After controversy erupted over Politics professor Dr. David Upham’s online comments regarding a transgender nominee to the Biden administration, University administrators have sought to both affirm the University of Dallas’ fidelity to Catholic teaching and to stress their commitment to maintaining the civil rights of all members of the University community.
Dueling petitions regarding Upham’s post have been bouncing around the emails of alumni after he posted a statement to Facebook opposing the Senate’s confirmation of Dr. Rachel Levine as assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.
In his post last month, which he has since removed, Upham wrote “Dr. Levine has since, through ingesting various drugs, put on a somewhat convincing hormonal costume to go along with his conventionally feminine dress. He may also, in addition have surgically mutilated his once functioning organs of generation–powers of procreation given to him by God Almighty.”
“Dr. Levine is to now to be called a ‘woman’ and to appointed the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. There, Dr. Levine, in concert with the whole Biden administration, will try to use the powers of the federal government to FORCE others, by their words and their deeds, including their medical expertise and know-how to participate in these falsehoods, these hormonal and surgical harms–these wrongs.”
Upham ended his post by questioning whether any member of the Senate will speak out on the matter.
The post on his personal Facebook page drew a response from Bethany A. Beeler (English, ‘85), a transgender graduate who transitioned later in life like Levine. Beeler sent a letter addressed to the UD Board of Trustees, the Bishop Chancellor, the office of the President, and the office of the Provost.
The letter, undersigned by 66 UD alumni, stated that Upham’s remarks are ill-timed and contrary to science. Beeler likened Upham’s rhetoric to the rhetoric leading up to the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, and condemned Upham for expressing his view in a manner that “promotes prejudice,” hatred, and violence against transgender people. Beeler asked the university to reconsider its relationship with Upham.
“Is this the kind of behavior and person UD wants to place in front of children growing into young adults?” Beeler wrote. “Reassure our faith in the Western intellectual and theological tradition by providing no haven or pulpit for those espousing hate out of fear of difference.”
Almost as soon as Beeler’s letter began circulating, it drew a counter-petition that was sent to alumni around the country asking for a defense of Upham. The letter suggested that Upham’s position at the university was threatened.
The petition calls for signers to defend Upham as an educator, mentor, and Catholic man, and calls to reaffirm UD’s Catholic identity in order to protect the university “from those who claim to love her yet strive to change her.”
“A reasonable person may disagree with Dr. Upham’s assessment, but only an unreasonable and intolerant person would see Dr. Upham’s assessment as grounds for dismissal and ostracism,” the petition stated.
In an email to The University News on Jan. 29, an individual who goes by the pseudonym “Wendy Darling,” who circulated the counter-petition through email, stated that at the time they had received “over 500 signatures … from within the UD community.”
Darling said they are a Ph.D. politics student at UD but offered no further identification.
“The name tied to this email is a pseudonym, not because I do not stand by this letter (I signed it with my real name and the other Braniff students/alumni who helped did as well),” wrote Darling. “But because we wanted the focus to remain on defending Dr. Upham and defending the University of Dallas as founded. In other words, we wanted the letter to feel like it was coming from the UD community, and that would not be the case if we signed it as the authors.”
In total, the letter was signed by 843 people, according to Darling.
Upham, who removed his original post regarding Levine from Facebook, returned with a Jan. 24 post that defended his original post but also offered reassurances that his job was not threatened.
“Some of you have expressed concerns for my welfare and that of my family,” he wrote. “As many know, there is a letter circulating demanding that the University terminate me for a comment I made here on Facebook.”
He reiterated that the Biden administration’s policies are an effort to compel Americans to take part in what he called falsehoods and violence to the bodies of “adults and even children via hormones or surgeries that impair or destroy the gifts of human procreation.”
“I spoke the truth. I did not lie. I spoke peace–and against violence to the truth, violence to the bodies of men and women, and violence to the freedom of Americans. I’m not dead yet. And I’m not done yet,” he wrote.
In an email interview, Upham wrote that he did not expect the attention his post has gotten and that he aimed to discuss the matter with his Facebook friends. Upham wrote that he “wish[es] the signatories well” and dispelled the rumor that he intended to pursue legal action against any of the signatories.
“I temporarily deactivated my account and deleted that post and various other past posts on the Tuesday before the semester began,” Upham wrote. “My principal reason for leaving FB was to focus on the beginning of the semester. I was aware at the time that the post had generated negative reaction beyond my FB friends, but I wasn’t terribly concerned.”
In public statements, President Hibbs and Provost Jonathan J. Sanford said “the university is following its existing policies and protocols in this matter, and will not yield to internal or external demands to divert from them.”
They stressed that the university will uphold Catholic teaching even as it protects the civil rights of “all the members of our community.”
“The university embraces unreservedly the Church’s articulation of the moral law, including its articulation of those truths that deal with the embodied nature of the human person and human sexuality,” they wrote.
They also said that they are “not in the business of limiting the speech of our faculty and staff when they speak on personal social media sites.”
In a Jan. 28 note on Facebook, Upham described the statement as “well done.”
In an interview, Beeler said, “I think I am very satisfied, not with the official response, but with the number of UD people who are currently there and reached out to me and made personal connections. People care.”
“All three of my kids went to UD,” Beeler said. “I know what a tightly knit place it is, and I wasn’t surprised at the response I got … The fact of the matter is when I was going to school there and in the intervening years and when my kids went there and now there are Trans people and all stripes of LGBTQIA+ people on campus and we owe it to everybody to feel safe in their pursuit of the truth.”
Beeler said that the letter aimed at a cultural change within the university community.
“UDers care about the pursuit of Truth. And policies don’t signal change, they are a reflection of a reality that has already happened. Maybe in 10 years, five years, 20 years, you might see new policies change. That doesn’t mean that something isn’t happening,” Beeler said.
Clare Venegas, Assistant Vice President for Marketing and Communications, noted that the University is engaged in a number of ongoing initiatives “to promote our common good as rooted in our inherent dignity as children of God.” She also pointed to Hibbs’ plan to hold “a series of information sessions led by our general counsel and Office of Civil Rights to ensure all faculty and staff are aware of UD’s civil rights policies.
In a separate email to The University News, Hibbs wrote that “[i]t is crucial that we ensure better awareness about UD’s commitment to providing work, living, and learning environments free from discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.”
He has asked the director of the Office of Civil Rights and Title IX, Luciana Milano, and the University’s general counsel, Heather Lachenauer, to lead a series of information sessions on civil rights issues for faculty, staff, and students this semester.
The Office of Civil Rights and Title IX will offer the information sessions throughout the spring semester in the Catholic Foundation room every Thursday from 12-1 p.m. and Friday from 8-9 a.m.
“I also want to underscore the importance of cultivating a campus culture of interaction that is characterized by charity and civility,” Hibbs wrote. “I recommend, as I have often done over the past year, that we all read and take to heart [English professor Dr.] Scott Crider’s ‘Overcoming Your Lesser Angels,’ an essay on civil discourse and rational disagreement.
A revised UD statement released on Jan. 31, states: “as members of a Catholic institution, in a world where so many are suffering and near despair, we understand that the pursuit of justice is not a distraction from the pursuit of higher things, it is an integral aspect of this pursuit. Solidarity helps us to fulfill divine justice.”