A Decade Without Chalking, Part Five: An Interview with Dean Mike Whaley

Follwing a portraiture chalk project and guest post by Ross Levin ’15, our five-part retrospective on the Chalking Moratorium wraps up.

One Friday morning in October, I trekked across campus to Dean Mike Whaley’s office to talk about a chalking controversy that took place about a decade ago. The previous weekend, two students had gotten into a physical confrontation with President Roth for chalking on Wyllys Avenue during Homecoming. A few hours after chatting with Dean Whaley, I took part in a massive legal chalk-in on Church Street sidewalks as midday traffic cruised by. Dave Meyer strolled by and tried to confiscate the chalk. We explained that the sidewalks are Middletown property. He continued on his way.

Institutional history has a funny way of working in cycles, and Dean Whaley, who arrived at Wes in 1997 and was Dean of Students in 2002, probably knows this better than anyone. Surprisingly, Whaley told me that he loved the queer chalking when he first arrived at Wesleyan. He also mentioned that President Bennet specifically reached out to him, an openly queer administrator, for advice. But unlike the former students I interviewed, Whaley framed the conflict primarily in terms of a hostile work environment. “The problem was, OK, you don’t like the ban, we get that,” Whaley said of the protestors. “But how do we resolve this hostile work environment?”

Was the answer to adopt some vague notion of “community standards”? Or geographic boundaries for chalking? Or an end to the anonymity? Or ought the Wesleyan community realize, as Professor Potter argued, that “no one has the right not to be offended”?

Concluding Wesleying’s five-part retrospective on the chalking moratorium, I realize that the tumultuous clash between student expression, free speech, and top-down administrative notions of “community standards” is not lost in 2002. Nor is it limited to chalking. It’s everywhere. In the debate over the ACB. In the discourse surrounding need-blind, revised (and re-revised) housing policies, and Zonker Harris Day. In the affirmative action bake sale.

I might go so far as to call it an essential facet of the elusive “Wesleyan experience” itself.

My interview with Dean Mike Whaley appears below. If you find this interesting, check out previous retrospectives on the chalking controversy here, here, here, and here.

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Tell me about the role chalking played on campus when you first arrived at Wesleyan.

It was used sometimes to advertise events on campus. But it was more used, several times during the academic year, to “queer the space.” Usually around October 11, which is Coming Out Day, students would chalk all over campus queer messages and so forth, and that would usually happen again mid-April, near WesFest. And those were the two biggest semi-annual chalkings. And other times there would be advertisements about events happening—concerts and lectures and stuff like that. But that was pretty minimal.

At what point was there displeasure among administrators about chalking on campus?

During the whole time that I was here, there were always complaints by some students, by non-Wesleyan people visiting the campus, by some faculty and staff members. There were complaints about some of the content. Especially the queer chalking. People didn’t usually object to advertisements about things.

It seems to me that over time, the messages that were chalked were kind of pushing the envelope more and more. There was an increasing tendency to direct the chalkings at specific individuals and/or organizations on campus. So it felt in some ways like they became a mechanism of personal attack. As that happened slowly, over several years, I think the complaints increased.

What was your position on campus at that time?

I was Dean of Students then.

What were some of the events specifically leading up to the moratorium? Were you involved in those discussions?

Well, yes and no. The decision for the moratorium was really the president’s. We had an increasing number of complaints coming in, and we tried a bunch of different things. Our former Director of Affirmative Action was a woman by the name of Kathryn Friedman, and she and I would often talk to the president and the rest of the cabinet about chalking and the complaints that were coming from various segments of the community and visitors. If a complaint came in about a particular messages, there was a group of people, including myself, who would go and look at whatever the content was and try to come to some sort of decision about whether it should stay or be erased. And that was a horrible position to be in. Really difficult and complicated. We tried that through a couple cycles of chalking, and it was typically Kathryn Friedman, myself, and some student in a leadership position on the WSA. We would look at the different areas where we had gotten complaints and make decisions; if a quote-unquote “reasonable” person, whatever that means, would find something offensive, we would lean towards having it erased. If the group of us thought, “Well, this is political and some people might be uncomfortable with it, but we don’t really find it offensive,” we would let it stay. [Editor’s note: Professor Claire Potter describes this precise process, from a different perspective, in her 2008 essay, “Chalking the Borders.”]

As you can imagine, this is a job that none of us liked. And it just felt gross, honestly. So we tried that for a while and the content continued in this direction of naming more individuals. Those individuals would complain. So it wasn’t just people offended by, I dunno, the sex positivity of some of the content, but the number of complaints increased over time because specific people—departments, individuals—were being named.

I think the triggering factor for the moratorium was that either the Affirmative Action Office or the President’s Office received a formal complaint from some staff employees that the chalking that they were subjected to at least twice per year on their way into work constituted a hostile work environment. The president and the Affirmative Action Office felt like they had to take some sort of action to resolve that. Because people couldn’t get to their workplace without walking over this stuff. It’s comparable to me saying somebody’s posting porn or something on my door; I can’t get into my office without being exposed to it. And if that creates a hostile environment for me, then you as an employer have to do something to resolve that.

Then what?

That was kind of the catalyst that got us into the moratorium. And I remember President Bennet saying he felt that we needed to just take a break and have no chalking and take a step back and see if there were ways that the community could agree. Some guidelines, I guess, is what he was after.

So the moratorium was declared. I had many, many meetings with students, with the WSA, and so forth where we talked about what the issues were. We talked about some proposed guidelines. We talked about designating a certain place on campus where chalking can happen. Can we find a way so that it’s not anonymous speech? Like, a community norm that you have to sign your chalking? But that understandably did not work for some queer students who weren’t out but for whom it was empowering to chalk queer messages. We talked about a whole bunch of ideas. There were several proposals that went to the president to consider. When he announced the permanent ban, he wrote an email that you can probably dig up somewhere. He said, “We’ve tried this, we’ve tried that, the WSA has worked hard on this. I’m not convinced that we can find a way to do this in a satisfactory way. So I’m just gonna ban the practice.” That’s just where we’ve been ever since.

Were you directly involved in the moratorium decision?

It was really the president’s decision. He talked to us about the pros and cons. I was not on cabinet at that point. But being one of the out queer administrators, he would often talk with me in and call me to the table when they were trying to figure out what to do.

What was your advice?

I think the community could not figure out a way to resolve the potential for the hostile work environment. And I think we had to. All of our discussions leading up to that point had been some folks in the community saying, “Here are some aspects of chalking we find problematic; could we agree that we won’t do that anymore?” And the response was typically radical, saying, “No. We’re going to chalk whenever we want wherever we want it, and that’s too bad.” I think we had these two things that were competing that were not able to be resolved.

Did you anticipate the student reaction to the moratorium?

Yeah. I think everybody did.

Did you anticipate it being such a long-term conflict, though?

I anticipated it being long-term because of the fact that our population turns over. Right after the moratorium, there were some students who continued to chalk because they weren’t happy with that decision. But then those students graduate and leave the community. And new students come in who don’t know what all the issues were.

What I’m sharing is just my narrative. I think mine’s informed and fair because I loved the chalking when I first came to Wesleyan. I thought it was cool that the space was queered a couple times a year. But certain aspects of it became problematic. So anyways, students graduate, they don’t know why we have this ban, to many it feels silly, to queer students it felt like a specific expression they had embraced was silenced. Those things don’t just evaporate just because people graduate. Some of those things persist through time.

Can you describe some of the protests you recall?

Mostly it was the continuation of chalking. There were certain times students would—I call it, perhaps unfairly, “kitchen sink protests,” where you grab a whole bunch of things students are unhappy about and present them all at once. It surfaced a couple of those in the years after the ban was put in place. I don’t mean to detract the serious of all those things, but it’s not like need-blind; it was an assortment of “They don’t have the sandwiches we like at Pi Cafe anymore” to really serious—well, to some people that’s really serious—but to really serious things like chalking and student voice in institutional decision-making.

Are you referring to the big occupation of President Bennet’s office in 2004?

That was one of them. And the catalyst for that one was really changes that WESU was making in terms of affiliating with NPR. But chalking was in there as well.

What about the faculty outspokenness on chalking? Did that bother the administration or Bennet?

There were faculty who certainly were resistant; they thought a ban was not a solution. I wasn’t privy to every conversation Doug Bennet had with other people about chalking, but my understanding is that none of the faculty really presented a solution to the hostile workplace issue.

But they did vote overwhelmingly against the ban?

I think that that’s the case. Again, the problem was, OK, you don’t like the ban, we get that, but how do we resolve this hostile work environment? I think that [Bennet] was disappointed that faculty were supporting chalking without offering suggestions for the problem which he was contending. You have this free speech issue versus this law saying that if you as an employer have reports of a hostile work environment, you need to, under sexual harassment law, take steps to resolve that. And nobody’s coming up with suggestions of how to do that.

How did all the media coverage of chalking come about?

I don’t know how effectively it was communicated to the media what the core issue was. Or at least the core issue that I’ve explained to you. I don’t know that that issue was effectively communicated as part of the issue. It may have been represented as, “The administration just doesn’t like the content of this stuff.” Which I think was the issue for some in the administration. But the real issue that got us where we are today was the hostile work environment.

Many students from that time have a very different view of events, which is that President Bennet was essentially trying to make the University more presentable to parents and prefrosh and less radical or political. Do you think there is truth to that?

I think some of that was operating in the calculus of his decision-making, Zach. He would very often get emails from visitors, from parents bringing their kids for tours while the chalking was on the sidewalks. I think that he felt like he was embarrassed by it, as the leader of the institution. And he certainly didn’t like getting the complaints and having to respond to them.

The other thing that he often said is that he had a concern because it was free speech, but it was not able to be attributed to anyone. He felt the somewhat anonymous nature of it gave people license to be over the edge and be cruel and create arguably a hostile environment for others on campus. He was a big proponent of “Let’s get to the point where everybody has to sign their chalking.” But of course there was no way to do that unless the community agrees to do that.

But I think the things you mentioned were definitely at play in his calculus. I also remember a community meeting with students, faculty and staff. [Professor of English] Henry Abelove spoke very passionately at that forum that people should be able to say and write whatever they wanted to, because the principle of free speech was more important than people being offended. And my memory of President Bennet’s presentation was that he was after some sort of self-censorship among the chalking group, as if it were a monolithic group.

What about the claim that President Bennet was not taking community input into account?

I think that he went back and forth with the WSA on this issue. I remember the WSA leadership, Emily Polak [’05] being  the president at the time—or maybe she was the Student Affairs Committee Chair and then subsequently president. But a lot of interaction between them on this. He was very open to some sort of other solution that would resolve this hostile environment issue. And if he felt there was something viable that came forward, I think he would have tried that. He didn’t like sending us out as the “censors,” if you will, to look at stuff. Be he was willing to try it.

What do you think President Roth thinks about chalking?

He was really interested in the history, the stuff that I’ve shared with you. His concern has always been that he doesn’t want to permit chalking because he thinks we are likely to very quickly get back to where we were and be facing the hostile environment issue again. The issues that continually come up around the ACB—well, I think of the ACB as online chalking. You can say whatever you want anonymously, it’s often incredibly hurtful, all of that. I try to stay away from it, just because I plan on it being offensive. The only difference with the ACB is that you have to go look at it. I don’t have to look at it before I can read my email every day, you know?

So that’s his concern. That we would quickly get back to where we were.

Chalking recently reemerged on campus, pretty unexpectedly. In what ways has it come back since Bennet’s tenure?

Every year there has been some chalking. Every year. The typical response is to have it washed away, and to document anybody that is chalking. And they go through the judicial system. Penalties are usually not that significant. That’s happened on an ongoing basis every year.

I wasn’t surprised with the chalking this past weekend [Homecoming Weekend] given the student activism around the change in financial aid policy.

How do you think chalking is different this time, if at all?

Well, the messages that have been chalked in protest under the ban, especially in recent years, have been largely around political issues on campus. It’s been mostly around the political issues that students have cared about.

A few years ago, President Roth came under fire for describing chalking as “dumb” in a post on his blog. What do you think he meant?

His perspective is that chalking is not, in his view, the most effective form of interaction and dialogue. I can’t speak for him, but I think that’s probably what he intended. He has said that to me several times, that he wants to provide avenues, he wants to be available for students to raise issues with him and the institution through him as an alternative to students feeling like they have to chalk. I think the reasons to chalk are varied and different than that, but that’s part of it.

What do you think President Bennet could have done better in his handling of it?

As I alluded to earlier, I’m not sure how clear he was about what the core issue was in the decision-making. He talked about trying different things, but given the nature of it and how passionately some people felt about it on both sides, I would have been clearer about what the core driver of the decision was. From everything I know, it was, How do we resolve this issue of the hostile environment? In retrospect, I with there had been a sharper point on that as being one of the core drivers. Because in the absence of that, some of the other interpretations that you talked about—trying to ensure that visitors weren’t offended, that kind of stuff—all of that fills in in the absence of a core issue.

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WESTROSPECTIVE: A Decade Without Chalking, Part One
A Decade Without Chalking, Part Two: An Interview with Matthew M ’05
A Decade Without Chalking, Part Three: An Interview with Claire Potter
A Decade Without Chalking, Part Four: An Interview with Nicholas Myers

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2 thoughts on “A Decade Without Chalking, Part Five: An Interview with Dean Mike Whaley

  1. Pingback: Chalk is Talk: Eric Stephen ’13 Analyzes Legality of Wesleyan’s Chalking Ban | Wesleying

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