Letter to the Editor

To the young man who I sent away from my booth at family weekend:

I was running the College of Engineering’s “Engineering Design” outreach, where we ask people to make bridges out of two pieces of paper with no fasteners, and then ask them to do it again when the constraints change. It can be a surprisingly difficult challenge for some people – to get two pieces of 8”x11” paper to span 13”. The optimum age group for this task seems to be 10-13 year olds. Younger kids have trouble with some of the motor skills needed to make a bridge as elegant as they imagine, and some of the adults have trouble imagining something that works without tape. But that’s part of the point – iteration is key to successful engineering design – so it was not surprising that you and your friend thought the task would be easy but were surprised to still be working at it even after the child at the next station finished. Particularly since the beers you brought to my table and the rate of speech from your mouth indicated that perhaps you were experiencing some regression in your motor skills as well. Nevertheless, I was happy to let you have a go at our challenge.

You got a bonus that no one else who was bridge building got. You got to see me angry. Let me tell you how special that is. My students and colleagues might tell you that I can be cranky, that I can complain, but a vanishingly small fraction of them would tell you they’d seen me angry. You’d almost certainly have to go into the alumni rolls to find a student would could remember that. But within ~6 minutes of acquaintance, you got me there. And do you remember how? You asked what had been the most successful bridge and I told you about an impressive one that had been made a little bit earlier. And you then turned to your friend and in a voice plenty loud enough for the table to hear, referred to the (unknown to you) builder of that successful bridge as a “faggot.”
You seemed genuinely surprised when I sent you away from my table at that point, and even more surprised when your assurances that you were “just kidding” didn’t change my mind. I was luminously angry, so I did not have sufficient command of rhetoric to explain what you had just done. Allow me to tell you now.
Let’s say for a moment that you had chosen a more neutral insult for the person who bested you at paper bridge building. That doesn’t fix things much. You were insulting one of my students. She may not have been there to hear it, but that doesn’t matter. You don’t do that in my presence and get away with it.
You were using crude language in the presence of children.
You were using crude language in the presence of adults with whom you were not personally acquainted. I would hope in both cases your parents raised you better than that.
You were, perhaps, sufficiently full of beer that the brakes that otherwise would have stopped you using such language one foot away from someone who’s name tag says “Associate Dean” had come off. You have failed to realize that there are some levels of inebriation that you should choose to keep in company of those engaged in like pursuits, rather than bring into the Family Weekend tent.
The ease with which that came out of your mouth implies that you expected and understood that those you converse with would hear this as an insult. I’m insulted that you even thought I might be part of that group.

And finally, you implied by your particular choice of language, that to be gay is to be less of a person. That it was ok for you to fail at a task at which six year olds succeed more rapidly as long as that person, the person who could do this better than you, doesn’t happen to be a heterosexual (one assumes) like yourself. The sheer irrelevance. The sheer arrogance. The sheer thoughtless of your speech is what moved me to order you out of my area. Take your hateful language, and get away from the College of Engineering activity. Get out of the Family Weekend tent. And while you’re at it, take your attitude off of my campus.

Margot Vigeant
Professor, Chemical Engineering Associate Dean of Engineering

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