LTE: Reflections on Blue Penis Gate and the WE Program at UVM

Reflections on Blue Penis Gate and the WE Program at UVM

As a faculty member who taught human health and disease at UVM for two decades I was both amused and horrified by the saga of Blue Penis Gate at the new WE residence hall.

Since UVM is a center of learning, let’s ask the obvious: what is a penis? The product of 50 million years of mammalian evolution, and 6 million or so years of hominid evolution, it is a part of the male body that has the dual function of eliminating unwanted substances and passing male germ cells into the female genital tract so as to allow for the continued survival and evolution of the species.  

Seems like a pretty important part of the human body to me, so why would students be “punished” for using sticky notes to depict a penis on their room window.   Would they have been punished if they had depicted a nose? a heart? a human brain (the WE Director’s favorite body part)?

If a WE student wore a shirt with a penis on it because the student wanted to celebrate the act of procreation, would they be called to a WE moment and be required to attend WE events as repentance for their transgression of WE’s definition of acceptable etiquette?  What is it about a penis that elicits such a neural response and what appears to have been activation of a rapid response team from the WE directorate and the VP for Student Affairs?

How would the WE leadership have responded to some of humanity’s great artists who included the human penis in their drawings and sculptures? Would those individuals have been asked to attend a WE moment had they attended UVM and resided in a WE residence hall?

Beyond Penis Gate why would a university attempt to have its students develop into the type of individuals society greatly admires through the vehicle of requiring them to sign a contract that defines acceptable behavior such as not having “neural triggers” in their rooms? What would a society look like where acceptable human behavior was defined and enforced by contract?     

I am all for behavior that leads to a more humane, a more respectful and a more healthy and productive society, but I want that to occur because individual members of the community realize that that type of behavior and society offers the best hope for all.

In addition to punishment for so-called transgressions, the concept of offering rewards for staying healthy has left me scratching my head.  If students at UVM need to receive rewards for staying healthy, society is in even far greater trouble than I thought. The greatest gift that every individual is given is the human body. A single cell in a female fuses with one of hundreds of millions of male germs cells that have a single function… to begin the process of life.   

One cell gives rise to two, two to four, ultimately leading to an incredibly complex organism comprised of between 10-100 trillion cells. In most all of those cells thousands of biochemical reactions are occurring every second, allowing the cell to function and to communicate with other cells so that the human body can accomplish all of the incredible activities that it does on a daily basis. Students should work hard to keep their body in the healthiest state possible because it is a gift without equal they will only get once, not because they will get a WE ticket to buy a commercial product.


Gerry Silverstein, PhD

Emeritus Lecturer in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics (MMG)