On February 14, I was taken aback while watching the press conference announcing the new president of the University of St. Thomas, Dr. Julie Sullivan. Not by anything she or the other participants said or did, but by a question from a reporter. He asked: “How will your role as wife and mother influence, if at all, your presidency? Will it flavor that at all or change it?” I immediately wondered if he would have asked a question about fatherhood of a male layperson.
A number of people watching the event via simulcast in Minneapolis expressed similar concerns, as we had no idea at the time who asked the question because the person was off camera. Dr. Sullivan responded with grace and decorum, of course.
You may be wondering – “Is that really what the reporter said – exactly?” It most assuredly is, because I went to the UST website and found the video, replaying the question a number of times to make sure it appeared here precisely as stated. After some inquiry, I was able to learn that Alex Friedrich of Minnesota Public Radio had asked the question, and immediately found the article he wrote about the announcement. Upon reading it, even though there seemed to be some of the expected sexist undertone, the overarching theme seemed to be about the choice of a layperson in a role previously held only by priests. I am left to wonder if what Friedrich carelessly left out of his question was the context in his mind… “Given that you will be the first layperson to serve as president of the university, how will that influence, if at all, your presidency? Will it flavor that at all or change it?”
So, shall we assume the reporter is: blatantly sexist; professionally careless; lazy… Can you tell I’m having trouble coming up with options to put a positive speculation on this? Frankly, it doesn't matter, because people were offended. I was offended. Regardless of how the question came to be presented, it diminished many people who heard it, particularly the reporter.
Dr. Michael Porter is Director of the UST MBC Program.