Speaker comment sparks debate

Speaker comment sparks debate

Traci Wiesner | Contributing Writer

Rex Sinquefield is no stranger to controversy, but an off-the-cuff remark he made on campus Feb. 9 linking the St. Louis Public School System (SLPSS) to the KKK stirred up such a viral whirlwind of indignation that public apologies were issued both by the speaker himself and by Lindenwood President James Evans.

Sinquefield, a businessman best known for his political activism in Missouri, proposed that there was a conspiratorial connection between the KKK and the St. Louis Public School System while giving this presentation titled “A Conversation about Good Business, Capitalism and Liberty.” Preceding his disparaging remarks with “I hope I don’t offend anyone,” Sinquefield went on to paraphrase a column written by Missouri journalist Ralph Voss.

“There was published a column by a man named Ralph Voss,” Sinquefield said, “who was a former judge in Missouri. He now owns and writes for a newspaper in Central Missouri called the Unterrified Democrat — what a name — and it’s in Osage County, Mo.

“And he starts off, something like this, he said a long time ago, decades ago, the Ku Klux Klan got together and said how can we really hurt the African American children permanently? How can we ruin their lives? And what they designed was the public school system.”

While technically the anecdote was paraphrased from a satirical statement made by a retired judge-turned-journalist, many said Sinquefield’s use of it in his presentation revealed a shocking level of insensitivity. Outrage erupted among a wide variety of public figures and activist groups. Perhaps most notable was a news release issued from the Missouri National Education Association in which President Chris Guinther called for an apology for the disparaging remark concerning the SLPSS.

“To call the work of educators in public schools a KKK conspiracy shows how out of touch billionaire Rex Sinquefield truly is,” Guinther said. “This is a slap in the face of every educator who has worked tirelessly in a public school to improve the lives of Missouri’s children.”

Guinther went on to issue a bold call to action from politicians in Missouri to take a stand against Sinquefield and his policies. “Every politician that has accepted contributions from Rex Sinquefield has a choice to make today – stand with an out-of-touch billionaire or stand with your public school kids, parents, educators and your communities.”

Sinquefield relayed the anecdote while speaking against teacher’s tenure, which he contends is a major roadblock to progress in troubled schools districts.
Word of the gaff spread quickly as YouTube clips of the comment were posted, and news outlets throughout the region picked up the story. Criticism over the remark and calls for an apology fueled comments on Web sites and blogs. An apology from Sinquefield himself was issued the next day.

“I apologize for my reference to a quote from Ralph Voss of the ‘Unterrified Democrat’,” Sinquefield said.  “It is my sincere hope that this does not distract us from the important mission of helping all children access a high-quality education.”

Evans issued a statement on Saturday, Feb. 11, repudiating “Voss’ derogatory statements,” referring to Sinquefield only vaguely as a participant in the campus’s speaker series and not directly by name.

“A participant in Lindenwood’s Speaker Series recently cited Ralph Voss, a Missouri journalist, who made a disparaging allegation about Missouri’s K-12 public education system. Although the University vigorously defends academic freedom and our speakers’ first-amendment rights, we categorically repudiate Voss’s derogatory statements and proudly stand with Missouri’s dedicated and effective K-12 educators, many of whom we have graduated,” Evans said.

Some journalists have criticized President Evans for not being more forthright in calling Sinquefeld out by name, but instead directing focus onto Ralph Voss, the originator of the satirical anecdote who was unaware at the time of Sinquefield’s reference to his story.

Evans reaction was driven by comments he received soon after the lecture from former students and teachers within the community. These comments focused on the need to immediately disassociate Lindenwood from the content and images invoked by Voss in his article.

“The negative feedback I received was specifically referring to Voss and his allegory, which was seen to be in poor taste. Since the feedback I received specifically mentioned Voss, I addressed my statement to answer to those concerns in particular,” Evans said.

“It was my intent to divest Lindenwood from Voss’s editorial and its implied subject and make it clear that we do not endorse his brand of satire. We think it is in poor taste to invoke the KKK to argue against liberal policies. I also wanted to confirm Lindenwood’s steadfast support for K-12 education and let the public know that although Rex Sinquefield spoke here, Lindenwood is very pro-education.”