The Roanoke Times recently published an article about Nic Jensen and his battle with Southern Virginia University over allegations of sexual harassment from the school’s provost Madison Sowell.
There has been discussion about Nic’s supposed activism in some conservative Mormon circles, where critics are basically calling Nic a whiny child pushing an agenda to undermine the religious convictions of a god-fearing administrator at a private LDS school.
Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that.
In the Roanoke Times article it comes across as if there is no way to know what really happened between Nic Jensen, a good friend of mine, and Madison Sowell. But there was a third person in the room. And I happen to be married to her.
Sara and I met Nic during his freshmen year at Southern Virginia University. I immediately recognized that he was sharp, friendly, and open-minded. Later that year we sat next to each other in the front row of a class on comparative politics. I wasn’t wrong in my first impression; Nic is undeniably smart, and I was glad that, like me, he decided to major in politics. The following semester Nic interned for Sara on Terry McCauliffe’s successful gubernatorial campaign. We remain very close to Nic. We opened our home to him many times if he needed a place to feel safe and welcome.
Nic asked Sara to accompany him when he met with Provost Sowell to discuss rumors about Sowell raising allegations of Nic’s behavior to fellow students. Allegations that were groundless, especially to students who knew Nic, but were nonetheless harmful to his emotional well-being.
“It was difficult,” Sara recalled, “to listen to someone who is respected in our school and church tell Nic about how the only openly gay people he knew were drug addicts and suffered from depression, while people who suppress their homosexuality by choosing celibacy or marrying women were happy. It was upsetting because he was basically suggesting to Nic that if he chose to marry a man he would lead a life of depression or substance abuse.”
“He assumed he was breaking the honor code because he was gay, even though Nic was very clear that he had no intention of doing so.”
Sara says she left the room in tears.
Nic had a boyfriend at the time, and the school’s dean of students, who is actually in charge of honor code issues—not Provost Sowell—was aware of this and had no problem with it.
“He admitted to questioning Nic’s integrity because all he knew about him was that he was gay. He didn’t know his grades, he didn’t know about his extra-curricular involvement, he didn’t know about all the people who know and love him. He didn’t know about the professors who considered him one of their best students,” Sara said.
Nic Jensen is the caliber of student that any university would be proud to have on its campus. But to Sowell, he was nothing more than his sexuality. All he saw was a gay kid, and so immediately he was discredited as a student, as a church member, and as a human being. Sowell questioned other students about Nic’s sexuality because he equates open homosexuality with reckless flirtatiousness and promiscuity. Sowell admitted that he considered Nic’s character to be deeply flawed based solely on his decision to identify as a gay man.
The confrontation between Nic and Sowell was avoidable, sure, but it’s not like Nic haplessly wandered into Sowell’s office to confront him on his views on homosexuality. Without cause, Provost Sowell asked other students if Nic was propositioning them for sex. That is harassment, and creates a social environment that is certainly not conducive to a healthy learning, much less the spirit. These incidents led Nic to approach Sowell. It was incredibly noble of Nic to take his concerns to Sowell directly, rather than let his suspicion steep in rumor.
After the meeting, Nic endured an intense bout of depression and even thoughts of suicide. Thanks to the help of a very supportive and loving family, he’s doing pretty well. But not everyone is so lucky. Nic decided to speak up not only for himself but also for the countless other Mormon teens who encounter hostility and disgust and do not have an encouraging support system to help them through dark times. It breaks my heart to think how this could have ended very differently, and that in too many instances, it does. That is why this matters. That is why Madison Sowell’s flippancy when confronted with such pain should not be tolerated.
This has not been about differences of opinion. Many of Nic’s professors and fellow students disagreed with him on political issues, especially gay marriage, but he still retains good relationships with them built on mutual respect.
Here’s where people miss the gravity of this situation. It may not have been outwardly aggressive or explicitly discriminatory. But it was hardly kind, or Christlike, or appropriate. A lot of buzz surrounding this case tries to turn Sowell’s position as some sort of example of freedom of speech with the politically correct left coming in and trying to censor an expression of deeply held belief. However, as I recently wrote, such a framing of these incidents undermines the whole point of Christianity.
Sowell was cleared of wrongdoing after an investigation, but the investigation did discover that Southern Virginia University was unequipped to deal with the legitimate grievances Nic had. In no situation should a school administrator openly discuss a student’s sexuality with other students. Additionally, attempts to drag Nic through the mud in social media over his earnest attempt to prevent future students from enduring such humiliation is disheartening.
Let me also add that my time at Southern Virginia was thoroughly rewarding. I have a deep appreciation for the school’s mission, and in no way should this incident reflect the atmosphere or attitudes of the vast majority of good, intelligent people who work there. Nic feels this way as well, and I know the decision to leave before he finished his degree was not an easy one.
Nic Jensen is brilliant and strong. Through every step of this mess I’m reminded how lucky I am to know him.