WMU President Dr. Montgomery.

WMU President Dr. Montgomery.

The president of Western Michigan University released a statement Tuesday regarding the Feb. 19 concert, "Spirituals: From Ship to Shore," that has sparked an appropriation debate on campus. 

In an email sent to students, faculty and staff, President Edward Montgomery addressed the "Spirituals: From Ship to Shore" concert in an email, providing background on Dr. John Wesley Wright, the guest instructor and Salisbury University associate professor who led last week's show.

"Dr. John Wesley Wright, an associate professor of voice from Salisbury University, was recently in residence at the School of Music as part of its Bullock Series. Before coming to campus, virtually every visiting artist in the school undergoes a comprehensive process that includes a student review committee, school director prioritization and funding approval by the dean," the statement read. 

Montgomery explains that Dr. Wright worked with WMU students and faculty prior of the show to learn the history and performance of African-American spirituals.

"Dr. Wright spent several days at WMU with students and faculty, teaching the history and performance of African-American spirituals. Dr. Wright identifies as African-American, and he speaks with passion about his goal to deliver. 

The university's decision bringing Dr. Wright to campus, as well as his comments made to Western Herald toward the student who raised concerns of discomfort were also mentioned in the campuswide email:

"I also want to address Dr. Wright’s remarks in an interview about the controversy with the Western Herald that was published Saturday. Some of Dr. Wright’s quotes may be interpreted as questioning the student’s mental health due to her criticism of his program. On this point, let me be perfectly clear: Questioning a student’s, or anyone’s, motives and mental well-being in this way is inappropriate and is not acceptable on this campus. And from a learning standpoint, ad hominem rebuttals focused on the person rather than the issue are counterproductive and not conducive to open dialogue. If we are to learn, we must be willing to have hard conversations and not personal attacks."

The statement follows by detailing the universities next steps, which include meetings between the Western Student Association and Provost Jennifer Bott, as well as meeting with the Intercultural Competency Committee in Lee Honors College. 

WMU's We Talk series and its upcoming Campus Climate Survey were also cited as how the university plans to address what WMU's Black Student Union called "a further example and reflection of the racial insensitivity allowed on Western Michigan's campus."

On Monday, Dr. Candy McCorkle, vice president of the office of diversity and inclusion and Dr. Dan Guyette, dean of WMU's fine arts college, met with the Shaylee Faught, the student who posted the video viewed by more than 2 million people. 

During the meeting, Dr. McCorkle and Dean Guyette both confirmed Dr. Wright will not be invited back to WMU's campus. 

WMU's School of Music invited its students to share their thoughts and concerns in a forum hosted by Dr. McCorkle, Dean Guyette and Provost Bott. During the forum at Shaw Theatre more than 200 audience members and participants of the concert were allowed to speak candidly on their thoughts on the show. 

Read the full statement below:


Dear Campus Community,

I want to brief you about an ongoing campus controversy regarding a recent performance in our School of Music and ensure that you have more complete information about what has occurred to date and leadership's response thus far.

For background: Dr. John Wesley Wright, an associate professor of voice from Salisbury University, was recently in residence at the School of Music as part of its Bullock Series. Before coming to campus, virtually every visiting artist in the school undergoes a comprehensive process that includes a student review committee, school director prioritization and funding approval by the dean. Dr. Wright spent several days at WMU with students and faculty, teaching the history and performance of African-American spirituals. The residency ended with his direction of a concert, Spirituals: From Ship to Shore, performed by faculty and students on Wednesday, Feb. 19.

Dr. Wright identifies as an African-American, and he speaks with passion about his goal to offer an experience that honors and celebrates African-American spirituals. The feedback he received from students and others immediately following the concert suggested the event had done just that, as had been his experience many times before on other campuses. 

One student audience member, however, felt the performance was more cultural appropriation than appreciation, as many of the performers in the class were non-African-Americans and Dr. Wright used more humor than the student thought appropriate. The student sent out a tweet of her reaction and video that has been widely viewed. Within hours of making her concerns known to me and others in an email Thursday, a meeting was set with her to meet with senior leaders on Monday. 

College of Fine Arts Dean Dan Guyette and Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Candy McCorkle met with the student yesterday to better understand her concerns. The student talked about how the concert felt deeply personally offensive, which was an unfortunate and unintended outcome. They assured the student that we do not want her—or any member of the campus community—to feel as though their identity is being disrespected. I fully share their view that respectful dialogue is key to learning. 

I also want to address Dr. Wright’s remarks in an interview about the controversy with the Western Herald that was published Saturday. Some of Dr. Wright’s quotes may be interpreted as questioning the student’s mental health due to her criticism of his program. On this point, let me be perfectly clear: Questioning a student’s, or anyone’s, motives and mental well-being in this way is inappropriate and is not acceptable on this campus. And from a learning standpoint, ad hominem rebuttals focused on the person rather than the issue are counterproductive and not conducive to open dialogue. If we are to learn, we must be willing to have hard conversations and not personal attacks.

In addition to meeting with the student, there are other steps we are taking. Vice President for Student Affairs Diane Anderson and Dr. McCorkle met with Black Student Union leadership yesterday. They, along with Provost Jennifer Bott, will meet with Western Student Association leadership tomorrow. A meeting with the Intercultural Competency Committee in Lee Honors College also is in the works. We have been in touch with the Western Herald every day since the concerns were raised, and the situation has been covered extensively. The Herald graciously published Provost Bott’s editorial to accompany its coverage Monday, along with a letter to the editor from Dean Guyette and Dr. McCorkle. 

Now that senior leaders have had the opportunity to personally meet with the student who raised concerns, we wanted to apprise the rest of campus. To do so beforehand would not have best served those students directly involved. We would now like to continue this conversation with the entire campus to better grasp the issues and concerns of our community. This experience demonstrates that there is much more to discuss about how best to deal with difficult or sensitive topics and build a more inclusive campus.

The We Talk initiative is one concrete step we are taking, as is the upcoming Campus Climate Survey. My colleagues and I are considering other ways to engage the campus around these questions. We will have more to come on that soon and encourage you to share your thoughts. In the interim, if you have ideas, experiences, or opinions on this issue you would like to share, please email them to me and my leadership colleagues at office-of-the-president@wmich.edu. 

Sincerely,

Edward Montgomery

President


 

 Editor's note: This story is currently being updated. To read more from this story, click here.

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