In 2015, OnStage Blog ranked the B.A. in Theatre program at Willamette University as the best in the nation. We felt that the combination of academic rigor, bold production choices, outstanding faculty and ample scholarships made them stand out among the rest. Since then, the school has been in the Top 10 on our annual rankings and this past year came in at #3.
However, a recent student strike has led to the cancellation of the program’s two upcoming productions. And if what we’re hearing from the students is true, then it could lead to a swift downfall for one of the country’s best theatre programs.
Issues arose when casting for an upcoming production was announced and an individual, who had been accused multiple times of sexual harassment, was cast in a role that called for sexual intimacy on stage. Worse yet, his co-star would be one of his accusers.
Students brought this issue to the faculty while others dropped out of the show due to the casting. Rather than handle this situation professionally and delicately, according to a students, the faculty instead punished them with scholarship probation. According to a blog written by a student involved with the production, concerns over the casting were brought up multiple times to faculty and nothing was changed. Students even went through the school’s Title IX office and nothing was done.
Shockingly, once the accused had a dialogue about the issues with his casting, he tried to step down from the role but was denied by the faculty involved. The student states the accused “was advised by our faculty not to do so, citing reasons of denial of access to education and bullying. People were going to the faculty with tears streaming down their faces, telling them they couldn’t breathe knowing they had to be intimate with their harasser on stage, and the faculty advised against remedying that situation.”
As a result of the faculty’s unwillingness to make the rehearsal process safer and address these issues, the theatre students at Willamette went on strike.
In response to the outcry, rather than act to resolve these issues swiftly, the faculty chose to cancel the two productions for this semester - "The Servant of Two Masters" and "Public Enemy". The first was supposed to open this coming weekend.
Kristen Grainger, chief communications officer at Willamette University, said the shows were canceled due to an “internal conflict” within the department.
Folks, I don’t have to say it but this is bad. On one end, if you were to agree with the students, there is a serious problem at Willamette if they’re not handling claims of sexual harassment properly and ignoring student concerns within the rehearsal room. It is equally bad that the faculty let this issue get so out of hand within the department that they had to upcoming productions.
When times like these arise, the adults in the room, the professors, the ones holding terminal degrees need to be the type of educators they’re paid to be by listening to their students and not let things devolve to this. This is an institutional failure and I blame the faculty and leadership within the department, chair Bobby Brewer-Wallin.
So my advice to the faculty and administration at Willamette? Fix this and fix it now. Hearing your students and professionally addressing sexual harassment on your campus is not trying to reinvent the wheel. It’s not a five-year process. It can change at the drop of a hat. But you need responsible faculty and administrators to do so. I’d like to believe there are some at this school.
As I said before, over the past five years we have praised Willamette for their program and implored students to apply there. I would hate to put them on another list - schools to avoid.