Hot or not?
A Sierra College professor and students escalate a campus-newspaper controversy into an attack on a $394 million bond issue
When a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, chaos theory predicts that a protest will break out at Sierra College. In recent weeks, the school has hosted protests, sit-ins, demonstrations, tabling and even a campus forum. The source of contention: Nicholas Louis’ opinion piece “One person’s view: Sierra girls aren’t really all that ‘hot,'” published in the October edition of Outlook, Sierra College’s official student newspaper. The firestorm already has received national attention from the Fox News Channel Web site, Ms. magazine’s Web site, The Associated Press (AP) and Comedy Central. In the wake of both local and national coverage, the protesters are now threatening to undermine public support for an imminent $394 million bond measure.
Louis, a 21-year-old Sierra College student, said he had no idea the commentary (see sidebar), which referred to the “majority” of young Sierra College females as “stuck up, bitchy and self-centered,” would generate the outcry that it has. In the piece, he claims that the superficiality of some Sierra College women makes them unattractive, despite their physical beauty.
With his long hair and omnipresent water bottle strapped to his backpack, Louis admits he comes across as a bit of a hippie. Just a few days after the Auburn Journal described him as wearing a hemp necklace and having “long, unwashed hair” Louis opted for a short, clean-cut hairdo. “I’ve been trying to get a job for a long time,” he said with a laugh, “although the Auburn Journal’s portrayal of my hair was definitely a catalyst.”
But Louis still would be the first to remind you that what you look like is not who you are.
In fact, Louis considers himself a liberal feminist who believes that women should be judged on what they say, not what they wear. “I wrote the piece for the sake of confronting an issue,” Louis said. “I know the issue isn’t very clear in the article … but the fact of the matter is it needed to be brought up whether I did a good job of addressing it or not.”
He said he knew his opinion probably would not be well-received. “I expected to get some negative feedback, but I didn’t expect as much negative feedback as I got,” he said. “I didn’t expect for it to blow up the way it did.”
But blow up it has.
So far, protesters have called for a public apology, the firing of Sierra College President Kevin Ramirez, the firing of Outlook adviser Kent Pollock and the resignation of Outlook Editor in Chief Erik Fritts-Davis. Protesters are now opposing a bond measure that’s in development and is intended to fund repairs on aging facilities at Sierra College, which the protesters claim would go toward pay increases for administrative executives. Representatives from Women Escaping A Violent Environment (WEAVE) have spoken out against the article, and Megan Seely, president for the California chapter of the National Organization for Women, has written a letter to Outlook denouncing the piece as “misguided and sexist.”
Louis has even been accused of promoting violence against women.
Comedy Central sent out Stephen Colbert of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart October 29 to report and weigh in on the controversy after discovering an article about it on the AP newswire.
But what’s being perceived as a student-led protest isn’t necessarily student-led or even student-inspired. The person who spurred the controversy is actually a sociology professor at Sierra College, Scott Suneson.
It all erupted on Monday, October 13, when Suneson brought up the piece during one of his “Introduction to Sociology” classes. He now claims he did not incite students to engage in activism against the newspaper. “I certainly brought this outrageous article up, but it didn’t need any prodding,” Suneson said.
He said the commentary, which refers to female students as “girls” and “chicks,” will incite violence against women. “Someone is going to get raped or assaulted as a result of this article,” Suneson said.
He also argues that college students are old enough to think for themselves. “It’s not like I’m leading everyone by their noses, like they’re a bunch of 5-year-olds,” Suneson said.
Incensed students who had read the article immediately took to the administration building, led by Suneson, who called for a public apology and the resignation or firing of all involved parties.
Suneson’s students filled the Equal Employment Opportunity and Human Resources office, intending to voice concerns. Dolly Green, the office’s manager, brought the students to the Outlook office so they could air their complaints directly. There wasn’t enough room in the office to accommodate the protesters, so the gathering moved once again to the Associated Students of Sierra College office, adjacent to the Outlook office.
There were more than 30 students at the sit-in, mostly students from Suneson’s classes. It turned into an hour-long discussion with the Outlook editors that left both parties more frustrated than when they began.
Suneson’s dedication to the cause is obvious. With his distinctive salt-and-pepper shoulder-length hair and thin-rimmed glasses, Suneson is prominent at every campus activity regarding the Outlook article. He can be found in between classes at his table in front of the cafeteria, engaged in a lively debate about the women’s movement with anyone who will participate.
Suneson proudly shares his history of student activism, starting in 1968 at Iowa’s Cornell College, where he protested against the Vietnam War. He says he hadn’t felt this involved and connected with a cause until he read Louis’ commentary.
Suneson said his background and passionate feelings about the piece compelled him to organize a student protest about the column early in the morning on Monday, October 20, in front of the Sierra College Library, where a board-of-trustees meeting was being held.
An informal poll of 50 students at that protest revealed seven students learned of the protest independent of any Sierra College classes they were taking, but most of the students involved were members of Suneson’s sociology classes.
Suneson says the students who were there from the section of his class that regularly met at that time were taking a field trip, and although attendance was mandatory, participation was not. He rallied the students, including people who were not in his class, with a rousing speech and the encouragement, “Chant. Chant.”
Amid chants of “Hey, hey, ho, ho, patriarchy has to go!” students held signs with slogans such as “Sexism is a social disease” and “Sierra College men tell women, ‘Get back in the kitchen!'” Protesters delivered impassioned speeches criticizing Louis’ word choice and Outlook for publishing the piece.
There were some counter-protesters, but they focused mostly on making disparaging comments about Suneson and their fellow students. Some male students were even shouting, “Give me your number. There’s a women’s rights meeting at my house tonight,” at female students walking by.
As of press time, 31 official complaints of gender-based discrimination against Outlook, the board of trustees and Ramirez had been filed through the Equal Employment Opportunity and Human Resources office. Suneson filed the first complaint. Green, manager for the office, said she’s expecting to receive more of the same—literally. “Some of [the students] are writing exactly the same thing. Some are paraphrasing,” Green said. “I got a stack of them. They all came together.”
Suneson has made it no secret that he is encouraging interested students to file complaints and is distributing copies of his original complaint. For more than a week, Suneson and his students have set up tables in front of the Sierra College cafeteria, just 20 feet from the Outlook office. There are clipboards with blank forms and sample complaints for passersby to fill out.
Some have questioned Suneson’s actions and intentions in inciting the reaction he has. Fritts-Davis, Outlook’s editor in chief, said he thinks Suneson is out of line. “I think it’s an entirely unprofessional and unethical manipulation of his students and abuse of his power as an educator,” he said.
Fritts-Davis said he is concerned with what he sees as an attempt to stir up “anti-Sierra sentiment” at a time when a bond measure is in the works to raise money for the school.
“I’m under the impression that the professor who is spearheading this has a personal gripe with the college and the administration,” Fritts-Davis said.
Moreover, Fritts-Davis and other members of the Outlook staff say they feel Suneson’s incendiary comments and actions amount to personal harassment and that they plan to press charges against him if the behavior continues.
Suneson dismissed the editor’s charges regarding his professionalism, saying, “What does he know? Does he have a master’s degree in anything?”
Suneson also said he had nothing personal against the college administration. But he did say that he hoped to get a “mass media campaign going to put pressure on the administration” and that the cause would use “intense media pressure to undermine the bond measure.”
According to Fritts-Davis, Suneson has distributed offensive anti-Outlook literature at the table, including hundreds of copies of a parody of Louis’ piece called “Sierra College Blacks really aren’t all that ‘hot.'” Written by Megan Lacy, one of Suneson’s students, the piece essentially replaces the word “girls” throughout the article with the word “Blacks.”
“She changed a few words and tried to pass it off as her own work,” Fritts-Davis said. “That perfectly fits the definition of plagiarism.” He said he is most concerned with what motivated Lacy to write the piece.
Suneson repeatedly has asked Fritts-Davis if he would have published the same article if it had been about blacks instead of women. When Fritts-Davis responded that it would depend on the piece, Suneson told him that he would have a student write such a piece and submit it or that he would write the piece himself. Lacy claims she wrote the parody herself.
The protesters are no longer distributing that particular flier, but Suneson continues to disseminate information that he has been told repeatedly is false. A flier entitled “Sierra College Supports Sexism!” states Sierra College “President Kevin Ramirez said ‘okay’ to the article before it was printed.” Suneson claims Ramirez knew about the article and the potential controversy before it was published.
Both Ramirez and Pollock, the paper’s adviser, have denied this claim. “That’s a lie, and I told his students that, too,” Ramirez said. “He knows that I do not engage in prior review. I see the paper when everyone else does.”
Although many if not most of Suneson’s students feel strongly about their cause, some of his students have expressed feelings of discomfort and disenfranchisement. One student in Suneson’s “Introduction to Sociology” class, who asked to remain anonymous, believes the professor has been too extreme in his push to be heard. “He completely was advocating students going on a hunger strike for this issue,” she said. “He said all you need is one student to not eat for five days to have the administration topple.”
When asked about this, Suneson said he told his students about “hard-hitting” strategies, but interested students would have to plan it outside of class. “We’re considering the whole range of direct-action tactics,” Suneson said. “If a group of students wanted to do that, of course we would support them.”
According to the class syllabus, participation, the midterm exam, a writing requirement and the final exam each make up 25 percent of a student’s grade. “On the midterm, he said everyone in the class got an A because the demonstration took place instead of the midterm,” the student said.
Suneson said it’s true everyone in the class got an A on the midterm but that it was irrespective of a student’s stance on the protest. Students who did not want to participate were given the options of being neutral observers or counter-protesters. Suneson said he did not see any of his students counter-protesting, but some chose to observe. Those who were neutral observers got the same grade as the active participants.
The student also admits that she is not in the majority. “About two-thirds of the class are completely with him,” she said.
And the students who agree with him say they don’t feel he is being pushy or manipulative. Teshara Holmes, one of Suneson’s students who actively participated in the protest, said she likes the way Suneson has encouraged students to pull together. “It was brought up in class,” she said. “I don’t like how everyone is trying to make it look like our teacher is brainwashing us.”
Although Suneson said he has been formally reprimanded for “illegitimate use of class time” by the liberal-arts dean, Bill Sugee, the administration has expressed support for promoting student activism.
“I think Mr. Suneson has a very unique teaching style,” Ramirez said. “He takes sociology outside of the classroom and the textbook … and makes it a laboratory experience on social issues. I understand his purpose and role in a higher-education environment.”
Ramirez acknowledged that there have been concerns about Suneson’s teaching style but expressed confidence that Suneson was not inappropriately distributing grades. “I know Mr. Suneson to be a good teacher, a controversial teacher who takes his discipline and his craft very seriously,” he said.
Ramirez may feel differently after the Comedy Central telecast. The Daily Show segment depicts correspondent Colbert as a reporter who erroneously interprets Louis’ commentary.
“I was coming here thinking the girls aren’t hot. This guy’s blown the lid off of it,” Colbert said. “He’s really speaking truth to power here. This is a courageous journalistic exercise, but as a reporter, he knew there would be a price to pay.”
Throughout the course of his reporting, Colbert searches for "legitimate critics" who can vouch for the hotness of young women at Sierra College. "Everything the critics are saying is it’s not ‘hot or not,' it’s that the whole discussion is ridiculous and it’s pejorative and it’s demeaning," Colbert said. "But I, as a reporter, keep saying, ‘Let’s face it: He blew it. They’re pretty hot.'"