Girl Interrupted: Academic Repression, Six Years On

Nearly 6 years after my assault at Canisius College,
tomorrow I finally sit for deposition in the case against my attackers...

     On September 9, 2011, Canisius College’s Institute for the Study of Human-Animal Relations (ISHAR) hosted an event at the Montante Cultural Center, featuring Dr. James Ha, a primate researcher from the University of Washington National Primate Research Center.   This event was promoted as a “symposium.” A "symposium" is typically based upon the free exchange of varying viewpoints and differs greatly from a generic speaker event. As such, this symposium had the potential to cultivate and foster the free exchange of ideas on a very controversial subject matter-- that of the use of animals in research.  Such an exchange is vital on matters where morally reflective persons don't agree. Instead, this exchange was disrupted and the event was transformed into a brutal display of both force and academic repression.

     Weeks prior to the September 9 event, when reaching out to Canisius professor and event organizer Dr. Michael Noonan, I was told that the "symposium” would be “open to the public” and that the event would “welcome all points of view.”  In an email correspondence, Dr. Noonan both encouraged my attendance and suggested I participate in the Q&A session following the speech by Dr. Ha.  I was the second to take the microphone during the Q&A session.  I asked a two-part question, concerning USDA violations at the University of Washington, wherein primates had been starved, and in another incident illegal and unapproved surgeries had taken place.  I asked Dr. Ha how the public could possibly be expected to trust that twelve billion dollars of our taxpayer money is going to animal experimentation every year, when institutions like his “can’t even remember to feed their animals?” 

     Despite my email exchange with event organizer Dr. Noonan and his suggestion of my participation, what I found in reality was that my presence at the event was far from welcome.  Although straightforward, my question was not a fluffy one.  After hearing my question to the speaker, Dr. Noonan, acting as “Q&A moderator” that evening, continuously interrupted the dialogue between Dr. Ha and myself, and saw to it that his colleague was not able to answer.  Dr. Ha was repeatedly discouraged from responding, although he himself seemed willing to do so and even stated, “it’s OK Mike, I can answer.”

     Dr. Noonan appeared more and more frustrated that the dialogue between Dr. Ha and myself had not yet concluded.  Noonan began raising his voice and so I gave up any hope of having my question answered that evening.  I turned to the audience at that point.  The September 9 event had fallen far short of its promise of being a “symposium”, and so, before taking my seat again, it was my intention to invite everyone to an upcoming, college sanctioned event being hosted by the Animal Allies Club of Canisius, wherein the “other side” of the primate research debate would be discussed.  Before having a chance to disclose place and time for the Animal Allies event, my microphone was cut off.  Dr. Noonan gestured to campus police and at his behest I was forcefully removed by two officers from the main room to the foyer area at the front of the building, away from eyesight of the audience. 

     My midriff and brassiere were exposed to all onlookers as I was dragged to the foyer.  I was then slammed against a wall, with my arms wrenched behind me as two full grown male officers pressed themselves against me, digging their legs into the back of mine.  I was then handcuffed and informed that I was “under arrest for criminal trespassing in the 3rd degree," before being led outside and placed into the back of a patrol car.  My mother, who had accompanied me to the talk, and sat by my side throughout, had followed me into the foyer, along with a few other onlookers.  After I was removed from the Montante building, my mother asked one of the assisting officers (there were four total) where I was being taken and she was told that I was being transported to the Erie County Holding Center.

     There is no doubt in my mind that I am not the only one to have had that evening etched into my memory.  Included in the “open to the public” audience that night were several undergraduate classes of my peers who had been required to attend for course credit.  Also present was a brand new class of incoming Anthrozoology graduate program students. What a potent display of brute authoritarianism and academic repression each audience member took home with them that night.  How many witnesses to my assault now think twice before speaking up or asking difficult questions?  I might be inclined to consider myself the only victim that night, but the truth is, everyone in that audience was a casualty of the oppression and brutality that transpired.

     Canisius College’s mission statement reads, “Canisius College, a Catholic and Jesuit university, offers outstanding…programs distinguished by transformative learning experiences that engage students in the classroom and beyond.”  There is no question that September 9, 2011 was an extremely “transformative learning experience.”  Many in attendance were shocked to learn that our First Amendment right to freedom of speech is by no means guaranteed, not even at a university, a place where ideas are supposed to be nurtured and openly discussed.

     I doubt that the symposium brought about the kind of “transformative learning experience” the writers had in mind when they penned the college’s mission statement.

     The role of the University in society has always been to provide an atmosphere that encourages and nurtures the free exchange of ideas and critical examination of controversial subject matters.  In keeping with this sentiment, Article I of the Canisius College Student Handbook reads, “The College recognizes that the free exchange of ideas and expressions may produce conflict.  This exchange is an important element in the pursuit of knowledge.” 

     The Student Handbook also reads that, “All members of the community are entitled to and responsible for maintaining an environment of civility that is free from disparagement, intimidation, harassment and violence of any kind.”  It appears this statement would apply to campus police and professors as well.  Instead of open discussion and thoughtful debate, those in attendance at the “symposium” witnessed police power being invoked to silence passionate and principled dissent.

Jesuit priest Father Berrigan, right and his brother Philip Berrigan seized hundreds of draft records and set them on fire in 1968.

Jesuit priest Father Berrigan, right and his brother Philip Berrigan seized hundreds of draft records and set them on fire in 1968.

     Furthermore, this basic concept of nurturing critical thought is in fact enhanced and magnified in the Jesuit tradition.  Members of the Canisius community are fortunate to be a part of an institution that has historically protected and fostered progressive thinking.  In fact, St. Peter Canisius became known for his zeal for education as an agent for change.  The late Father Daniel Berrigan, Jesuit priest and one of the country’s leading peace activists, was an exemplar of progressive activism, persistently exercising his First Amendment rights in the face of the most stifling forms of repression. 

     I do not wish to condemn the entire Canisius College community for the brute injustices inflicted upon me by a few bad actors.  Although I have been maligned from the college I am sure there are still services, clubs and departments on the campus that value free thought in furtherance of the Jesuit tradition. At the time I was assaulted and falsely arrested I was preparing for graduation, with only three courses left before I collected my cap and gown. As a Philosophy major at Canisius, I was regularly privy to the everyday openness and academic integrity demonstrated by the professors and students in my department.  Unlike so many who might be inclined to open up the toolbox of oppression and fire back in response to the faintest wind of contention, the students and professors of the Philosophy Department did not appear to be challenged or aggravated by the expressed views of others who did not share in their understanding.

     Soon after the events of September 9, 2011, Father Tom Colgan of the Campus Ministry was instrumental in reassuring me of my value as an individual, as an activist and as a cherished member of the Canisius community.  Indeed, the fourth learning goal of the Canisius College Campus Ministry is social justice, and emphasizes the need to “ameliorate conditions of social injustice.” 

     The conditions that allow for social injustice have always emerged as a result of society’s failure to recognize the rights of individuals or groups. When denial of such rights is tolerated or indeed encouraged, it is bound to fortify the bases for further repression and injustice.

     If justice advocates of old had cowered in fear when confronted by police brutality and other forms of oppression, we would not have Civil Rights, Womens' Suffrage, LGBTQ Rights, or Worker Rights, among many others. This why it is so important that we, as a community, join in solidarity against attempts to desensitize students, and the public at large, to the harsh and devastating hand of academic repression.  Our institutions of learning are the platform from which an entire society is grounded.  We must protect the sanctity and safety of these spaces. We must not allow them to become militarized zones where autonomy is muzzled and dissent is stifled.

     I call on all people of good will to join in solidarity against academic repression in the hopes of preventing a continuation of the kinds of injustice witnessed by so many on September 9, 2011.

     Morgan Jamie Dunbar