Students critique Biden event

Kate Koenig | Visual Editor

Though about 1,000 students cheered for the vice president on Tuesday, hundreds were turned away and others complained about the event’s tone.

 After waiting in line for more than an hour to hear Vice President Joe Biden Tuesday, Megan Boyle left before Biden ever stepped foot on stage.

“I’ve never seen something more disorganized or poorly executed than this #ItsOnUs talk,” Boyle, a senior English and communication major, tweeted after she left. “It’s representative of how this university actually feels about sexual assault on this campus.”

Boyle, who came to the noon event more than two hours early — around 9:50 a.m. — said event staff funneled her and three of her friends up to the food court, where she said she could not see or hear the action in the Petersen Events Center lobby.

After 15 minutes, they left and opted to watch the speech at home on video streaming app Periscope, where they figured they would get better quality.

While many students championed Biden’s visit to campus, a part of the White House’s It’s on Us Campaign, the event’s logistics and environment disappointed others.

Students tweeted their frustration over the organization of the event and music selection, stating it was too light-hearted for an event focused on sexual assault. Other tweets focused on the small venue and the number of ticket holders security turned away from the event.

Before Biden took the stage, the Pitt marching band played songs it normally performs at sporting events, including the fight song. Roc the Panther mascot threw T-shirts into the crowd as music blared from a PA system.

Students, staff and community members listened to songs like “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas and “Blame” by Calvin Harris.

“‘Blame it on the night/Don’t blame it on me,” Twitter user @jessthan3 wrote, quoting lyrics from Harris’ song. “Great song choice for the speech on campus sexual assault. #bidenday @PittStudents #itsonus.”

Another user @shessoluckyyy tweeted, “They’re playing ‘Tonight’s Gonna Be a Good Night’ at a sexual assault rally. The irony and disrespect.”

Twice on Tuesday, Pitt spokesperson Joe Miksch declined to answer a question asking who from Pitt was responsible for choosing the music at the event and why those songs were chosen.

Outside, security turned away almost 800 students who reserved tickets, according to Pitt spokesperson Shawn Ahearn, because the space had filled to capacity. Ahearn said Pitt distributed 1,791 tickets through the William Pitt Union box office but only admitted about 1,000 people.

In a statement, Miksch said the fire marshal directed the University to stop admitting students.

“During planning and execution of this event — intended to draw attention to sexual assault — the University was directed to follow protocols that are not usually required for a Pitt event,” Miksch said in an email. “We apologize to anybody who was denied admission or inconvenienced in any way.”

Boyle said it seemed like Pitt was not prepared.

According to previous Pitt News reporting, Ahearn said Pitt found out Biden was coming March 28, giving Pitt about a week and a half to prepare for the visit.

Dan Lapidus, a sophomore who got turned away from the event after missing two classes to wait in line, said he sent an email to Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner expressing his disappointment and questioning what had happened.

In the letter, he asked why the event was not held inside the basketball arena, why Pitt distributed more tickets than there was space for and why they added an extra day to reserve tickets.

Although Lapidus called the experience “an annoyance,” he said he would be satisfied if Bonner answered all of his questions.

The ticket office had a disclaimer stating that students were not guaranteed a spot at the rally, and Ahearn said the White House determined the location and the ticket distribution process.

Ahearn did not respond to an email sent at 6 p.m. Tuesday asking if Bonner had received Lapidus’ email.

Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, who was in the audience but didn’t have a hand in organizing the event, said she did not notice the pop music playing from the loudspeakers, but said music with references to sexual violence are a part of the larger cultural problem that Biden referenced in his speech.

“That is an example of the cultural change we’re talking about,” Houser said. “Sometimes our culture is complacent in that we don’t listen to the words and don’t think about how something comes across because it’s popular.”

Houser said she did not think the It’s On Us event had any inappropriate moments, but said it was important for students to communicate their concerns to administration in order to make the cultural change that will ultimately help end sexual assault.

Carly Wallick, a junior psychology and anthropology major, said the music choice belittled the event’s message rather than displaying the passion people had for the issue.

“It was trying to be more peppy than it needed to be in that environment. It didn’t seem serious when it started and it was making [the problem] into less of a big deal,” Wallick said.

Shaelyn Zimmerman, a sophomore neuroscience major who got to the event at 9:15 a.m., said she thought the music and activity helped students who were weary after waiting so long to enter.

“I think they were just trying to keep the audience excited,” Zimmerman said. “You can tell people were passionate about the event.”

Dale Shoemaker contributed reporting. 

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