c/o Wesleyan FGSS

c/o Wesleyan FGSS

The University’s Feminist Gender & Sexuality Studies (FGSS) hosted the inaugural speaker in the Sheila Tobias Memorial Lecture Series, featuring Dr. Rebecca Hall and her recent graphic novel “Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts” on Thursday, March 30. While the lecture portion of the event went well by all accounts, incidents occurred en route to and during the post-lecture reception involving University alumni who verbally and physically harassed Hall. In the weeks that followed, Hall and the University had private discussions on the matter; however, the University’s response was not as timely nor as adequate as Hall and her supporters had hoped. As a result, litigation is now pending as Hall prepares to sue the University for negligence.

The Sheila Tobias Memorial Lecture Series was a new series initiated by a group of alumni and organized by FGSS in honor of Sheila Tobias, who passed away in 2021. Tobias was the first female senior administrator in the University’s history. The event with Hall was the first lecture in the series and was planned with the intention of providing her the opportunity to speak about her graphic novel, published in June 2021. According to Hall, she was excited about the event and found that the lecture was received well among those in attendance. The University published a positive article about the event on Tuesday, April 4. This was the only University coverage of Hall’s lecture.

“[In my lecture] I’ve talked about my family, I’ve talked about enslavement, I’ve talked about the research process, I’ve talked about all these things,” Hall said in an interview with The Argus. “This isn’t like your normal academic lecture, where you hide behind your data. This is mixing [and] combining scholarly rigor with personal memoir. So it’s a very vulnerable experience. I’ve had so many incredible experiences doing this, you know, and so I was expecting another one.”

After the lecture, which was held in Judd Hall, concluded, attendees moved to another location for the reception. In trying to determine where this reception was being held, Hall found herself guided to the location by a few alumni rather than a representative or faculty member from FGSS. While Hall was with this group of alumni, they began verbally harassing her with derogatory comments pertaining to race and sexuality.

“There’s this one woman [who] was like…, ‘You know, they must hate you. I mean, they must really hate you. I mean you’re Black, you’re lesbian. I mean, is your book banned anywhere?’” Hall said.

Upon arriving at the reception, Hall noticed an open bar. According to Hall, many of the adult attendees drank throughout the evening.

“It was this weird scenario where there was an open bar, which no one told me about either, and I don’t particularly like being around drunk white people…or drunk anybody really, but particularly in that kind of scenario,” Hall said. “So I didn’t know about that. Then, being in this corner of one of the areas of the reception, this man [is] putting his hand on me, talking with me, and then he’s touching my hair, and I’m pushing [with] my hands. And this is so common. I can’t even tell you how common this is. This is all Black women’s trauma.”

As part of her contract, Hall was required to attend both the lecture and the duration of the reception. In addition, since she came from Boston, the University-provided car for her to depart from the event would not arrive until the end of the gathering.

“I was trapped there, not just because I was contractually obligated—because frankly, at that point, I would have broke the contract and left—but there was nowhere to go,” Hall said. “It was dark…and I was driven there and driven back. So I had to wait for my ride. And, you know, [FGSS Administrative Assistant] Meghan [Demanchyk] was apologizing to me about the behavior. So I just thought, ‘Okay, they know.’”

After the event, Hall expected FGSS to reach out and follow up on the incident.

“I’m like, ‘Okay, so they know that was bad, because this is the Feminist and Gender Studies department,’” Hall said. “‘So somebody is going to contact me and apologize.’ And I waited, and I heard nothing. And it’s also weird, because when you do these lecture tours, it’s pretty pro forma to check in after.”

Without any communication from the University or FGSS, Hall waited a week before posting on Twitter about this lack of correspondence. In the meantime, Hall also sought guidance from other Black and indigenous scholars, particularly queer women, about how they handle situations like this.

“This isn’t just about me being angry—it’s so many scholars,” Hall said. “And that’s the other thing. I start getting private messages: ‘Please don’t say anything but this happened to me;’ it was linked to ‘This happened to me at Wesleyan,’ to…‘Wesleyan has a reputation.’ And I’m like, great, you guys, you all focus on Wesleyan, and my issue is negligence.”

After a few more days, Hall finally decided to reach out to the University, initiating a long dialogue over the following weeks to discuss an apology and ways the University could make amends for the harm Hall had suffered.

“I asked a very simple thing: I want an apology and I want repair,” Hall said. “And at that point, [I had to have] five sessions of therapy. It wasn’t that complicated. But they’re like, ‘For anything about repair, that’s the provost, but we will issue an apology.’ And I’m like, good. Finally. Great. And then this apology comes up. And it’s more infuriating than the non-apology.”

By April 19, according to a snapshot on the Internet Archive, FGSS released an apology on their department website. This statement apologized to Hall for the disrespect shown to her by some of the event’s attendees and announced the decision to cancel the department’s participation in the lecture series going forward.

“FGSS offers our apology to Rebecca Hall, who was an invited speaker for a new lecture series conceived and funded by alumni,” the apology reads. “We were saddened to learn that some of those who attended the event were disrespectful to our guest speaker, as well as to a staff member and students. This behavior does not reflect our program’s commitments to intersectional teaching and scholarship, to combatting systemic racism and white supremacy, and to fostering solidarity and social justice on our campus and community. FGSS has voted to cancel our participation in the series, and we apologize to Dr. Hall. We deeply appreciate Dr. Hall’s work, and encourage others to examine the history that she brings forward. We are extremely grateful that she took the time to speak with us at Wesleyan.”

Hall, among others, found that this statement was vague and and did not fulfill expectations of an adequate apology or offer repair.

“What was infuriating about the apology was not just that it was institution-speak—one of those apologies that doesn’t acknowledge any harm, or even say what the harm was,” Hall said. “Their idea that ‘We’re sorry and so what we’re doing is, we’re canceling this lecture series’…. It’s like, how was that repair for me?”

Hall reached out to two people with whom she has had long-standing relationships: one was her Ph.D. advisor and mentor, University of California at Santa Cruz Distinguished Professor Emerita Donna Haraway, and the other was a former law partner of hers. Haraway, a preeminent scholar in the field of feminist studies, sent an open letter to the University in support of Hall, calling for a proper response from the University. FGSS Chair Victoria Pitts-Taylor responded to Haraway’s letter later that day.

Pitts-Taylor, in her response, remarked that she and other staff and students had noted the rude behavior of a few alumni in attendance but had not witnessed the specific incidents with Dr. Hall. Pitts-Taylor’s apology statement aimed to address these reports. In this letter, Pitts-Taylor mentioned that she had previously sent another letter as a personal apology to Hall regarding Hall’s direct experience with the alumni and that work was then put toward building the collective apology.

“Both of those apologies were a response to what we understood to have happened,” Pitts-Taylor wrote in her letter to Haraway. “We did not witness or know about any hate speech, sustained harassment (or any kind of harassment), touching of any kind or physical attack. Had I or anyone else from FGSS witnessed or heard about this, we would have certainly intervened immediately, and our response/apology to Dr. Hall would have been completely different.”

On May 3, Hall released a Twitter thread including excerpts from Haraway’s open letter. This thread was then picked up by Wesleyan students, who began to circulate news of this incident and the response from the University. Many students and faculty were astonished by the incident’s occurrence, the University’s response, and the fact that news of the incident reached them via Twitter.

As students sought information from the administration and FGSS faculty, student communications with the administration and faculty revealed that the University has instituted an investigation into the matter and that faculty have been instructed to direct questions to Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Nicole Stanton.

“The details of the harassment were horrifying and shocking because this is not the Wesleyan I know,” Charissa Lee ’23 wrote in an email to The Argus. “But the active cover-up, gag order and silencing that occurred for one month after the incident is in line with the Wesleyan I know. This lack of transparency is the modus operandi of this administration. Nonetheless, the truth will prevail, students talk, faculty talk and the silencing will no longer continue.”

On May 4, an official letter on behalf of Hall by her counsel was addressed to Stanton, and a lawsuit was filed against the University. In the following days, students across campus began to react to this news as a petition began to circulate in support of Dr. Hall. The petition demands greater and improved action and transparency on the part of the University.

“This petition is an expression of anger at this choice [the University’s silence as it conducts its investigation],” the petition states. “It is an expression of sorrow for Dr. Hall. It is an apology from all of us who ARE the ‘Wesleyan’ that you thought you were visiting. In the face of our administration’s failure to act with wisdom, we pledge to hold our administration to higher standards.”

In its last session of the semester, on Sunday, May 7, the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) presented and unanimously passed Resolution 15.44, “Support of the Justice for Dr. Rebecca Hall Petition,” in which the WSA formally endorsed the petition.

Though the University returned The Argus’ request for comment, they refused to share any further information on the matter.

“Wesleyan has commissioned an independent, third-party investigation into this matter,” according to a statement provided to The Argus from The University. “The University has also received a letter from Dr. Hall’s attorney, directing communications through her office. Consistent with those instructions and to preserve the integrity of the investigation, Wesleyan will not be providing further comment until the completion of that investigation.”

This story is still developing. 

Andrew Lu can be reached at ajlu@wesleyan.edu.