Members of the Hood College Republicans spent Sunday night fielding questions from fellow students who were frustrated — and in many cases, angered — by a recent display by the group in the Whitaker Campus Center.
The club sparked controversy on Tuesday by decorating a board in the campus center with posters and pictures from the modern conservative movement, many of which included views that students viewed as hostile to minorities.
One quote, from conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, read, “Transgender people are unfortunately suffering from a significant mental illness that is deeply harmful ... Biology is biology; men can’t magically become women, and women can’t magically become men.”
The board also contained many messages about abortion, including one poster that called it “the largest genocide in the human history.” Another read “The most dangerous place for an African-American is in the womb.”
“When you’re saying that transgender people are mentally ill, you’re threatening their livelihood,” said Gabrielle Cavalier, a senior at Hood and the vice president of the Hood College Democrats. “When you say that abortion is genocide, you’re calling any woman who gets an abortion a murderer. If you want a discussion, why not talk about things like the transgender bathroom bill or Neil Gorsuch, who was just elected to the Supreme Court? That’s what’s being voted on.”
Cavalier’s key criticism — that the board focused on subjects intended to outrage, rather than real policy questions — was echoed by many students at a Sunday night meeting for the Hood College Republicans, which they advertised as a way to discuss the display.
But the predominant question for many students was why the club would set up the board at all, especially given that many group members said the posters on the board did not necessarily represent their own views.
“The main point of the board isn’t necessarily to espouse beliefs that we as a club believe,” said Brice McAndrew, the vice president of the Hood College Republicans. “This is what modern-day conservatives are listening to. People ask, ‘How could Donald Trump get elected?’ The board upstairs is why.”
Other students, however, questioned whether the way to promote civil discourse was by displaying inflammatory statements. Jeremiah Ratliff, a senior at Hood, told the club that the appearance of the board just underlined the feeling among many students that Hood was a close-minded campus.
“What I meant is that the cultural atmosphere here at Hood is one of closed-mindedness toward groups that the board particularly offended,” Ratliff later explained. “I think people feel that there’s homophobia and under-representation on campus — especially for transgender people, and among the Black Student Union — and this did nothing for them. People don’t really talk about these issues in a respectful way.”
Ratliff, and many other students, took particular issue with the messages about transgender people and the racialized poster on abortion, which Ratliff called “an asinine statement.” But members of the College Republicans also defended the board as free speech and an important way to share conservative views, which many said were also underrepresented on campus.
“Just because you find it hateful doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a discussion,” said Brendan Mahoney, the treasurer of the club. “If this is what it took to get everyone up and talking, then I’m glad we did it.”
“On a campus as liberal as Hood, it’s hard for us to express our views without being labeled a racist or a bigot,” added Angela Vines, a senior member of the club. “We knew people were going to be upset, but we didn’t expect people to lash out the way they lashed out ... It shows that conservative values aren’t nearly as accepted on campus as other values.”
The Sunday meeting was largely cordial, with a smattering of applause from the crowd at the end of every exchange between club members and other students. There was a heated moment toward the end of the forum when Jason Miller, the vice chairman of the Frederick County Republican Central Committee, took the microphone to defend the campus group.
“Words have consequences on both sides,” Miller said, before relating how his Jewish, conservative wife was offended by Facebook posts she saw during the election that compared Trump to Hitler and Republicans to Nazis.
“So, if any of you here sit in judgment of these people for posting something on a board, if you post things like that on Facebook, do you think it’s surprising that they don’t come to your events?” Miller asked.
A number of students responded negatively to the interjection.
“You’re not a professor here, dude,” one crowd member yelled out. Another responded, “This is supposed to be a Q&A.”
The Rev. Beth O’Malley, the dean of the chapel at Hood College, called the display one of the biggest controversies to occur in her nine years at Hood. Beyond the immediate discussion on campus, the board also launched a huge reaction on social media, said Ashley Gardner, an assistant swim coach at Hood and the sister of club President Christopher Gardner.
“The swimmers were away when the board went up, so we kind of lived it through social media,” said Gardner. “I think the reaction was mixed — there were a lot of people who personally attacked my brother, but also people from back home and at school who supported him.”
Students also responded to the board in more creative ways. Since the club put up the display, Christopher Gardner said that more than $200 had been donated to Planned Parenthood in his name. On Sunday night, a group of students gathered to work on a “positive campaign” that included a display board on how to be a good ally to people of color, Planned Parenthood and the LGBTQ community, including non-binary people.
The group also plans to table at the Whitaker Campus Center on Monday and to hang up Post-it notes around campus with messages of encouragement.
“I think there was a lot of frustration and helplessness because people were wondering how they were supposed to be civil when their way of life was attacked,” said Molly Masterson, a senior and representative of the Feminist Student Union. “So this is helping people learn, ‘Oh, how can I be more inclusive, how can I support people in the community who are different from me?’”.
The board — which club members labeled the “Conservative Cultural Center” — also forced a response from the Hood administration. In an email sent to students, faculty and staff on Thursday, Hood President Andrea Chapdelaine called for the college to review the display, “with appropriate sanctions to follow if such a determination be made.”
The school will also hold a forum on Tuesday where Chapdelaine and other senior administrators will speak, said Carin Robinson, a professor of political science and the adviser for both Hood College Republicans and Hood College Democrats.
Sanctions are still being discussed, but administrators can’t comment on what disciplinary measures might be taken, said Laurie Ward, the marketing director for Hood.
The display board — which is open to students on a rotating basis — will be left up until Tuesday, which is when it would be ordinarily taken down, Ward added.