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Dustin Lance Black Speaks: Pasadena City College Officials Created ‘Toxic and Dishonest’ Atmosphere

Posted on Apr 30, 2014

By Kasia Anderson

  Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black arrives at USA Network and The Moth’s “A More Perfect Union: Stories of Prejudice and Power” Characters Unite storytelling event in West Hollywood, Calif., in 2012. AP/Matt Sayles

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The president and board of trustees at Pasadena City College thrust their school into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons recently with a political and public relations debacle involving PCC alumnus and Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.

A regrettable concoction of bad decisions, questionable motives and botched communications began trickling down from PCC’s upper ranks last month, when a student trustee designated by school officials to contact Black invited the “Milk” scribe to be this year’s commencement speaker. But after key figures in the administration—notably PCC Superintendent-President Dr. Mark Rocha, Assistant Superintendent Robert Bell and board of trustees President Anthony Fellow—became aware of a gossip exposé from 2009 concerning the unauthorized release of explicit footage of Black engaged in consensual sex with an ex-boyfriend, Black was unceremoniously dropped from the lineup for the May 9 graduation proceedings.

Fellow, according to the PCC Courier, pointed to “sex scandals we’ve had on campus this year” as justification for disinviting Black. “We just didn’t want to give PCC a bad name,” he added. Other implicated representatives suggested that Black hadn’t been formally asked to give this year’s crop of graduates their sendoff, but Student Trustee Simon Fraser insisted that he had followed protocol and that all required parties were aware of the overture.

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By noon Tuesday, it seemed Black’s replacement, city of Pasadena Public Health Department Director Dr. Eric Walsh, had pulled out of the ceremony as well, citing “an unforeseen scheduling conflict.” But not before Black, as well as concerned students, did their research on Walsh’s own background as a Seventh-day Adventist preacher with some very particular views on evolution and homosexuality that would seem to complicate his professional functions as a physician and as a onetime member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. His take on Batman (emblematic of “Luciferianism”), Superwoman (she “lives on an island where there are no men”) and Disney (“a dark empire … full of witchcraft”) might also knit some brows among newly trained products of PCC’s Cinema Program, but that’s another matter entirely.

It all adds up to an unenviable mess for PCC’s top brass to sort out, regarding one dismayed Class of ’94 graduate-turned-Hollywood-success-story; outraged and organized students and faculty members; an incriminating email trail from board members that belies the official explanation they issued as a governing body; troubling whiffs of institutionalized homophobia; the kind of media coverage that contemporary centers of higher learning strain to avoid at all costs; and a conspicuous void in the commencement program nine days before the big event.

And the dispute isn’t over for Black, who remains supportive of his alma mater and its students but still awaits a direct apology and a thorough explanation about the actions of Rocha and the board of trustees instead of vague claims about “errors in following procedure.” He traced the connections between the instigating events, detailed in this Los Angeles Times piece by Robin Abcarian, read between the lines, and on April 17 he released a statement (posted in full here on Out) in the form of a letter to PCC students, describing how the school’s management is “punishing the victim” and asking them to “speak out.”

On Tuesday, Black spoke up from his current part-time home in London for an interview with Truthdig.


* * *

Kasia Anderson: Can you bring us up to speed about what’s happening now with the graduation invitation debacle and your alma mater?

Dustin Lance Black: Now what’s happening is I’m having students from Pasadena City College and reporters starting to send me email exchanges that they had with Dr. Walsh. There’s a professor who’s sort of the film guy there who’s at the head of the board—Anthony Fellow—I’ve been receiving a lot of letters, correspondence between students and administrators and Dr. Fellow, and, you know, it is blatantly homophobic.

Then today I just became curious about well, who is this person who is speaking [Walsh]? And I felt badly, I thought, well, they didn’t ask for this, and what is it that they must be feeling right now? And I’m sort of surprised that they haven’t reached out or said anything, and now it’s starting to make sense, because there are these speeches online of his—“evolutionists are Satanists”—and there’s a speech online where he makes fun of trans people. Then all of a sudden—and this is not a speaker who was approved by the committee that approves speakers—he was picked by Mark Rocha, the president of the school, and Dr. Fellow.

And all of a sudden it has become clearer and clearer why [Walsh] was chosen, and why he hasn’t reached out, and it seems that they have a president of a school and a board president who want this to be the message to the PCC campus. It flies in the face of what the students say they want. [The administrators] deny their own proceedings; they’ve broken their own procedures in order to ensure that this is the person who will be speaking at their commencement. And I start to wonder if that’s even legal to even run a school that way.

KA: Lip service was paid to the replacement speaker being dynamic. …

DLB: Yes, and the person who made that comment was Dr. Rocha, I believe.

KA: Does PCC take any ideological positions or adopt any particular ethos you picked up on while you were there?



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