August 6 at 12:43 PM
Board of Trustees
Ball State University
Attn: Rick Hall, Chair
To Mr. Hall and the Board of Trustees:
I’m writing to express my profound disappointment with Friday’s decision to publicly align Ball State University with John Schnatter. As Associate Provost for Immersive Learning and a member of the Strategic Planning Committee, I’ve had the honor of meeting many of you, and you know I’m not shy about expressing my commitment to Ball State. I love this institution more than I ever imagined I would when I first set foot on campus over fifteen years ago. The phrase “Ball State is family” is a constant refrain, but it’s more than just a thing we say: I feel it every day in my department, with my colleagues and, most important, in the responsibility I feel toward my students.
You have done those students, and this community, an incredible disservice with this decision.
I teach writing, and my classes center on two main concepts: (1) the power of language, and (2) the responsibility we bear for what we say and do. There is no doubt that the epithet uttered by Mr. Schnatter is a grossly harmful and ritualized stripping of humanity from African Americans to maintain power and privilege. I am additionally concerned, however, with his, and your, attempts to use context as a way to explain away his deliberate choice.
Context is certainly important, but the argument that Mr. Schnatter employed to defend his utterance of the epithet smacks of “whataboutism,” which is nothing more than an empty substitute for informed public discourse, and a convenient way to shirk responsibility.
While you state that Mr. Schnatter did not use the word in “a derogatory manner seeking to demean any individuals or groups; rather it was used as an example of improper conduct” the fact remains that he said the word—he didn’t refer to it, but he said it—and then rationalized this all-too-casual use of the epithet as an attempt to shift the blame: “what I did wasn’t as bad as what someone else did, and he didn’t face any consequences, so I shouldn’t either.”
During his 2015 commencement speech (in addition to his comment that he chose to attend Ball State because the student ratio was “5-1 girl/guy”) Mr. Schnatter felt it appropriate to share with the graduating seniors, over half of whom were female, the story of the first employee he hired for his pizza shop, “a cook who didn’t know how to cook,” but had “a great attitude and a nice —. They made me take that part out of the speech, but you get my message.”
As one might expect, this “joke” was treated to a chorus of hoots, but more than a few women in the audience were offended by it, myself included. They felt cheated that their college commencement address, a time for them to feel proud of their academic achievements and foster hope for the future, featured the all-too-familiar story of a woman being objectified.
Sadly, I chose not to speak up, hoping it was, perhaps, a short-sighted attempt by Mr. Schnatter to get a few laughs from a particular audience.
That was before Ball State took a large sum of money from him, and named an academic center after him. That was before the NFL scandal, before his company dismissed him, before every other university associated with him cut ties, before he loudly decried that he was being treated unfairly for using a word that was not his to use.
The evidence is overwhelming that Mr. Schnatter does not understand the responsibility he bears, as a public figure, to thoughtfully consider what he says in the public sphere. Mr. Schnatter himself has suggested that this issue is not going away anytime soon, and I am fearful that the institution I love will be publicly associated with the careless and entitled behavior of this one individual over the good work we do, daily, in teaching our students to be responsible citizens and good human beings. We owe it to our students, staff and faculty to be better than our lowest common denominator, to publicly say “this is not who we are” and to do it in a way that visibly affirms, by actions and not just words, our commitment to diversity and inclusion, and to creating a welcoming home for all.
I urge you to reverse this decision as soon as possible, for the good of our Ball State family. Thank you for your time.