A photo posted to social media with a university benefactor and a controversial former president, a post from the social media account from the university program bearing her name, and the subsequent retraction by the university itself, has Ryerson University in hot water over accusations it’s muzzling free speech while favouring those making donations.
The controversy began over the weekend after a photo appeared on Suzanne Rogers’ Instagram account, featuring her family posing with former U.S. President Donald Trump at his Mar-A-Lago resort. In addition to raising eyebrows in the media landscape, it also caught the attention of Ryerson University’s fashion program.
Various branches of the Rogers family, through their philanthropic organizations, have a history of donating millions to Ryerson, including $1 million to the fashion school from the Edward and Suzanne Rogers Foundation. The university has responded by naming numerous buildings and programs for them, including the Suzanne Rogers Fashion Institute.
In recent years, the fashion school, under the direction of its outgoing chair Ben Barry, has made a name for itself for being inclusive and socially conscious. Its social media account on Instagram has backed that up in its posts.
But a post in response to the Rogers Trump photo was a step too far for the university.
It invited Suzanne Rogers to have an open dialogue with the faculty, staff, and students about the often harmful effects of Trump and his followers on members of the fashion industry. The post noted many members of the industry are from marginalized communities, including Black, Brown, Disabled, Asian, Trans, Indigenous, and Queer people.
That post was deleted shortly after and replaced with one from the university, distancing itself from the rhetoric. It said Ryerson had not approved the statement and “we do not believe social media is the appropriate platform to judge the actions of others.”
The statement also said the issue with the fashion school post was that it suggested it was issued by the university, when in fact it was not.
Barry shared the university’s statement on his private Twitter account, adding that the words were not his.
His response has past and present students of Ryerson and the fashion school raising concerns the university is muzzling the program in favour of its wealthy donors.
These are @RyersonU words not mine.
— Ben Barry💄✨👠 (@DrBenBarry) May 1, 2021
Tyler Griffin has been tracking Barry’s influence at the fashion school and its foray into backing up the social commentary it preaches. The editor-in-chief of the Ryerson publication The Eyeopener said where his university often stumbled, Barry followed through.
“I really never have seen a program be as outspoken and unapologetic about incorporating equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives,” Griffin said, adding Ryerson benefited from the approach.
“It’s really kind of put the fashion school on the map and given them a brand that I wouldn’t say they had before.”
Griffin noted the university previously gave the fashion school the freedom to delve into politics, including Trump, and only appears to have been swayed this time over the mention of its prolific donor.
“It never seemed to be an issue and it never seemed to be an issue that it was an official Ryerson account,” Griffin said.
“It was always like; this is their brand, this is what they do well, it’s their program.”
Some students of the fashion school think the university has not made a misstep by cracking down on the social media account, but have missed an opportunity as well.
Fashion communications student Isabella Papagiannis said many students would have welcomed the opportunity to hear from Rogers on the Trump photo.
“I think a lot of students would have liked to see that to be able to kind of poke her mind,” she said.
“And ‘as someone who supports inclusivity and diversity and also provides funding for all of these places and also considers themselves a philanthropist, how can you pose with someone and believe in these politics?’” said Papagiannis.
Others like Charlotte Carbone, a Queer, Asian alumna of the fashion school, said they think it is incumbent on Rogers to back up her actions.
“Trumpisms include racism, xenophobia, sexual assaults, and white supremacy,” she said.
“So to be so openly OK with that, with the grand leader of Trumpism is not OK for someone who is supposed to be a leader at a school who says they champion inclusion and diversity.”
Neither Suzanne Rogers or the Edward and Suzanne Rogers Foundation responded to interview requests on Monday. However, a statement was sent out by Suzanne Rogers Tuesday afternoon.
“I have always believed in equality, diversity, inclusiveness, and respect for all, and I have worked to that end all my life. They are important in all aspects of society, especially in fashion,” she wrote in the statement.
It went on to say Rogers does not have “any kind of relations with Donald Trump” and that she never met him before the evening the photo was taken.
“Our family’s interaction with President Trump was mere seconds at the end of a dinner, as we were leaving,” the statement said.
“No political statement, on any policy, was intended by the photograph. Taking and posting it was done without considering the false assumptions and implications that would be made about my personal beliefs.
“I regret that my actions caused anyone to question my values or commitment to the communities and causes my family and I hold so dear.”
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