“Vision, Honesty, and Guts”: the Legacy of John Gissendanner at Towson University

In the spring of 1992, the campus of Towson State University was rocked by a hate crime. While defending her gay professor’s right to teach, an undergraduate named Hollie Rice was struck by a fellow student and left with a black eye.

The assault on Rice was one of two hate crimes reported that year, although it was the first physical attack reported in years. Typically, crimes had been letters or literature or verbal. And administrators at the time acknowledged that more hate crimes were usually perpetrated than were reported.

John Gissendanner, an English professor at TSU since 1975, felt moved to write about the incident to the Towerlight. In a piece titled “What is Hollie Rice’s attacker learning at TSU?” he said what the attacker had learned was that the “social and political atmosphere which made the attack not only possible, but in a way, inevitable.”

John Gissendanner from 1978 yearbook.

He went on to write “We must do more than simply ‘regret’ and ‘deplore’ the action of people who do damage to other people. We must treat them as criminals and make it clear that we value positive achievement; that sensitivity and intelligence are qualities crucial to civilization.”

While Gissendanner was speaking out about a homophobic act, he was speaking out against violence perpetrated against any group.

In 1992, the campus had around 10,000 full-time undergraduates students enrolled and only 7% of those students were African-American. Gissendanner, besides teaching English, was also the Coordinator of the African American Studies Program, a position he first took on in 1977. As the catalog from that year states, the program allowed “a student the opportunity to study in-depth the historical and cultural existence of the Afro-American by examining his unacknowledged roles in American society and the presence and importance of the Black aesthetic, culturally, socially, politically, and economically.”

In 1983, a Towerlight article explored how “new disciplines” such as African American Studies and Women’s Studies survived during an era when major cuts to education funding were jeopardizing smaller programs.

Gissendanner said that “the declining enrollment” in those programs was due “to  students who ‘take courses preparing for jobs and employment possibilities’ instead of the more general courses such as those offered by African-American Studies”.

However, he went on to say “The way the program was set up saves it”. He explained “that the University only offers a concentration in African studies and that its courses, such as survey of African-American Literature, are interdisciplinary and can be applied to other majors.”

“Gissendanner noted that general studies courses such as those offered by the African-American program ‘give students a perspective they wouldn’t normally have and increase (the student’s) sellibility’ in a wide range of job markets.”

By 1989, Gissendanner was promoting the idea of “mainstreaming” multicultural learning beginning with workshops in the English, History, and Social Sciences departments. The goal was to change the content of core classes  to better reflect society’s diversity.

That year Gissendanner wrote in a Towerlight article entitled “Explaining mainstreaming” that the “development of multicultural studies will serve at least three related educational purposes: firstly, it will provide students with an understanding of (and presumably, the ability to cope with) the complexities of our national life and the larger world; secondly, it will familiarize our increasingly diverse student population with their own cultural backgrounds and more fully demonstrate to them the significance of their own history and culture; finally, it will encourage an appreciation of, and a sensitivity to, diversity that will make Towson State University a more hospitable educational community and social environment.”

Later, as part of a panel discussion about race relations on campus, Gissendanner said, “We have choices and we must live with vision, honesty, and guts. . . . We must break down traditions that have kept us separate. . . . Many of you feel that these types of meetings do nothing and the same things are said again and again, but as dialogue continues to happen, something is being accomplished.”

For over 30 years, John Gissendanner served Towson University both as a beloved professor and as someone who challenged the community to think beyond their individual experiences.

In July of 2008, Gissendanner died after a long battle with kidney cancer. His wife, Cindy Gissendanner, who currently serves as Director of Towson University’s LGBT Minor program, wrote in an obituary quoted by an August 28, 2008 Towerlight that Gissendanner “was instrumental in the development of many of Towson University’s diversity efforts. At various points of his tenure, he served as Director of the African American Studies; the Multicultural Studies Committee; and the Planning Committee for the African American Scholarship and Creativity Conference. . . Of this last project, he was especially proud.”

Today, Towson University continues to honor the work he did for this institution.

The John Gissendanner Fund for African American Study raises money to support the work done by the African and African American Studies Program.
And on April 27th, Towson University will again host the John Gissendanner Symposium.

To find out more about Towson University’s current work regarding hate crimes on campus, please see the Office of Inclusion’s webpage. #NotatTU

 

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