Facing Protests About Racial Climate, Another Campus Administrator Steps Down

Wes Edwards, The Forum

Hiram Chodosh, president of Claremont McKenna College, talks on Wednesday to students arguing that marginalized groups on the campus lack institutional support.
November 13, 2015

Hunger strikes and protests at Claremont McKenna College, in California, prompted the dean of students there to resign on Thursday, making her the latest campus administrator to step down over concerns about an institution's racial climate.

The strategies adopted by student activists at the college echoed those seen at the University of Missouri at Columbia, where protests led to the exits of two top officials this week. And the concerns raised by the students recalled those voiced recently at Missouri and Yale University, among others.

'We are working on how we can better serve students, especially those who don't fit our CMC mold,' the dean wrote in an email. Her choice of words began a chain of events that led to her resignation.
Mary Spellman, who had served as dean of students at Claremont McKenna since 2010, announced in a campuswide email that she was resigning "with sadness beyond words." She was convinced, she wrote, "that it is the right thing to do for the school and the students I care about so deeply." She also expressed gratitude for "all who have been so supportive" and addressed them directly: "Please know how sorry I am if my decision disappoints you."

Claremont McKenna’s president, Hiram E. Chodosh, announced on Wednesday that the college would create two new positions, focused on diversity, in the student-affairs and academic-affairs departments. A college spokeswoman did not respond to a request for further comment.

Racial Tensions on 4 Campuses

A student protester at Ithaca College. (Thomas Bastitelli)

The University of Missouri is just one of many institutions where concerns over the racial climate have sparked campus protests. Here are four other examples from this year.

University of Oklahoma

In March a video surfaced of a chant by members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity that included a racial slur and a reference to lynching. David L. Boren, the university’s president, quickly expelled the two students who had led the chant, officials disciplined two dozen others, and the chapter was closed. An existing group of African-American students known as OU Unheard organized demonstrations and called for other changes, including more minority faculty members and more scholarship money for students of color. The university has hired a vice president for diversity, the former Oklahoma state senator Jabar Shumate. 

Wesleyan University

The student newspaper, The Wesleyan Argus, ran a widely criticized op-ed in September that questioned the legitimacy of the Black Lives Matter movement. Student activists called for a boycott of the Argus and for the paper to lose its funds from the Connecticut campus's student assembly unless it met a list of demands, including diversity training for all staff members and reserving a space for minority students’ perspectives on Page 1. In an open letter to the Wesleyan community, some students also slammed President Michael S. Roth for defending free speech over the concerns of minority students. The assembly voted last month to study the possibility of taking away some of the Argus’s money and using it for paid positions at other campus publications.

Ithaca College

Two incidents in October sparked anger on the campus: a panel where two white, male Ithaca alumni referred to an African-American alumna who had expressed her "savage hunger" to succeed as "the savage," and a "Preps & Crooks" party held by an unaffiliated fraternity encouraging the "Crooks" to dress in a "thuggish style." Dozens of faculty members signed an open letter condemning the "savage" comments and the inadequate response from the New York college’s administration, and both professors and students have scheduled no-confidence votes against the president, Thomas R. Rochon. About a thousand students on the campus of nearly 7,000 walked out of classes this week and held a rally to call for Mr. Rochon’s resignation.

Yale University

After the Intercultural Affairs Council sent an email last month urging students not to wear racially insensitive costumes on Halloween, a residence-life official raised free-speech concerns and questioned "implied control" over students’ choices. The next day, the university’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity was accused of turning away minority students from a party, saying, "White girls only." President Peter Salovey and Jonathan Holloway, the university’s top undergraduate dean, did not address the incidents publicly for several days, further provoking anger among students of color. The two administrators have said that, before Thanksgiving, they will outline steps to improve the climate for minority students.

—Sarah Brown
An email from Ms. Spellman ignited much of the controversy at Claremont McKenna. Lisette Espinosa, a senior, emailed the dean in late October with a link to an op-ed she had written in a campus publication about her struggles as a working-class Latina student. Ms. Spellman responded two days later, asking Ms. Espinosa if she would be willing to meet and talk about her concerns. "We are working on how we can better serve students, especially those who don’t fit our CMC mold," the dean wrote.

The "CMC mold" comment touched off a wave of animosity among minority students on the campus, who had already called out the college’s administration for dismissing the needs of underrepresented students. More than 100 students staged a protest on Wednesday. A junior, Taylor Lemmons, announced that she would not eat until Ms. Spellman stepped down. Another student — Zain el-Jazara, a senior — soon joined her.

Halloween costumes heightened the tension. A photograph posted on Facebook showed the junior-class president, Kris Brackmann, posing with two women who wore stereotypical Mexican costumes. Ms. Brackmann resigned from her leadership role on Tuesday.

She wrote in an email to the student body that she had failed to properly represent her classmates. "As a bystander I did not assertively speak out against the costumes, despite knowing that they were disrespectful," Ms. Brackmann wrote. "Even worse, I associated myself with the offensive message by willingly standing in a photo with the costumes." She called for the incident to become "a lesson to us all."

Denys Reyes, a senior at the college who has been active in the recent protests, said the photo and the dean’s comments were "symptoms of something larger happening" at her college "and around the country, where students of marginalized identities are not heard." She said she had felt actively discriminated against on the campus.

The protests at Claremont McKenna intensified on Monday, when Ms. Lemmons published a personal essay describing the implicit racism she said she had experienced at the college.

"When incidents like this happen — when a student of color has the courage to speak up and explain why a peer’s action made her feel uncomfortable, and the response she is given is that she is bullying the students at fault … what is she to do?" Ms. Lemmons wrote in a post on Medium, the publishing platform. "We don’t talk about race critically on this campus," she added. "I blame all of us."

After the dean stepped down, Ms. Lemmons wrote in another Medium post that she stood in solidarity with the student activists at Missouri and Yale. "This is bigger than me, and this is bigger than one administrator," she wrote. Ms. Lemmons did not say whether her hunger strike had been inspired by Jonathan Butler, a graduate student at the University of Missouri who used a similar tactic as part of the successful drive to remove the system president, Timothy M. Wolfe, from office over his handling of racial tensions on the state’s flagship campus.

Ms. Lemmons did not respond to an email request for comment. Casey Garcelon, a junior, called the hunger strike "brave."

Ms. Garcelon, who first called attention to the controversial Halloween photo, said she was pleased by the dean’s quick exit.

Demands Unmet?

Ms. Reyes thought the student body’s demographics contributed to an atmosphere that made students in minority groups and students with low-income backgrounds feel less welcome. A majority of the student body does not receive financial aid, she said. A year’s tuition at the college costs $48,800.

Most Claremont McKenna students "have grown up in isolated communities," she said. "They don’t know what it’s like to think from the perspectives of students of color, of LGBT students, of other marginalized students."

President Chodosh promised to provide a space on campus for underrepresented students in response to the recent protests, she said, but 'he wants to make the space a 'free-speech space,' which was not what we asked for at all.'
The college’s top administrators have also been unresponsive to activists’ concerns, Ms. Reyes said. In April about 30 students submitted a list of demands to Mr. Chodosh, calling for a designated resource center and safe space for minority students, a "diversity chair" position in the office of the dean of students, additional funding for their organizations, and a mentoring program for new students of color.

So far, Ms. Reyes said, Mr. Chodosh has not fully met any of the demands. He promised to provide a space on the campus for underrepresented students in response to the recent protests, she said, but "he wants to make the space a ‘free-speech space,’ which was not what we asked for at all." The student government has temporarily offered one of its rooms to the student groups.

Marie-Denise Shelton, a professor of French, said in an email that she had not seen such intense protests by minority students during her 38 years at the college. Ms. Shelton joined more than 100 faculty members in signing a statement of support for the protesters. "They have opened the door for a fruitful dialogue for the betterment of the institution," she said. She also praised Mr. Chodosh for creating the diversity-focused administrative positions.

Wei-Chin Hwang, a professor of clinical psychology, said that he too backed the students’ calls for change. In an email, he pointed out two specific reforms he’d like to see: required diversity training for students, faculty, and staff, and educational workshops for faculty members on how to incorporate diversity and inclusion into their curricula.

"I hope the entire campus will stand together in solidarity and support this movement to make sure that our campus is discrimination-free," Mr. Hwang said. He also expressed hope that Claremont McKenna would "become a role model for changes that need to happen in higher education."

Ms. Reyes said that "as long as our demands are not 100 percent met," more demonstrations would take place in the coming weeks. And when the search begins for Ms. Spellman’s replacement, Ms. Reyes said, she wanted students to have a say.

"We’re not done," she said. "We’re just beginning."