A mentor of mine used to tell me that integrity is how you choose to act when no one is watching or when something large is at stake. If that is the case, than Timothy McNair certainly seems to have a lot of it. McNair is a graduate student of opera at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music. One of his assignments included the performance of a piece written by Walt Whitman. McNair refused to perform this piece because he believes Walt Whitman to be racist. Although the piece he was asked to perform does not include any blatant racism, McNair has previously researched Whitman and is thus uncomfortable performing anything written by him. This, however, quickly turned into a huge issue because if he doesn’t complete this assignment, McNair will fail the class. If McNair fails the class he will lose the full scholarship he’s relied on to pay for his tuition.

McNair has tried to bargain with his professor. He emailed his professor asking to complete extra credit or to be given another assignment that he feels more comfortable with. His professor, however, refused and told McNair that he either attend the performance or be banned from the class. He has stated that he does not plan to attend the performance, but that he also doesn’t feel that he deserves to fail. He’s quoted as saying “Certainly I do not deserve to fail this class.  I have a 3.7 GPA.  I’m an officer on three committees of this university.  So what is deserving for me?  Is to be able to perform two pieces and have the third piece removed because of the insensitivity.”

But is he right? On one hand, I don’t believe students (or anyone for that matter) should be made to perform or complete an assignment they feel goes against their fundamental beliefs. On the other hand, as a student myself, if I refused to read every racist, sexist, classist, or homophobic author I’ve come in contact with, I’d hardly have many assignments I could complete.  That being said, I have felt a twinge when I’m expected to respect the ideas of men who thought that my people are savages or that women are inherently stupid and weak. Honestly, I don’t know where I stand on this. My gut tells me that he should have the right to refuse without failing, but I can’t help but wonder how he plans to navigate future assignments. With most operas being written well before the 20th century, does he plan on never performing any piece written by composers with questionable views? Or does he find Whitman especially problematic?

What do yall think? Let me know.