Tensions have escalated in the controversy over the removal and modification of certain interior wall murals in Burton-Conner and the manner in which students were notified. Last Friday, a variety of posters appeared around campus referring to the controversy, spurring reactions from both students and faculty.
The sequence of events
Anne E.C. McCants, the housemaster of Burton-Conner since 2012, commented on the timeline of events in an interview with The Tech. According to McCants, the third floor of the Burton side of the dorm was due for renovations during the summer. The floor residents were informed of the renovations before the end of the academic year and were asked by Ken Donaghey, the house manager, which murals they particularly wanted saved.
According to McCants, in June, she walked through the floor first looking for physical damage, and on a subsequent visit, looking at the content of the murals.
“At that time we identified a number of things, some of which were large, but it made sense to address them in the context of a larger renovation, some of which were smaller pieces of graffiti painted in a permanent way that impressed us as being counter to the MIT Mind and Hand Book and probably violations of Title IX,” said McCants. “We reported all that information to the DSL [Division of Student Life] and they made the decision that it had to be removed expeditiously.”
McCants said that these events took place around the end of June and beginning of July when no students were living in the hall and renovations were underway. “Students were apparently on the floor in July and realized that murals had been painted over, but my expectation is that they should have expected that. They began communicating with us and we began communicating with them immediately.” Neither McCants nor the students were living in Burton-Conner at that point in the summer.
McCants indicated that the only involvement she had with the removal of the Burton Third murals was the initial report to the DSL, who made the decision that immediate removal was necessary. McCants said that she did mention Title IX, the MIT Mind and Hand Book, and various Massachusetts anti-harassment statutes in her initial report to the DSL. Barbara Baker, Senior Associate Dean for Students and MIT Title IX Co-Coordinator, was unavailable for comment on the specific process DSL used to come to this decision. But in a later email to the Burton-Conner community (following the appearance of posters on campus) Baker said that “Displays of sexual objects, pictures, or other images, if severe and pervasive can lead to a sexually hostile environment.” According to McCants, the house manager then delivered the instructions to the people making repairs.
“When I returned from summer travels, there were folks on Burton Third who were hoping to repaint at least one mural before orientation. A separate new painting policy had been worked out by the house manager” earlier in the summer, said McCants. She asked the floor’s residents to wait to repaint until the new policy was approved by the Burton-Conner house executive committee, which she expected to happen quickly, although this did not happen until a few weeks into the semester.
McCants said that during the week before freshman orientation, the house manager discovered that a mural had been painted and that “something resembling a bar had been rebuilt without permission.” She said that the issue was handled as a disciplinary measure for violating the house’s building policy, unlike the other murals, for which the content of the images was at issue.
The modification of the Penny Arcade mural on Burton 1 occurred separately. “Some residents of Burton 3 apparently went through the whole building to see if they thought there was anything else in the building that was inconsistent with the MIT Mind and Hand Book. They pointed out a few words in a mural that was painted on Burton 1.” McCants thought the intention of the students raising the complaint was to point out that the standards applied to Burton Third were not being applied equally to the rest of the building. These two undergraduate students pointed out the language to the Burton-Conner RLAD Michelle Lessly late in the week before freshman orientation. The language was reviewed by McCants, who decided that the words “eviscerate” and “bleed to death” were inconsistent with the MIT Mind and Hand Book, and they told the house manager that they should be removed from the mural.
Reacting to the events
According to McCants, the immediate reactions to the actions taken by the housemaster and staff prevented more productive communication with the students, citing the publication of two Tech articles about the event and the controversy over the rebuilt bar as the primary obstacles. “So there was no sort of productive and good conversation with the floor about the actual content, the things that had concerned us in the first place. And obviously there was no opportunity to have a conversation with the rest of the dorm [before discussing it with the affected floor].”
McCants was surprised at the reactions, saying “I don’t know what led to the high level of student agitation. I honestly have no idea,” adding, “There was no particular reason to believe in the context of Burton-Conner itself that things had spun out of control. But apparently, there was, on the student talk list, which we do not monitor, all kinds of conversation, and there was a group of students who began an investigation. We knew nothing about this.”
The four students to whom McCants refers produced what they called an informational letter about these same events and sent this by email to a dorm-wide list, and there were a number of discrepancies with McCants’ account. The letter emphasized that the students were not notified of any of the previously mentioned actions when they took place, and students suggested they were not informed of what to expect as a result of the renovations.
It also stated that the issues of concern for students were both the reasons for removal and perceived lack of communication, but chose to focus on the latter issue. The writers said that the intention of the students who brought the Penny Arcade mural to the attention of the RLAD did not want the text to actually be removed, but rather to understand the rationale for removal of the murals on Burton Third.
The writers of the letter perceived an email from McCants to the Burton-Conner GRTs to be prohibiting students from discussing the matter with her, saying, “Burton Third became more cautious in their communications with Anne, hoping to prevent future incidents. Currently, all students (from Burton Third or otherwise) are not permitted to discuss the mural removals with Anne.”
The email they cited, which began as a message from the housemasters to the GRTs but was later widely circulated, read, “MIT apologized to Anne that she has been the subject of vilification and ongoing pressure by some students for her actions. MIT acknowledged that this could be viewed as retaliatory toward Anne for raising a Title IX issue, which would in itself be a violation of Title IX if the Institute did not address it immediately. So from now on, at the request of MIT, all student inquiries regarding this matter that cannot be handled through GRT-student discussions at the floor level, should be referred to Dean Baker, not to Anne.”
In her interview with The Tech, McCants disputed this interpretation, claiming that she only wanted to divert repetitive, badgering, or legally specific questions. “I was receiving random emails … from all kinds of members of the community, questioning my judgment, asking me legal questions. I would walk into meetings or functions on campus and people would begin pestering me with questions.”
She added, “We told our GRTs that if students have questions about Title IX, they should not send them to me, but they should send them to Barbara Baker. Now how students got that message and interpreted it that they weren’t allowed to talk to me, I cannot say.” McCants said very few students have talked to her, which is a “source of frustration,” and no one has raised the issue at weekly floor dinners. “I would be happy to have constructive conversations with students,” clarifying, “I don’t want to answer ‘Have you talked to a lawyer?’ Frankly, it’s a waste of my time. It in itself is a form of harassment.”
After receiving the email to the Burton-Conner students, Anne McCants and her husband, Bill McCants wrote an email to the Burton-Conner community on Sunday, Sept. 22 saying that the quick removal of the murals was required under Title IX and that retaliation against someone bringing a Title IX complaint was also a violation.
The next day, McCants said, she saw posters around campus from a group calling itself “Concerned Connerside,” which indicated that Burton-Conner had been subject to “legalese and scare tactics” due to “students attempting to communicate.”
McCants cited her discovery of the extent of images and text on Burton Third as the catalyst for the events that followed. “There were a number of very large murals that, in the totality of circumstances, one might read as a celebration of drunkenness, and that’s inconsistent with the MIT Mind and Hand Book. Those murals were painted over. And then the [primarily text] graffiti that was on the elevator doors was also painted over.” She said that the text on the elevator doors advocated lethal violence, drunkenness, and sexual advances toward minors.
While McCants was aware of some of the later-removed murals before bringing the issue to DSL, she said that the murals had a much more problematic meaning given the context of the text painted on the elevator door, which she saw for the first time during the summer. “I had seen the murals [before the renovation], hadn’t contemplated them closely, and I was aware that a renovation was coming, and that seemed like the right time to take care of it. I had not seen the writing on the elevator door, and frankly that was the more egregious content.”
Describing the interactions of the murals and text, she said, “The totality of the circumstances is key. So the written text on the elevator door in conjunction with the large mural of the female sex worker and other murals of the alcohol advertisements and the existence of a permanent bar structure was inconsistent with the Mind and Hand Book, and a reasonable person could identify a nexus between this emphasis on drunkenness and permanent written remarks against women.”
McCants said that she thinks much of the student anger is due to misunderstanding about free speech and censorship in the context of a university environment. “There were things there that were completely inappropriate in a university environment on public space … a kind of space that is not subject to the free speech provisions that students seem to think apply to everything.” She added, “I also know as a citizen that my First Amendment rights do not apply in a great many of the cases that students seem to think that they apply … And also, as an educator, I wouldn’t want them to apply. The provisions of Title IX and Title VI and the anti-harassment provisions — particularly of Massachusetts State Law — those laws are there precisely to protect students, employees, or whoever might be on this campus.”
McCants views the poster campaign on campus as the exact type of retaliation against bringers of complaints that Title IX includes provisions to prevent. “The kind of intimidation tactics that the postering represents are very effective in getting people not to say what they really think if they realize they run the risk of having that kind of attack turned around on them. There aren’t many people who would want to have to show up to class on a Monday morning and discover that they had been the target of a postering campaign all over campus. That’s a pretty unpleasant feeling.” She also viewed The Tech’s photo of one of these posters in last Friday’s issue as a perpetuation of that campaign, a point which she develops more fully in an opinion piece in this issue.
McCants said that she reviewed the murals in the rest of the building following the discovery of the material on Burton Third and did not find anything else to be problematic, although the later-modified mural on Burton 1 was not identified at that time. She commented, “Most of the building was full of lovely, quirky, bizarre, exquisitely beautiful art.”
Bill McCants, Anne’s husband, is a Senior Civil Rights Attorney for the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education, and Anne indicated that he did collaborate with her on various reports and communications sent throughout the events of the summer and early semester.
Students in Burton-Conner and elsewhere have raised two main concerns with the removal of the murals. Some disagree with the removal as a whole, while others focused on a perceived lack of communication between the housemaster and students regarding the events.
Akhil Raju ’14, Burton-Conner president, said in an email to The Tech, “About half the students I talked to didn’t like [the posters] and the other half thought they were slightly amusing. Actually, a lot of people didn’t see them... Many students felt that most of the murals were not offensive, and the manner in which they were taken down concerned them more.”
The four Burton-Conner undergraduates who wrote the “informational email,” Eric Gentry ’14, Alycia Gardner ’15, Turner Bohlen ’14, and Corinn Herrick ’16, sought to distance themselves from debating the details of the murals’ legality and instead address larger issues of housemaster-student communication.
In an email to The Tech, they wrote: “We, and the residents of Burton-Conner, understand the need to act with haste in order to ensure the appropriate application of Title IX in cases regarding potential harassment. We in no way wish to contest Title IX. Our main concern throughout this process has been a perceived lack of communication between the Housemaster and the residents. Our concerns, while they center on the mural removals, also include concerns which were present before any murals were removed. We recognize that there appears to be a disconnect between our main concerns and what concerns the administration is responding to. The students who wrote the informational email will be meeting with the Housemaster later in the week to discuss the issues and how we might be able to move forward from these events.”
Those students cited their upcoming meetings with administrators and house staff as reasons to limit their comments to The Tech at this time. They also differentiated their concerns from the actions of those who McCants perceives to be retaliating against her for raising a Title IX concern. “As the letter writers, we only claim responsibility for the informative letter sent out to the BC undergrads. Lots of things have happened before and after our email, but as a group our only major action was writing that letter. There are other groups have responded in different ways that have flavored how our concerns have been interpreted, but we do not know what all of those responses have been, and we certainly can’t claim responsibility for everyone’s actions.”
“My main goal is to remedy communication. I think better communication between students and administration could have saved a lot of headaches throughout the last few months … There’s been a lot of arguing and a lot of back and forth for the past few weeks/months, and I think we all just want to come to a consensus on how to remedy the communication between the students and the house team,” said Raju. “Hopefully, that consensus comes in the form of a very simple written procedure or document that we can point to and follow in the future.”