Beauty pageant debate divides Goucher

March 03, 1993|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Staff Writer

A satirical beauty pageant at Goucher College featuring male students in drag has escalated into a sexual harassment controversy that has divided the campus.

A group of 35 students and two faculty members last week delivered a formal complaint to President Rhoda M. Dorsey, charging that the "Ms. Goucher" contest scheduled for March 10 constitutes sexual harassment of women.

At larger, rowdier campuses, such a contest might get little notice. But at well-mannered, intellectual Goucher, the event has prompted a campus-wide debate over gender equality, censorship and the identity of a college only five years into coeducation.

Nearly one-third of Goucher's 800 students are men.

"The Ms. Goucher pageant somehow signifies the state of confusion that Goucher is in with regard to the transition [to coeducation]," says Richard Pringle, a psychology professor who signed the sexual harassment complaint.

Dr. Pringle and some others at the Towson college worry about its quick change from a women's school to something more "collegial" that shortchanges or stereotypes women.

These critics rail about men taking over campus leadership positions and dominating classroom discussions. And they cringe at the women dancers who now perform at men's basketball games.

Some men, meanwhile, complain about the strident feminism they encounter, which manifests itself in "Men Rape" slogans written on campus sidewalks, and in public discussions of obscene graffiti in men's bathrooms.

"There are frictions," says Dr. Dorsey. "They are being talked about. They are being addressed. You've got to hope that you make the kids more sensitive."

Hurt by declining enrollments, Goucher decided its only chance for survival was to go co-ed. Adding men was bound to shake things up for what had been a women-only school for 100 years. But nothing has shaken up the campus quite like Ms. Goucher.

The pageant started three years ago as a spoof of traditional beauty pageants and was tolerated even by those who found it offensive to women. Last year, the event turned ugly.

As their entry in the talent competition, two male freshman contestants, dressed in women's clothes, simulated a sex act, which prompted hoots and obscene comments from men in the audience. By most accounts, the display was tasteless if not pornographic. Beyond that, many women found the skit demeaning and the audience response frightening.

"I was very disturbed by the reactions in the audience," says sophomore Maria Barelli. "Men were standing up hooting, cheering, grabbing their genitals. It was just a very scary atmosphere."

Tim Wong, a sophomore from Boston who was in the skit, says the performance was "all done in good fun."

"It was not meant to harass people or cause an atmosphere of violence," he says.

Mr. Wong and his partner wrote a letter of apology to the student newspaper. But debate over the issue only grew louder.

"Just the idea of this to me is threatening, that this is going on on my campus," says Chauna Brocht, a 21-year-old junior from Overlea. "I try to tell people that I have the right to be on my campus and feel safe there."

Faced with such opposition, the student government legislature last fall voted to cancel its sponsorship of the event. But a group of students petitioned the issue to a campus-wide referendum. By 107 to 100, students voted in favor of Ms. Goucher.

Student government leaders decided to forge ahead with the event and are now planning a more politically correct pageant.

"On March 10, nothing that goes on on stage will happen without being [reviewed] by a number of people," says Jeff Klein, chairman of the student government's social committee. "I'm not looking to hurt anyone or make anyone feel sexually offended."

Opponents, meanwhile, have scheduled a "Take Back the Night" rally, possibly including a candlelight march across campus, to coincide with the pageant.

Many people at Goucher have turned the pageant into a `D free-speech issue. They don't much like the event. But stopping it, they say, would be censorship.

"It's pretty outrageous for an academic community to tell a large group that they don't like the way they're handling themselves," says Katherine Henneberger, an economics professor. "You try to convince people of that with rhetoric, not by banning it outright."

So far, President Dorsey has refused to stop the event, preferring to let the students decide what to do. She has $H referred the sexual harassment complaint to the head of campus security.

Dr. Pringle and another psychology professor, Katherine Canada, were the only two faculty members to sign the sexual harassment complaint, and they offer the most far-reaching critique of the changes at Goucher since men arrived.

Through years of observation of classroom dynamics beginning before men arrived, the two professors conclude that male students tend to dominate Goucher's classroom discussions.

Another observation: Male professors in co-ed classes tend to allow less classroom discussion than female professors.

Not everyone agrees. "What I've found in the classroom is that it's simply an open forum for both men and women to participate in the discussion," says Laurie Kaplan, an English professor with 14 years at Goucher. "I do not find that men dominate my classroom and I have never found that."

Dr. Kaplan, though, agrees with Dr. Canada's assessment that men moved into important leadership positions on campus too quickly.

By the third year of coeducation, men had taken over three No. 1 posts: in student government and at the newspaper and yearbook.

Many on campus lament that the pageant has somehow created a litmus test of personal ideology.

"Now, if you don't favor ending the Ms. Goucher contest, you're taking a stand against women. I don't think that's a fair way of putting the question," says Dr. Henneberger.

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