Friday, December 10, 2010

Belmont's 'Difficult Dialogues': What Do They Mean by 'Difficult'?

Posted By on Fri, Dec 10, 2010 at 10:00 AM

Earlier this week, in his statement to the press, Belmont President Robert Fisher told reporters that there was taking place on campus a series of university-led discussions — these so-called "Difficult Dialogues" that about 20 people attended. In a letter Belmont sent to alumni, again the university made mention of this discussion group: "Last spring, as an alternative to creating a student-led organization, the university initiated a conversation about gay and lesbian issues and the Christian faith. This group has met twice monthly since then, and all in the Belmont community are welcome to participate."

There seems to be a constant theme running through this Belmont story — the administration says something that is true on a technicality, but violates the broader spirit of truth.

It turns out that these Difficult Dialogues are a good illustration of truth by technicality. It is, for instance, literally true that everyone in the Belmont community is welcome to participate.

But Kevin Foster, a senior English major at Belmont, explains how it works in practice:

"In order to attend, students and faculty have to be on the Difficult Dialogues email list. This list is not published anywhere. Presumably the only way to find out about the email list is to be told about it by someone else who is already involved — and when you start with as few students as were originally invited to take part in the conversation, it's challenging to get the word out. In fact, for a lot of Belmont students and faculty, Dr. Fisher's statement was the first they had heard about Difficult Dialogues.

"Belmont has a University Calendar with a listing of nearly every event taking place on campus. Difficult Dialogues meetings are not published on this calendar. Until recently, the meetings were being held in the basement of a dorm in a small classroom. Only after complaints from participants in the discussion, the location was changed to a more easily accessible classroom at the beginning of November."

So, yes, these meetings are happening and everyone who knows about them can attend — if you can figure out how to find out about them. Foster tells me that, as a university-sponsored event, students aren't allowed to even do their own publicity for it.

Well, you can't argue. It does meet the definition of "difficult" — the meetings are indeed hard to attend.

And what about the "dialogues" part? Is there open discussion?

Foster says not: "Discussion of school policy is discouraged. Discussion of Bridge Builders' denial is forbidden. Each meeting, materials are distributed to the email list; Dr. Johnston [Dr. Andrew Johnston, Associate Provost and Dean of Students, who runs the meetings] chooses those materials. Anything that students would like to disseminate must be sent to Dr. Johnston beforehand and he ultimately decides whether or not they are appropriate materials for discussion."

So it's not exactly the standard definition of "dialogue" where two parties have an equal back-and-forth exchange. But they do meet twice a month ... that's two ... so maybe we can stretch that into a "dia" to stick on the beginning of that "logues" without it actually being untrue.

Seriously, you have to laugh at this point. Foster says, "There does not appear to be any expressed goal of the Difficult Dialogues group and that's been incredibly frustrating."

But a gal such as myself cannot help but wonder if the goal of Difficult Dialogues is to give the Belmont administration something they can point to to say to alumni and community members, "Look, see? We are having discussions. We do support GLTB people and their allies at Belmont!" — without having to risk the change that might result from that type of open discussion.

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