December 18, 2019

WNMU and former dean react to backlash to anecdote at commencement

Former Western New Mexico University coach and dean Jim Smith responded to concerns about an anecdote he told during the university’s graduation ceremony last Friday.

The anecdote appears to imply that a sexual assault may have occurred on campus decades ago. Smith told the story in the form of a joke.

But, Smith denied the story was a joke. He called it “a fact.”

“It wasn’t a joke. It was a fact. I’m not interested in getting into a moral debate with anyone. What I said, it was a fact. If I offended anyone, I’m sorry it did,” Smith told NM Political Report Tuesday.

WNMU provided NM Political Report with a video of the commencement late Monday. Mario Sanchez, WNMU director of marketing and communications, said Tuesday that the video had been available and online since Friday, it was just hard to find.

In the video, Smith’s speech gives every indication the anecdote was meant to be funny and the audience responded with laughter.

Sharon Bookwalter, a retired teacher who has spoken out on community issues in the past, said Monday she would like to see both the university and Smith apologize for the remark. Bookwalter and other women, some former faculty and alumni of the university, have expressed outrage over the comment, calling it insensitive to the women sitting the audience who may have experienced sexual assault.

Smith’s comment was first quoted in the Silver City Daily Press in a story about the university’s commencement. Women began to respond on Facebook over the weekend. Bookwalter did not attend commencement but she said Tuesday that she watched the commencement speech multiple times.

“I watched the video over and over again. He tells the story and delivers it as a punchline and he waits for the punchline to hit and the audience laughs,” Bookwalter said Tuesday.

WNMU did not issue an apology but the university did say in a statement issued late Monday to NM Political Report that Smith’s comment about a past discussion that took place some 50 years ago doesn’t reflect the culture and values of today’s WNMU.

“WNMU will never condone non-consensual sex of any kind and will continue to educate and protect our campus community in accordance with our values and stringent policies we have in place,” WNMU said through the statement. “We provide critical training to our students, faculty and staff about what consensual sex is and what it isn’t.”

Bookwalter said she felt WNMU’s statement “sidesteps the issue of what [Smith] said.”

“There’s no addressing it. I felt the university owes the women in the audience and the whole community an apology for that. I think they missed an opportunity here to say we regret this was said and it was inappropriate at a commencement,” Bookwalter said.

The university further said it provides training and education in all matters that deal with sexual harassment, sexual abuse and gender discrimination and that it will continue to advocate for sexual assault and harassment victims and educating those ignorant of what those terms mean.

“I’m not looking to crucify Jim Smith,” Bookwalter said. “I just want to address this instance of his insensitivity and I don’t think the university did that.”