Despite his assertions that he had been promoting a serious issue, Victoria University Students’ Association (VUWSA) President Joel Cosgrove has become the target of widespread criticism from University staff and students following his decision to don an “I (heart) my penis” T-shirt to a recent graduation ceremony.
Cosgrove, who was seated in the front row onstage alongside the University’s academic staff and management, wore the T-shirt proclaiming his love for his genitals during the afternoon ceremony for graduates of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences on 16 May.
The T-shirt was part of a campaign jointly run by student representatives from Victoria and Massey (Wellington) universities, designed to encourage male students to get regular sexual health check-ups.
Cosgrove was passed two notes during the ceremony written by staff managing the ceremony, requesting that he button his gown to cover up his T-shirt – the slogan on which was visible to many in the audience. Cosgrove’s gown, however, remained open throughout the two-hour ceremony.
A recent blog post on the Salient website about Cosgrove’s attire at the ceremony attracted a wide range of comments. Some were amused by the T-shirt, while others described it as “offensive” and “insulting” to the graduates and their families in attendance.
“I agree with the cause, disagree with the occasion,” graduate Laura McQuillan wrote. Others were harsher in expressing their opinions: “Memories will be marred by images of you being an immature prat. Fuck you, you cunt. I voted for you and you let me down.”
“I don’t love Joel’s penis,” another declared.
Cosgrove disputed the suggestion that the T-shirt had been an inappropriate choice for the occasion. “If I was playing silly buggers, yeah [it would have been inappropriate],” he said. “But it raised awareness about a serious issue.”
He added that he had not received any negative responses since the ceremony, a claim disputed by VUWSA Campaigns Officer Sonny Thomas.
“He’s lying,” Thomas said. “He’s gotten lots of negative feedback.”
When Salient pointed out that a number of comments posted in response to blog post were critical of his choice to wear the T-shirt, Cosgrove asserted that he did not make his decisions based on the magazine’s website.
“For all I know, it’s just Conrad [Salient political writer] posting under pseudonyms.”
Conrad denies the allegation. “Such a statement is patently ridiculous, and just shows Joel’s desperation” he said.
“I don’t regret it,” said Joel. “Hundreds of people asked what it meant. One guy came up to me and said I had balls. It brought the issue [of male sexual health check-ups] into discussion.”
Cosgrove said he believed his T-shirt was not “out of character” with the rest of the ceremony. “It wasn’t a stiff upper lip ceremony. The orchestra had their own in-jokes, like when the played that tequila song [as one graduate walked across the stage].”
The decision to wear the T-shirt, Cosgrove explained, was made at the last minute and he added that he wore a suit to the other five graduation ceremonies. “I was in a bit of a rush [that afternoon]. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
VUWSA Welfare Vice-President Melissa Barnard was present when Cosgrove purchased the T-shirt from the VUWSA offices hours before the ceremony, and disputed his claim that his decision that been an impromptu one.
“I was here when he got his T-shirt,” she said. “He said he was going to wear it to graduation, I said not to… [I said] there is a place and a time for the cause.”
While she could see the funny side, Barnard said she was “horrified” and expressed her concerns that Cosgrove’s stunt may detract from the campaign in the future.
“So far we’ve sold 10 T-shirts. The campaign wasn’t something I was going to put all my time and effort into until about mid-July, but I’m [worried] that the message might get lost now.”
Welfare Vice-President of Massey Wellington Students’ Association (MAWSA) Nicole Skews, who devised the campaign, said she selected the slogan “I (heart) my penis” hoping “to get people’s attention in an overt way.”
“There are a lot of generic fade-into-thebackground sexual health campaigns out there,” she explained. “I kept thinking that perhaps if the campaigns actually got people’s attention, and had slogans people would want to get on board with, we wouldn’t have such an issue with [sexually transmitted infections] in young people.”
However, Skews concurred with Barnard’s concerns. “The strength behind the campaign is that it has a serious message which unfortunately could not have been explained to the audience of the ceremony – so it risked being taken in the wrong light.”
Members of the VUWSA Executive expressed their opinions about Cosgrove’s decision at their meeting last week, unanimously passing a motion of censure against their president.
Thomas told Salient that Executive member Fiona McDonald, who graduated in that particular ceremony, was “most upset.”
Similarly, reaction from University management has been largely disapproving of Cosgrove.
According to Thomas, the University’s Chancellor Tim Beaglehole was overheard commenting on Cosgrove’s T-shirt, saying: “I don’t get it.”
“There may have been an expletive in there,” Thomas said.
It has also been alleged that Beaglehole was angrier about Cosgrove’s T-shirt than he had been about the injunction taken against Salient in 2005 when the magazine leaked reports of the University’s plans for a 10 per cent fee increase.
In an interview with TV3 news, University Pro-Chancellor and Wellington City Councillor Ian McKinnon, who was seated beside Cosgrove, described the T-shirt as “extremely embarrassing.”
“It [stole] an important moment from graduates.”
Vice-Chancellor Pat Walsh said he was “very disappointed” with Cosgrove’s decision as well as his “conviction that it was right to wear it [at the ceremony].”
“Graduation is a highlight for most students… To have to walk past the president of their own association wearing such an offensive garment upset many students and diminished the occasion for them.”
“I cannot accept his explanation about how he came to wear the shirt as a reasonable one.”
Cosgrove claimed that Walsh had approached him after the ceremony to inquire about the Tshirt and that Walsh had expressed an interest in becoming involved in the sexual health campaign following Cosgrove’s explanation. This was swiftly denied by Walsh.
“This is not true.”
Walsh went on to ease concerns voiced by some students that Cosgrove’s T-shirt may result in a future VUWSA president no longer being invited to be seated onstage during graduation ceremonies, saying: “[That] is a long-standing tradition and it would be a great shame to see this end as a result of the thoughtless actions of one person.”
“For this reason, it is highly unlikely that the tradition will discontinue.”
Students have called for Cosgrove to make a formal apology. It remains unclear whether the University’s management or Cosgrove will take further action over the matter.
Photos by Sean Gillespie.