December 17, 2019

An anecdote during commencement speech suggesting sexual assault repudiated

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A number of women spoke out after a revered former athletic coach from Western New Mexico University told an anecdote during the school’s fall 2019 commencement that involved a possible rape – and meant the story to be funny.

Coach James “Jim” Smith gave WNMU’s keynote speech Friday. During his speech, which is not available online, he reportedly told a story about finding girls in a boy’s dorm room decades ago and, as a dean at the time, he said he lectured the young men about breaking the rules. A story about the commencement, which included snippets of Smith’s speech, appeared in the Silver City Daily Press.

“And I was really giving the one student a good speech,” the Daily Press reported Smith as saying. “When all of a sudden he raised his hand, and he quietly said, ‘Dean, do you know how hard it is to put pantyhose back on a drunk girl?’”

An online video of the commencement speech was not available Monday.

Sharon Bookwalter, a retired teacher with the local school district, said both the university and Smith should apologize for what she called Smith’s insensitive comment.

“I feel the university and Mr. Smith owe an apology for the speech. An apology that doesn’t begin with ‘I’m sorry you feel the way you do.’ Mr. Smith was insensitive and it was inappropriate as the punch line in a joke that implied rape,” Bookwalter told NM Political Report.

Bookwalter expressed concern for the women who may have experienced rape or sexual assault and may have been sitting in the audience during the speech. Bookwalter says she thinks Smith’s speech should have been vetted beforehand. Bookwalter said that since posting a comment on Facebook about her feelings Sunday, she has heard from some in the community who say she should leave Smith alone because he has done a lot of good for the university and he is elderly.

“He should be held accountable for having told a story that presents women in general in a very undignified way and it’s implying the boy raped an unconscious girl,” Bookwalter said.

Jayne Ash, a 2006 alum of WNMU who has spent her career working with victims of sexual assault, said from her Los Lunas home Monday that not speaking out about such a speech only encourages rape culture at the university.

“Instead of being compassionate for him, how about being compassionate for those women sitting in the audience and hearing the rape joke?” Ash asked rhetorically. “We need to call  [rape culture] out when we see it.”

Smith, who was both a dean and a coach at the school, began a tradition at WNMU called the Great Race. It is a week in October when teams of students push carts large and small across campus. The tradition celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017.

Retired professor June Decker, who used to teach physical education at WNMU, said that because of that, Smith is seen as one of the university’s “sacred cows.”

“He’s kind of an icon at the university,” Decker said. “He invented the Great Race. He was a dean of the students. He was a coach. A lot of people think he’s pretty wonderful.”

But Decker believes Smith should be held accountable, in part, because she says she saw a culture where rape and sexual assault were swept under the rug during her time at the university.

“Something like this should not be said at graduation,” Decker said. “I would like to see something happen that really deals with sexual abuse across the schools in New Mexico.”

Officials with Silver Regional Sexual Assault Support Systems, known as SASS, located in Silver City, said they were not in attendance at the commencement so they could not comment on Smith’s speech. But Alicia Soliz, SASS education and outreach coordinator, said that WNMU is no different from most other universities.

“Rape culture is present in every single campus across the nation,” Soliz said.

WNMU did not respond with a request for comment, nor did they respond to a request to provide a phone number or comment for Smith. The university also did not respond to a request to make the video of the commencement address available to NM Political Report. An attempt to reach Smith or leave a message on his phone were not successful.