Well, FU to Friends University: you Flunked the Freedom of Expression Exam Big Time.

Someday, I’m thinking, there will be a historic marker on (or near) the campus of Friends University in Wichita, Kansas.

Caitlyn Fox, Free Speech Advocate.

And if I last long enough to see it go up, I gotta take a selfie standing next to it. And if I’m really lucky, maybe Caitlyn Fox will take one with me.

I’ll get to Caitlyn in a minute. That Wichita historic marker won’t be  about me, but it will point to where my Quaker journalistic “career” started, in late June of 1977. I lived a year there one week, four and a half decades ago, and from recent reports it seems some things there haven’t changed a bit in those 45 years.

I went to Wichita to attend my first big international Quaker conference, which had invited “All Friends in the Americas,” to Friends University, a postage stamp campus in the heart of the Heartland (where a lovely meeting was founded nearby not long ago named, rightly, Heartland Meeting.)
Recently single, that summer I was looking to meet single female Friends, and have a bit of excitement. I did meet  some fine Friends, but got a lot more excitement than I bargained for: the conference, which had been planned for years, almost blew up on its first day. I was just a bystander, but on FU’s very compact campus, we were all pretty much swept up.

The dynamite took the form of a few gay Friends, part of a recently formed group, Friends for Lesbian & Gay Concerns (or FLGC), who stepped out of the closet and called for recognition.

Anita Bryant, onetime orange juice spokesperson, then national anti-lesbian gay crusader.

That year, 1977, was what we now call an “inflection point,” when lesbian & gay issues burst out of a few select enclaves into America’s national consciousness — and sparked nationwide waves of backlash.

And in Wichita, Evangelical Friends, among whom were sponsors of both the conference and Friends U., the backlash against gay Quaker visibility was hot & immediate: they weren’t having it. But the gay Friends didn’t budge.

The controversy spilled off the campus and was prominently featured in the Wichita Eagle, the region’s major daily paper. Media attention made it ab even bigger deal, and a deeper crisis.

The story of that year-long week in Wichita is told in detail in another post, here; worth a look. I didn’t come to the gathering as a reporter, but wound up as one, writing an article about it which was widely reprinted. The aftershocks from the event were felt for decades; the issues surfaced there have never since fallen off Quaker (or national/international) agendas.

Not even in Kansas, or at FU. Which brings me back to the Wichita Eagle, Caitlyn Fox, and 1977-plus-45 years, which whisks us to this month. Tell it, Bird:

Friends student has to move show about censorship after school donors complain

BY EMILY CHRISTENSEN, February 12, 2022

A Friends University student’s senior recital centered on censorship has had to find an off-campus performance space after a school official said donors and staff complained about the show.

The recital, “The Shows They Don’t Want Us to Produce: A Study of Censorship Throughout the History of Musical Theatre,” is based on Caitlyn Fox’s honors thesis.

Fox had planned to perform Saturday at the university’s Sebits Auditorium in the Riney Fine Arts Center, but now Fox and five other Friends students will present the recital at 6 p.m. on Saturday at Plymouth Congregational Church

Fox says she spent Friday scrambling to find a new venue after Ken Stoltzfus, vice president of academic affairs and dean of the faculty, told her the university had received complaints.

“I’m writing to let you know that in the past few hours we have received significant complaints from staff members and donors regarding Caitlyn’s Recital/Honors Project,” Stolzfus wrote in an email to Fox and her father, Russell Fox, a professor of political science and director of the honors program at Friends.

“People who have worked at and/or supported the university for a long time are considering withdrawing their support if we move forward with having the recital at Friends,” Stolzfus’ email continues.

Fox began working on her senior recital in February of last year. The program includes selections from musicals with a history of content challenges. The shows have drawn challenges for reasons such as on-stage nudity (“Hair,”), perceived blasphemy (“Jesus Christ Superstar”), and their portrayals of queer characters (“Rent,” “Cabaret,” “Avenue Q”).

. . . Fox said sometimes scenes deemed objectionable are edited out from the beginning. Other productions are canceled at the last minute after complaints from parents or community members.

Fox performed two of the songs from the recital program in a vocal forum at Friends on Tuesday and conducted the dress rehearsal in Sebits Auditorium on Thursday.

In his email, Stolzfus stated that part of the problem is that the recital was promoted on the Friends fine arts Facebook page.

“[T]his gives the appearance that the university is sponsoring the event, which has concerned a number of people,” he wrote. “We work hard at Friends University to be a close-knit learning community and to find ways to support all members of our community. There is a delicate balance between promoting academic freedom and entering into territory that alienates and offends other members of the community.

“In light of the complaints we’ve received this evening, I think we are losing that balance and at risk of losing some important members of our community.”

Fox’s recital was promoted in the Friends fine arts events email newsletter, “The Weekly Happenings,” which notes the recital is “recommended for mature audiences.”

Instead of holding her recital as planned, Stolzfus suggested she move the performance to an off-campus venue. Friends staff members will not be required to be involved, he wrote.

Fox says she bears no ill will toward Stolzfus or the Friends administration, but she feels as though this turn of events proves the relevance of her honors thesis.

“This is exactly why I wanted to do this project to begin with,” she said. “Because of situations where people do everything right, they communicate with all the higher-ups, they’re very transparent about what they’re doing … and their performance is still shut down.”

Laura Fuller, a spokesperson for Friends University, said the recital had not been canceled, but moved, and she could not comment on student academic issues.

Fox, a graduate of Wichita Northwest High School, plans to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in acting after she graduates from Friends this fall.

Friends University is described in the 2022 US News “Best Colleges” report as the 95th “best” school in the Midwest region. The US News sketch doesn’t say that FU operates by The Golden Rule: 

[Or its postmodern Higher Education version] Them With the Gold, Make [& Break] The Rules.) But really, it doesn’t have to; most colleges know this, and Evangelically-oriented colleges are particularly brazen about their special ways of  “promoting academic freedom.”

So it sounds like Caitlyn Fox did get to finish her thesis. And she got an extra-credit dollop of real-world smarts along the way.

Her experience should be on that historic marker too.

8 thoughts on “Well, FU to Friends University: you Flunked the Freedom of Expression Exam Big Time.”

  1. Sounds too familiar. George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, has taken the defense of being “a Christian University” when confronted with “Gay Issues.” Which, in their thinking explains being unloving and accepting and certainly not Quaker.
    James L. Miller, MA

  2. I represented OVYM on the Planning Committee for the 1977 event. It was clear that EFC folks were viewing this as opportunity to a) showcase their views and b) dominate the discourse. I raised my concern to Chas. Brown of PhYM. I never forgot his response, “Then we just shan’t participate, shall we’.
    Whenever I have encountered the forces of intolerant Friends, I remember that option.

  3. “BY EMILY CHRISTENSEN, February 12, 2023”

    Wow, a time-travelling reporter! That’s one sure way to get scoops!

    As for the college’s pusillanimity (a generous interpretation that assumes the college has values they fail to uphold in the face of financial threat), is that not the fate of all who are not Spirit-led? The only question is “if not by Spirit, then by what?”

    And does not the same dynamic apply to nominally Spirit-led Quakers who rely on “tradition” and “practices” to justify decisions?

    Is not the only choice we have in the present moment to be directly Spirit-led or be led by that which is not of Spirit?

  4. I guess it is a surprise that many Friends object to the same-sex movement. If some don’t jump onto the bandwagon, they are intolerant and close-minded. So much for other viewpoints finding expression in Quaker gatherings!

    I attended the Wichita conference and thought it was a great experience.

    1. Wichita 1977 was a watershed experience for me, surely. It took me out of the liberal unprogrammed bubble, which was definitely salutary and educational. It also exposed me to some (not all) of the divergent U. S. Quaker streams, and the fact that among them (us) there were/are still many unclarified misunderstandings, and beyond that, numerous unresolved differences. Dealing with these differences was complicated by the presence of a kind of “middle party” which thought all was misunderstanding and all conflicts were illusory, and were best not spoken of. This middle proved to be mistaken, often tragically so: some differences were quite real, and have as yet proved intractable; avoidance has its own cumulative costs.

  5. We also were at the Wichita 1977 Gathering — as the 2-person staff for the high school program [a small group, all but 2 from Philadelphia YM] which put us ex officio on the Conference Committee which was charged with keeping the gathering from falling apart.

    Sandy & Tom Farley, Pacific YM

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