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Taking Sides

Johns Hopkins Center For Social Concern Comes Under Fire For Sponsoring An Antiwar On-Campus Event

THE WAR AT HOME: (Left) The Center For Social Concern's Matthew D'agostino Provided Logistical Support For 'Voices Of Dissent'; (Right) A Flier For The Event.

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 12/22/2004

A conservative student newspaper at Johns Hopkins University has accused a university office of improperly engaging in political activity when it sponsored an anti-war event on campus this fall.

The Hopkins Center for Social Concern’s ongoing relationship with a faculty-student group calling itself the Hopkins Anti-War Coalition is “troubling,” writes Anthony Paletta in the current issue of The Carrollton Record.

The center organizes undergraduate community-service activities, providing financial and administrative support to more than 30 volunteer-oriented student groups, including Habitat for Humanity, AIDS Buddies, and the American Red Cross of JHU. It is best-known for housing the JHU Tutorial Project, which pairs more than 100 local public school students with undergraduate tutors every week.

But the center’s recent partnership with the anti-war coalition—a loose consortium of faculty, students, and local activists, with no community-service function—has generated criticism from Hopkins students across the political spectrum, on a campus known more for political apathy than activism.

The controversy arose when the center agreed to sponsor the Oct. 14 “Voices of Dissent” event. Billed as an “evening of music and testimony about the Iraq War,” the on-campus concert featured protest music from folk duo Charlie King and Karen Brandow, and speeches sharply critical of the President and U.S. foreign policy, according to audience members. Among the speakers were a Gulf War veteran, the Hopkins senior-class president, the mother of a soldier recently killed in Iraq, and several anti-war activists.

“It was a Bush-bashing event, not a discussion,” says Justin Klatsky, president of the Hopkins College Republicans, who attended the concert with Paletta. Klatsky describes a highly charged, partisan atmosphere reminiscent of a rally, with vendors outside distributing “Communist Party pamphlets, anti-Bush T-shirts, and organic fruit.”

“It wasn’t a rally,” says Laura Bennett, the fund-raising and communications assistant for the American Friends Service Committee, the Quaker charity that co-sponsored the event along with the center. “We weren’t walking around holding signs. We weren’t screaming or shouting. We were sitting in a room listening to people talk about the horrors of war.”

The center would not have agreed to sponsor an explicitly political rally, says its director, Bill Tiefenwerth, who describes the event as a “concert for peace” that was “rather sedate.” Tiefenwerth denies his office had any input in the event’s programming, and says that it decided to help only because about 10 of its own student groups were part of the coalition.

Matthew D’Agostino, the center’s assistant director, acknowledges attending planning meetings for Voices of Dissent, but says he made it clear to members of the anti-war coalition that he was only there to provide logistical support.

Without that kind of institutional assistance, Tiefenwerth says, student organizers would have been unable to rent the auditorium in Hodson Hall, where it was held. “[The coalition] also needed someone to sign off on the contracts for the performers, and to process the checks and so forth,” he adds.

As for the formal designation of “sponsor,” Tiefenwerth doesn’t believe such a designation implies his office endorses the viewpoints expressed by the speakers, pointing out that the center routinely “sponsors” a variety of on-campus events, such as a gospel music concert in November and a conflict-resolution workshop in March.

“Basically, at the university, we try to provide as much support for student groups as we can, to a certain extent, regardless of the kinds of programs they’re trying to run,” says Jeffrey Groden-Thomas, who oversees the registration of student groups for the university. “I don’t see why [the Center for Social Concern] wouldn’t help out the [anti-war] group to make the program successful. I don’t know that means they took any political stance.”

Some students involved in campus political groups disagree.

“What it means when you sponsor an event is that you endorse the event,” says Sarah David, publicity director of the Hopkins College Democrats. “That’s why the College Democrats were so angry when Voices of Dissent listed us as co-sponsors without our consent.”

When the Democrats discovered their name on a Voices of Dissent poster, club president Christine Krueger demanded the Hopkins Anti-War Coalition remove it, and sent an e-mail to her membership disavowing any connection to the concert.

“The College Democrats have been cited on advertisements as a co-sponsor of the event,” Krueger wrote in the message. “However, the Democratic Party’s stance is NOT anti-war and the College Democrats support the views of the Democratic Party. . . . If you hear anyone talking about this issue, please make our position clear.”

It’s commonly understood that sponsorship implies endorsement, agrees Eric Wolkoff, a former president of the College Republicans. “In terms of campus norms, if you’re put down as sponsor, that means that you completely, 100 percent, support and back the event and whatever kind of message it’s trying to send,” he says. “And everyone knows that.”

In a display of undergraduate bipartisanship, the College Democrats’ spokeswoman also agreed with Paletta, the Carrollton Record editor, that the Center for Social Concern had overstepped its bounds.

“I think the center does amazing things, but I don’t think they should be taking political positions—certainly not to that extent,” says Sarah David, who also takes issue with the center’s claim that it has an obligation to provide administrative support to the groups it supports, regardless of the nature of the event.

“They’re the Center for Social Concern, they’re not the student life office,” she says. “This event had no community-service-oriented function, so the center should not have been sponsoring it.”

D’Agostino, the center staffer who advises student groups, says that the center did not consider the political implications of its involvement with the anti-war coalition.

“Overly worrying about politics and impressions would only lead us to micro-manage our groups’ activities, which would end up being discriminatory and controlling,” he writes in an e-mail to City Paper. “We feel that our open-mindedness is our insurance against politics partisanship.”

But that approach, Paletta says, may contribute to a feeling on campus that the center is partial to student groups with a left-of-center agenda, an impression shared by other students who spoke with City Paper. In addition to volunteer groups, the center is also the institutional home of the Student Labor Action Committee, the Feminist Association of JHU, and JHU Justice, a group opposed to economic globalization.

Tiefenwerth dismisses any suggestion that the center takes a group’s political ideology into consideration when deciding whether to help it. The only criterion, he says, is that the student group fulfills a community-service function.

When asked what community-service function was served, for example, by JHU Students for a Free Palestine, Tiefenwerth said that the pro-Palestinian group had, in fact, been rejected for membership by the center, and that its inclusion on the web site was a mistake. The pro-Palestinian’s group’s call for an “end to Israeli apartheid” has since been removed from the site.

During an initial phone interview, Matthew D’Agostino told City Paper that neither he nor the center have had any involvement with the Hopkins Anti-War Coalition since the Voices of Dissent concert.

When asked why Laura Bennett of the American Friends Service Committee and Amy Holmes, a sociology graduate student and coalition co-founder, both say that he has been a regular attendee at coalition meetings since the event, D’Agostino—himself a former Hopkins graduate student in sociology in the late ‘90s—admits that he “may have attended some more meetings.”

He “waffled” his answers, he explains, because he didn’t want to “give the wrong impression.”

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