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Pines Predicaments

As anyone who has been awake in the past week knows, there has been significant criticism of the decision by the Joint Events Council and the CSB and SJU administrations to cancel the Sammy Adams performance at ’13 Pines. While we understand the frustration and unhappiness surrounding this particular decision, we also think this episode raises big and important issues about our community and our values that are worth exploring.

We acknowledge up front that the process by which Mr. Adams was invited and then disinvited was flawed. It is a source of deep frustration for everyone involved that we are paying for a concert that will not be performed. We will review and improve this process to prevent a similar situation from occurring in the future.

The bigger questions raised by this episode include: who gets to decide what outsiders will be given the stage at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, and what criteria will be used in making those decisions? These questions are, of course, far broader than ’13 Pines but also apply to other artists, guest speakers, visiting professors and anyone else we might invite to our community.

The first question, “Who decides?” is relatively simple. At the end of the day it is the administrations, with significant input from others in the community. This might include the presidents, the provost and/or the vice presidents for student development, but the administrations are ultimately responsible, which is why concerns about the decision to disinvite Mr. Adams rightly have come to us.

The second question, “What criteria are to be used?” is much more difficult. Administrators must consider the values of the institutions, which are not simple to articulate and have many different interpretations. We must also consider the many constituencies we represent. Students are often the most important group for us to consider, but they are rarely the only group. Faculty and staff have a stake in these decisions, as do alumni, parents, the monastic communities and even the public at large. Every member of the extended Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s community has his or her own idea of how we should best pursue our educational mission in the context of our Catholic and Benedictine values. These values and their many different interpretations almost always require a balancing of competing interests when making decisions for the institutions.

The balancing of interests we considered in the Sammy Adams case has nothing to do with censorship or 1st amendment issues, as some have asserted. Mr. Adams has the right to perform and market his music. More importantly, all students are free to listen to, watch or read whatever they wish, to the extent that their choices do not harm or offend others.

But once choices harm or offend others, we must take these outcomes into consideration. If the choices someone in the community makes harm another, the administration almost always would act to prevent such harm.

Choices or actions that may be offensive to others are much harder calls. The administration would typically judge these situations on a case-by-case basis. Learning is often uncomfortable and can lead to some individuals being offended, but we would rarely want to stop such learning, and as an academic institution, we might actively defend such teaching, events or presentations.

Yet when considering all the constituencies in the community, there are also situations in which the offensive actions have costs that are sufficiently high, and the benefits too low to allow the actions or event to proceed. This was the administrations’ calculation in the Sammy Adams case. It was not our intention to prevent students from enjoying themselves or to act in loco parentis. In this case, it was our carefully considered judgment that the message delivered by allowing Mr. Adams to perform at ’13 Pines was harmful to the mission of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University and at odds with the values of our community.

We certainly understand that some in the community have come to a different conclusion, but we want everyone to know that the administrations did not make this decision lightly or casually.