The firing of the part-time head of Columbia College's Office of GLBT Student Concerns has sparked protests both inside and outside of the school. But the school says it remains committed to its GLBT students and that the change in leadership merely represents a 'shift in direction' for the office.
The March 14, 2001 Windy City Times reported that long-time Columbia teacher Victoria Shannon sparked the idea for the GLBT office, and that the school eventually supported her in its formation.
Now, however, Mark Kelly, vice president of Student Affairs, said the idea had been 'floating around for years. ... Student Affairs created the office, with the support of the president. ... When I assumed the position of vice president of Student Affairs ... we said we had to make this happen.'
Shannon is angry at what she said is a re-writing of history.
'I went to [ Kelly ] two years ago and asked him to start that office,' Shannon said. 'It had not been floated by anyone but me. I have been here 11 years and I had been trying to serve the GLBT students without an office or phone. I am qualified ... I have two master's degrees and a graduate certificate in women's studies. I am [ close to ] my dissertation at DePaul in education.' Shannon also teaches what is believed to be the only specific class on gay and lesbian issues, and she is working on developing a gay and lesbian history course. While other classes may include GLBT issues within their programs, her's is believed to be the only course focused just on that topic.
While the roots of the GLBT office are in dispute, what is even more unclear is why on Friday, June 6, Shannon's contract was not renewed. [ Her part-time teaching post for the English and Liberal Education departments is union-protected. ]
Shannon was called into the office of Sharon Wilson-Taylor, the Dean of Student Affairs. Shannon said Wilson-Taylor [ who did not return WCT's call ] said the GLBT office 'would run better if it were staffed by two part-time faculty members, one male and one female, each working 10 hours a week. They did not ask me to be the female.' Shannon said she had 'no clue' her contract would not be renewed, and that she had heard of no complaints in her two years.
Shannon said she was expecting a salary cut, since the school has cut costs across the board around 10 percentand Kelly did say two hours would be cut from this 20-hour position. But even Kelly said this change was not about budgets, but about going in a 'different direction.'
'We are looking to find someone or possibly two people that collectively will work to support gay and lesbian students at Columbia,' Kelly told WCT. 'We're looking to improve what we are doing.' Kelly said he could not comment on a specific personnel matter. He said they are advertising for a new director or directors, and hope to fill the position by August. The person does not have to be an employee of Columbia.
Shannon said she believed part of the reason for her firing might be her aggressive approach. In March she went to the chief of staff of Columbia to ask for a GLBT resource center. She believed this was a proper move, given that the dean had told her to find a resource center wherever she could. Shannon said she submitted a proposal to the chief of staff, and gave it to Wilson-Taylor to review.
'Instead of helping me help the students, I got chewed out for going over their heads and being too pushy,' she believes.
'We want our GLBT students to have a home on campus,' Shannon said. Columbia is a primarily a commuter campus, with few common areas for any students. Spread across several buildings in the South Loop, the facilities do not lend themselves to gathering spaces for those of like mindsor for cross-cultural interactions.
What is the school's official statement on the matter? Columbia College's open lesbian director of media relations, Micki Leventhal, emphasized that 'the Office of GLBT Student Concerns is not being dissolved. It will exist next year and for the foreseeable future. The Office has been in existence for two years and over that time period we have had an opportunity to assess ways in which we can better serve the full spectrum of our GLBT students. Management changes in the Office of GLBT Student Concerns are intended to serve those needs and we will be fine tuning our plans over the summer and conducting a search for a new coordinator.'
Leventhal said the office is 'one of several student services offices we have for various minority populationsLatino, African-American, Asian and Asian American, and International Student Affairs offices. They are all under the auspices of Student Life, and are all geared toward issues around students within that population.' At some schools, the needs of GLBT faculty and staff are also part of such an office, but at Columbia, the focus is on the students.
Shannon accomplished much in her two years, often working more than the 20 hours a week she was paid for. She was well known both inside and outside of Columbia, helping increase the visibility of the school in joint GLBT projects with other schools in the areaincluding the annual region-wide Pride Fest. She said she brought HIV testing to the school, and helped organize the Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud conference last fall.
Because of her reputation, Shannon said she has received a wide range of support, from students, colleagues, Chicago activists, and even parents.
One man, Fred F., a long-time donor to Columbia, including to the GLBT Office, even showed his support by picketing for more than two hours outside of the school June 9he said he had never done anything like that before in his life. His sign read 'HELP.' Fred has asked for his donations to be returnedincluding a VCR, DVD, plus hundreds of books, CDs, videos, and more.
'This has been a heartwarming reaction,' Shannon said. 'I feel betrayed. None of the hard work I have done, the networking, establishing Columbia nationally as a GLBT-friendly school, none of that has been honored by Student Affairs. I created this office ... from the ground up.'
Fred, who is 73, said he has supported Columbia over the years because of its reputation, starting in the 1960s, as a liberal school. He attended the University of Illinois, but he was attracted to the approach at Columbia.
'I support Victoria,' Fred said. 'I have worked with her over more than the last year. ... But I have been disappointed with her office space, which seems to be a janitor's closet, with no windows, no storage space. ... I asked her to get more room. She said this was all she can get. My hope is that GLBT students will feel comfortable to come out of the closetbut if there are not suitable accommodations, how can GLBT students come out?'
'How can you have togetherness ... if there are no places to get together?' he said.