There is something so odd about the way that Pasadena City College handled a commencement speaker invitation to Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black that the controversy seemed at first like a belated April Fool’s joke.
According to the school’s newspaper, the PCC Courier, the college’s Board of Trustees had put Black’s name on a list of eight possible commencement speakers. As a PCC graduate, Black is one of its most illustrious alumni. But something in his past seems to have knocked him out of consideration.
As PCC Courier editor in chief Christine Michaels wrote last week: “The Board of Trustees were made aware of nude pictures found on the Internet of him with a man having unprotected sex and he was dismissed as a candidate because the board thought his actions might inflame the college’s own sex scandals.”
“With the porno professor and the sex scandals we’ve had on campus this last year, it just didn’t seem like the right time for Mr. Black to be the speaker,” PCC Board of Trustees President Anthony Fellow told the Courier. “We’ll be on the radio and on television. We just don’t want to give PCC a bad name.”
Oh, dear. This is a textbook example of how to give your institution a bad name.
Black, 39, believed that he was invited to be the school’s commencement speaker when he was contacted last month by student trustee Simon Fraser, who acted at the behest of an interim associate dean in the office of student affairs. All eight potential speakers were “invited” this way.
Black considered it official, and accepted.
Later, however, on April 2, when the Pasadena Area Community College District trustees discussed commencement speakers at their regular meeting, Black’s name did not even come up.
Trustees talked about the fact that multiple invitations had been sent to individuals, including Magic Johnson and California Supreme Court Justice Joyce Kennard, neither of whom was expected to accept.
Trustee Robert Bell then announced that Dr. Eric Walsh, Pasadena’s director of public health, had accepted the board’s invitation to be the speaker at the May 9 ceremony.
This seemed to unnerve Fraser, the student trustee, who had invited Black.
“I am getting a little bit confused,” he said. “I was aware of one of the candidates from the original list who accepted weeks ago....I am very confused now as to why we have three potential speakers.”
Trustees did not specifically address his point, but it was clear from their discussion that PCC’s system for choosing commencement speakers is pretty lame. They sent out simultaneous queries, but had no plan for dealing with the possibility that multiple people might agree to speak.
Black would have been a great choice.
Who better to inspire students than a 1994 PCC graduate who graduated from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television in 1996 before going on to extraordinary success and fame?
Black won a 2008 Oscar for his original screenplay “Milk,” the biopic that starred Sean Penn as the slain San Francisco supervisor and gay rights pioneer.
Raised a Mormon, Black was also a writer, story editor and producer on the acclaimed HBO series about a polygamous Mormon family, “Big Love.”
He is an LGBT activist who is on the board of Americans for Equal Rights, the nonprofit created to fight California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8, as well as the author of the play “8,” a reenactment of the Perry vs. Schwarzenegger trial, which culminated with a federal judge striking down the ban.
Had Fellow done even a cursory investigation, he would have discovered that Black was in fact the victim in that sex photo “scandal.”
Months after he won the Oscar, photos and video of Black having sex with an old boyfriend in 2006 were peddled to websites by someone who had stolen the images from the computer of his former lover. Black believed they had been destroyed.
It was a grotesque invasion of privacy, Black sued, and in May 2010 he was awarded $100,000 by a federal judge.
“For too long now I’ve sat silent on this issue,” Black wrote in an impassioned open letter to PCC students. “That ends here and now and with this sentence: I did nothing wrong and I refuse to be shamed for this any longer.”
I won’t quibble with his understandable feelings of disappointment and outrage, but open letters and lawsuits are hardly the same as sitting in silence. Black’s renown has given him a powerful megaphone, and he has shown he is unafraid to use it. In his letter to students, Black urges them to speak out for LGBT rights while he deals with “the legal and financial ramifications of this injury.” That sounds like a veiled lawsuit threat to me.
Early Monday evening, the college released a statement that was an apology, an explanation -- and pretty unsatisfying.
Turns out, the school’s policy requires that commencement speakers be approved by the Board of Trustees, and only the college president can extend an official invitation. Fraser’s invitation to Black was “an honest error.”
“Mr. Black could have reasonably concluded that he had been officially invited to speak,” the statement said, “But at no time did a recommendation to invite Mr. Black ever reach the college president or the Board.”
Fellow, who does not deny telling the Courier that Black would give the school a “bad name,” is quoted as saying that “details of Mr. Black’s personal life have no place in public discussion, especially if Mr. Black has been the victim of recrimination and revenge.”
In an email to me, Fellow said that despite having spent 10 years as a political reporter, he did not think his conversation with the Courier about Black giving the college a “bad name” was for publication.
“I am certainly not homophobic,” he told me, “but have been a champion of gay and women’s rights most of my life.” He is, he added, a “big fan” of Black.
I pressed him about why he did not bother to investigate the “sex scandal” that worried him, but did not receive a response.
Robert Bell, the school’s assistant superintendent and senior vice president for academic and student affairs, apologized to both Black and Walsh, and took the blame for the fiasco.
“We have embarrassed our esteemed alumnus Dustin Lance Black ... and we owe the public an apology for involving Pasadena City College in a confusing situation that has unfortunately spilled over into public comment on homophobia.”
Even if an invitation was delivered by mistake, it would have been classy for the college not just to apologize to Black, but to include him in the ceremony. Keeping him out does nothing to repair the school’s self-inflicted black eye.