Thursday, June 11, 2009

Former Student to WWU President: Mills Made Me A Man--Be One Yourself!


June 10, 2009

Bruce Shepard
President
Western Washington University


Dear Dr. Shepard,

I am writing an open letter to you today regarding Professor Perry Mills. I am deeply troubled and still somewhat ashamed by the University's conduct toward Professor Mills, and the vast misunderstanding that fuels his detractors' purpose. Their familiar refrain states that Professor Mills engages in slanderous, offensive behavior, cares little for his student population, and seeks self-affirmation through their abuse. Besides being baseless and hyper-reactionary, these emotional appeals cloud a broader, more important issue: what are the fiscal obligations of the university to its students, and why are these pseudo-issues employed to hide the fact that thousands of dollars in student funds were stolen and misappropriated? Must we all idly watch while a court ruling specifically cites the Theatre Department Chair for this action, even though the now-overturned judge erroneously stated that the university had not engaged in embezzlement because the records they kept of the stolen funds (!) were not falsified? Professor Mills opened himself to censure by insisting that the university uphold the trust of tuition-paying students. The more I read and hear of this escapade, the more saddened I am at Western's refusal to address the issue, thereby forgiving the perpetrators of this pathetic disgrace.

This meddlesome disgust pales in comparison to the largest question you must answer: the function of your university in the academic world. The course of a true college student is hazardous; every premise begotten to us by our parents in our most formative years is questioned and examined, and ethical questions are answered in ways that elementally change us as individuals. This is how it should be. True scholarship is not a sport or a pastime; it is a disciplined adherence to the practice of questioning ideas and beliefs (political, sociological, empirical or otherwise) until those ideas and beliefs are found to be true or false. Professor Mills' invective, which I rarely saw in the three years in which I insisted on attending at least one of his classes every quarter, was saved for those who would not engage the material, and who refused the tools of learning that Mills so ardently offered on a daily basis. To these people, Professor Mills offered a clear choice: think and create or disappear.

I have never witnessed a single event in which Professor Mills derided a student for being wrong as long as that student made an effort to think about the subject at hand. Even when presented with student-written plays that most people would find pathologically perverse, Mills questioned his students' motives within their work rather than impeaching their values. Mills also made certain that his students perform and test their work, and encouraged student works zealously while his colleagues bestowed leading roles in college plays upon themselves, thus preventing students from honing their tools through practice. These tools--inductive and deductive reasoning, avid passion for scholarship, practice, and ceaseless, pointed questioning--have proven invaluable to me as a man and as a member of society.

As a new legal and public hearing nears on this subject, you have a clear choice ahead of you as the President of WWU. Will you endorse your academic principles and demand that your students behave as scholars who engage the coursework and seek true higher learning, or will you adopt the position that your students be treated as fragile and that their feelings and comfort be given primary concern, even at the cost of scholarship?

I submit to you as a graduate of WWU that no scholar will find comfort in anything less than the pursuit of knowledge. Only a non-student--an anti-intellectual--will ask that their feelings be regarded above the development of their mind. Dorothy Sayers wrote: "For the sole true end of education is simply this; to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain." Professor Mills' teaching style exemplifies Ms. Sayers' concept of scholarship. To fulfill this aim, we need courageous, eager students and professors who do not dull their pedagogical methods to validate a student population that refuses to engage the scholastic method.

Nearly a decade later, the reason I happily pay installments on my student loan is that Professor Mills alone made my tuition worth every penny: he refused to teach me what to think, and taught me how to think instead.

Sincerely yours,

Rick Banuelos
WWU Class of 2000
cc:
Seattle Times
Gov. Christine Gregoire
Seattlepi.com
Bellingham Herald
Perry F. Mills
The Western Front

6 comments:

Eric Stone said...

Well written and true. There were many students who he ideologically did not see eye to eye with, but he was a fair and worthy critic of student work, whether it was a horror piece, a children's play, even a religious propoganda piece--the student's personal message was never his focus, the politics was never his focus; his focus was always on making things WORK the way you wanted them to (but didn't quite know how to). His job was to make students better at what THEY wanted to do. Very simple.

Some students who didn't like him on a personal level still continued to take his classes because they knew his perspective comes from a real understanding of what makes good theatre or film.

Reading over the Seattle Times reader comments (around 500 when I last looked), it seems that the arguments for or against the merits of Mills are blown out of preportion- most people either love him or hate him-- they're either calling for his head or calling him some sort of genius.

The most interesting comments came from those who addressed things from a more removed position, often people who don't even know him. These people, as with the editorial published here (by someone took many of his courses), want to talk about issues. The issues are free speech, specific accusations of harassmnet, specific accusations of illegal activity by the dean of the theatre department and, predominantly to the public: What makes a good teacher? Is there more than one kind of good teacher? Is Perry Mills a good teacher?

To those of us who benefited greatly from his classes, the last question is not a question at all, but an insult to someone we admire and respect.

Perry's great.

John Currier said...

I'm not a WWU student or graduate, but as a former faculty spouse I have more than a little knowledge of the events surrounding the Perry Mills case. For whatever it's worth, Perry was free to spout off whenever he felt the need while the rest of the Theatre faculty were bound to silence by the University. You've only heard one side. Perry was also my neighbor for a while, and while he is a fun guy to talk to, bear in mind that calling the new female professor a "dumb cunt" right before she went to teach her first class at WWU is never appropriate. And the Theatre Admin Assistant, who is probably the sweetest woman you will ever meet, should never have been brought to tears by this guy.
I understand that challenging students is an important thing, and knowing all the other faculty in WWU Theatre he is certainly unique. Part of me always liked Perry, he's a blue-collar guy that calls it as he sees it and has no tolerance for bullshit. Being a dick is kind of his schtick, and sometimes it works and is actually funny. He pushes it WAY too far sometimes though. Telling the 19 year old cancer survivor that she should have just died if she didn't feel confident enough to read her paper in front on the class is just wrong. Whether or not you like Perry, you know that's wrong as well as I do.
Look, a large number of students, who pay a great deal of money to be at WWU, are terrified of this man. Nearly all of the Theatre faculty is scared of him, based on some information that was not made public. Perry never bothered me personally because I've met far scarier people than him, and find him vaguely amusing. Other people are scared though. Should they have to work in an environment where they are actually afraid for their safety? Perry needs to go. He's sucked enough money out of WWU with his legal challenges. Perry, if you read this, just let it go, man.

Spartacus O'Neal said...

So John, should Professor Mills be deprived of his right to due process under the law because he is not politically-correct, or because he is blue collar? Might he be forgiven if he promised to drink Chardonnay and listen to an hour of NPR every evening?

blackspruce said...

John-

I beg you to please consult the record and find that he did not tell anyone they simply should have died. This is a morbidly offensive quote when taken out of context as many times as it have been. However, if you examine what was said: that if the young woman did not exhibit or produce her work, it was as if she had died from cancer. Is there something completely wrong with clearly outlining the stakes of scholarship and artistry in terms of either existence or non-existence? Those are the actual stakes-- we either create or vanish into obscurity.

If I had written nothing here, neither you nor anybody else would know of my existence. I would, in effect, be dead to the world.

Furthermore, there is nothing to fear from Perry whatsoever, and no reason for his colleagues to actually doubt their safety in his presence. He has no history of violence toward them at all, and their fear has no actual concrete merit to my knowledge in any record, public or private.

Besides that, there is no reason to introduce even greater subjectivity to the legality of this issue by asking Mills to quietly disappear, nor is there anything to gain but empty comfort from such a circumstance.

Eric Stone, Seattle said...

I'd just like to say that I really appreciate Mr. Currier's posting here and I hope more level-headed comments appear from others. He's looking at things from an objective point of view. When we love something, or someone (or hate them) we can be tempted to ignore anything contrary to our core beliefs. But nobody and no thing is perfect. Our favorite books and films have poor sections (and we ignore them, or even make ourselves like them because we like the piece as a whole), our favorite musicians have a couple shitty songs and our favorite people make gaffes at times, even outright poor choices. Just because Bob Dylan made some shitty albums in the 80s doesn't mean he's not still amazing, but let's be honest - shit is shit. A mistake is a mistake.

The fact of the matter is, it is possible for Perry to be both a great teacher (I think he is) and for him to make mistakes sometimes. Sure, we can get into the whole existential debate about 'what's wrong?' or ask if anything really matters or whatever (and Perry inspires those kind of thoughts at times, God bless him), but if the cancer shit's true (either the harsh Seattle Times' line or the more articulate, softer blog version), that was a mistake on his part and he should not be defended (as 'Blackspruce' is doing on this blog) for crushing someone's feelings over a FUCKING PLAY.

If Perry said that thing about "keeping your legs closed" to the new female teacher and she was offended, that was also a mistake. I'm not even saying he did say those things, but IF he did (and Blackspruce was going with the 'let's assume he did for a moment' assessment) then those were mistakes. We need to be realistic, and when we can, be Accurate.

blackspruce said...

Eric,

Although I am a good friend of Perry's, I don't think anybody is perfect, not do I wish to attempt to make them appear so in a public forum. I believe I would run my actions contrary to the beliefs I stated in my letter if I did not remain the slightest bit objective about what he has said.

Do I think it's wrong to call somebody a dumb cunt? Yes I do. Do I think it's right to tell someone to keep her legs closed? No I don't.

Have I seen anything from Perry that would objectively cause me to fear for my safety when in his presence, either in class or otherwise? No.

I stand by what I said about him exhorting students to do their work. Any playwrighting student consigns himself to produce, just as any student in general consigns herself to study. The world owes us nothing for our tribulations, and our only way to make something of ourselves is to produce something and try to get it out into the public circle.

I wrote nothing but steaming garbage in that class (a fact to which many commenters and the curator of this blog can attest), but I found it was my obligation as a playwrighting student to present the material to the workshop.

Now, I have a two-year-old daughter and a wife who has taken ill. I have five jobs that keep me very busy and I rarely sleep, but I don't let these things stand between me and playing music in concert because it's not *a* song; it's MY song.

It wasn't *a* fucking play. It was *her* fucking play. That is to say, it was her work. That's the important part. No writer can produce a play in a vacuum. Plays function as both literary works and practical performance pieces. If you sign up for the class, you sign up to produce. If you don't produce, you disappear.

Let the student say, "It's just a fucking play." If the rest of us do that, I think that's disrespectful.