PCWP guest speaker exemplifies Chatham’s performative values

Abbey Sullivan

Chatham University is a school hallmarked by its goals to uplift a multiplicity of voices. University-sponsored events are often held to foster a well-educated and empathetic community. However, there are frequent bumps in the road toward campus-wide egalitarianism, as the pioneers of this inclusive tradition (oftentimes the student body) clash with event purveyors. 

January 2021’s Pennsylvania Center for Women in Politics’ (PCWP) event “Making a Difference: Women in the PA General Assembly,” which featured now Pennsylvania Republican Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, was no exception.

Sen. Ward, having made history as the first woman to serve as Pennsylvania’s Republican majority leader, and other speakers were invited to the event to “discuss their journeys into politics [and] their experiences on an unprecedented campaign trail,” according to the PCWP’s Instagram post on the matter. However, questions arose regarding Sen. Ward’s involvement, as she was one of several senators who signed a letter to U.S. Congress asking for Pennsylvania’s electoral college votes to be set aside until GOP questions regarding the 2020 U.S. presidential election’s validity were resolved.

Sen. Ward addressed her reasoning behind signing the letter, pointing to the attack on the United States’ capitol on Jan. 6 as evidence for support of the question she and her colleagues raised, reports Pittsburgh’s Tribune-Review.

Concerns regarding Sen. Ward and her colleagues’ dangerous narrative pushing arose within Chatham’s student body in the days leading up to the PCWP event. An open letter crafted by the community was signed by 20 Chatham-affiliated individuals and directed to the University and the PCWP’s official Instagram accounts, demanding a response and Sen. Ward’s disinvitation. 

The response was lukewarm; Chatham University declined to answer, and the event proceeded as scheduled, despite Sen. Ward’s technical difficulties, which barred her from properly joining. The PCWP defended its decision in an Instagram post, writing, “The PCWP believes that to not have [Sen. Ward] here would offer an incomplete understanding of the current state of the PA General Assembly and that student voices would not be heard.”

Additionally, a CSG meeting was held to discuss student feedback about the event with Dr. Dana Brown, PCWP’s executive director.

In the wake of this dissonance between the administration and student body, all Chatham communities must reckon with what a “difference of opinion” means within this day and our current context. The open-minded defense is but a narrow line that many people of privilege toe with undue license. Sen. Ward’s continued welcome into Chatham’s space is an example of this. The dangers and displays of fascism in our country have blown apart what it means to “see both sides.”

Therefore, Sen. Ward’s opinion that the outcome of the U.S. presidential election was false disproportionately affects marginalized groups (her identity as a white woman does not allow her passage into those spaces, nor does it excuse her Trump sympathies) and prolongs Trump’s fascist legacy. This lengthens the harm, neglect and outright abuse BIPOC and members of the LGBT community faced (and will continue to undergo) during the former president’s tenure and attacks our foundations of democracy. 

It is shameful that any Pennsylvania senators would support not only Trump’s past cruelties but gesture to the violence at the U.S. Capitol building as justification for upending our electoral process. Their opinion of a “rigged election” is more than just that; it is an invitation for further hate toward groups long abused by the system Trump exacerbated.

Thus, Chatham’s refusal to rescind Sen. Ward’s invitation – with eight days’ notice between the Jan. 6 riots and the PCWP event – is one of performance, rather than substance. They chose bureaucratic decorum over their supposed dedication to uplifting marginalized individuals, who were meanwhile clamoring for Sen. Ward to be barred from speaking on account of her harmful beliefs. Chatham at large seems to have a problem with choosing to present the role of ally rather than become the activist its students deserve.

Chatham’s position regarding performative allyship as a university, however, is complex, as an easy solution does not yet exist. The inroads into that process are fortunately becoming clear. Dialogues with students are key. The open letter to Chatham University and the Pennsylvania Center for Women in Politics at Chatham was a prime example of an extended olive branch, yet the response fell short of expectations due to dismissive language and a perceived lack of interest on the issue.

I am uncomfortable watching my school associate with those who choose the narrative of violence and insurrection over that of a peaceful transfer of power. I am displeased with Chatham’s choice to value petty professionalism over solidarity. I am scared for Chatham’s BIPOC and LGBT communities moving forward, should individuals like Senator Ward continue to frequent our space. I hope this may be treated as a learning experience that we can heal from and grow closer as a school than before.

Ava Roberts ‘22 and Taylor Pelow ‘21 contributed to this report.