Faculty assembly discusses upcoming ‘anti-trans’ events, continuation of ELI through next year

By Madison Dean, Senior Staff Writer

Faculty Assembly President Robin Kear addressed recent concerns over upcoming “anti-trans” events on campus which have sparked concern for the safety of the trans community at Pitt. Kear said these events are “extremely problematic” and that she understands the “outrage and concern” expressed by the community.

“We can continue to support our trans community, our LGBTQIA+ community and others,” Kear said. “There are many counter positive events happening in parallel around the time of these events. I urge you to consider taking part in a positive response.” 

The Faculty Assembly held a meeting on Wednesday afternoon in Posvar Hall and over Zoom to discuss the continuation of the English Language Institute, the impact of upcoming ‘anti-trans’ events on the Pitt community and exercise facility benefits for employees. 

Kear shared that the University will allow the English Language Institute to remain open through June 30 of next year. The announcement comes after Dean Kathleen Blee informed students in a letter in January that the Institute would close in June of this year due to decreased enrollment.

Kear said that this decision will provide “one year of reprieve” and that ongoing discussions are being held about extensions on ELI faculty contracts. The initial letter from Blee sparked a response from students urging the University to keep the Institute open. 

“The ELI thanks Provost Cudd and the University for the extension and reiterates its thanks to all those who have expressed support,” Kear said. 

The ‘anti-trans’ events in question at the meeting include a speaker event hosted by Pitt’s chapter of Turning Point USA, in which former collegiate swimmer Riley Gaines will speak about transgender athletes in women’s sports on March 27 as well as a debate hosted by Pitt’s College Republicans and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute about “transgenderism and womanhood” between Michael Knowles and Dierdre McCLoskey on April 18. 

Kear shared that, although the upcoming events are “appalling” and “hurtful,” the student organizations who planned these events have done so within the rules of the Registered Student Organizations Handbook.

“We must keep in mind that there are students at this university that invited these speakers,” Kear said. “These are registered student organizations that sponsor the events and they wish to hear from these speakers.” 

Kear asked if reactions from the University and community should lead the University to limit the free speech of campus organizations or let an academic administration decide that these planned events are invalid despite following protocol. 

“Should we be reacting by limiting the free speech and free inquiry of some of our students? It is extremely difficult to not want to do so when part of our community feels devalued and debased by another part of the community,” Kear said. 

One of the registered events includes Deirdre McCloskey, a professor of economics, history, English and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a trans woman. Faculty Assembly Vice President Kristin Kanthak said the lack of recent media coverage about McCloskey as a speaker highlights division among the community. 

“This is an evidence of how we’re not doing very well as a community. This is trans erasure and it’s not okay,” Kanthak said. 

Kanthak also discussed that these upcoming events show how students, colleagues and the community do not feel “safe and included and supported.” 

“One of the things that has come out of this is the planning of the events [that] I think we can think of as a stress test on the community,” Kanthak said. “And I feel like we have failed.” 

Bridget Keown, a teaching assistant professor in the gender, sexuality and women’s studies program, said hosting debates about anti-trans topics during a recent “uptick” in violence towards transgender individuals can “translate into real world violence and real world harm for our community.” 

Kear said it’s difficult to legally define the speeches of these events as incitements of violence or hate speech since they have not yet occurred but understands how the discourse surrounding them is harmful. 

“I know this language can cause real pain. You’re right that these ideas can spread hate in other ways that aren’t specifically legal, right, to the definition of incitement of violence directly from speech, and that’s why I’m struggling,” Kear said. 

Student members of Turning Point USA and Pitt College Republicans said in previous interviews these events will be conducted in a “civil manner” and the community should “get used to conservative voices.” 

During the meeting, Kear also said exercise facilities at Trees Hall and Bellefield Hall will remain open to staff and faculty members for the “indefinite future” after concerns were raised about the completion of the new Recreation and Wellness Center and its impact on free employee membership at campus recreation facilities. 

“I know that not all of us use those facilities, but those faculty and staff that do use them are very passionate about using them and want to continue to have those as a benefit,” Kear said. 

Linda Tashbrook, a member of the Benefits and Welfare Committee, said the continuation of free access to recreation centers is important for staff and faculty who need the facilities for rehabilitation and physical therapy.