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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Soccer Mom Defends Husband

The photo shows Penelope Harley walking away, purse in hand, and in obvious disgust with the speaker. The Express-News story says she was leaving the talk to "attend her son's soccer match." The only thing missing was mom jeans.

Ms. Harley, wife of Trinity President, Dennis Ahlburg, was attending a guest presentation about free speech by a former Colorado professor. The President, Dennis Ahlburg, was out of town. Penelope, as is her way, wanted to support the faculty who sponsored this program. That the speaker worked at Colorado when the President and Ms. Harley were there was simply coincidental. Big campus.  Not knowing the Trinity first lady was in the audience, the speaker raised issues about President Ahlburg and alleged back-stabbing in Colorado and a worn out story about an evaluation of our President from his Boulder days.

I wasn't there. Maybe Penelope could have sat quietly and later confronted the man. Or maybe she could have walked out quietly rather than "stormed out" as the story states. Or she could have written a letter. But she stood up to defend the honor of our President - and in some ways - of our University. The speaker got more than he bargained for and so did the audience. Bravo!

While the official lesson was free speech, the sideshow became the story. That's how the media played it. And why not? The speaker's 15 minutes of fame should have ended 20 minutes ago. And free speech/civility/democracy/tenure stories can write themselves. So with piss and vinegar (and a purse and car key) the TU first lady spoke her mind and left the room to a nasty Nazi salute from our guest. The President stood up for his wife from across the country in a phone interview. "The only speech he wants to hear is his own voice," the President told the reporter.

Ms. Harley is an accomplished academic and professional, but the story lets it appear that she is an errand-running, spying, ranting super-mom. That would be just fine too. But it isn't the truth. Who cares that her personal and professional agenda centers on world peace?  Why not note, too, that she moderates disputes (or teaches how) while not busy being sucked into her own. The President can defend himself and he doesn't need a wife or Dean to do it. But both want to.

So what is the real take-away? Two things immediately jump to mind. The first: People are real, and not just defined by their positions. In this case, when you get Dennis as your President, you get Penelope too. And that's a good thing. There is value in seeing people as real and standing up for each other and what is right. This couple role-models something important - a healthy relationship. Secondly, we all like to think that if someone -- figuratively or literally -- gives us the finger we are big enough to turn and walk away. But sometimes you need to give it back. Dennis and Penelope have proven consistently that they won't lie down for anyone. They don't look for a fight, but they won't back down. This is a good lesson for our students and our campus. Emotions are part of who we are. We could probably have safer. There are many Presidents who won't offend and who will take the righteous and cautious path.

We could have vanilla, I'm sure. But we got Rocky Road. And that's a story worth reporting. It suits us just fine.


Anonymous said...

Well written/said, Dean Tuttle!

Anonymous said...

I am unfamiliar with the incident that you discuss here. However, I personally am offended by your suggestion that an adult with any decency much less moral conviction should be 'giving the finger/giving it back' to anyone...have you considered turning the other cheek?

David Tuttle said...


Thank you for reading and for the comment. I used to fashion myself a turn-the-other-cheek type of guy. I am like that in most cases. I preach the high road. But when someone is being a bully I have no tolerance. I wish I did... I did mean giving the finger in the figurative sense. Lastly, if you run your cursor over the Express-News hyperlink you can read the original story.