meeting. As such, individuals other than Treasury members were unable to inform their representatives about their views on the issue. In this way, the entire undergraduate student body loses an opportunity to have its opinions considered by Treasury. As such, I believe that Student Union should strongly consider revising the way that Treasury operates so that students can have input into the way that their money is spent rather than being relegated to criticizing decisions after the fact.
Class of 2014