Welcome to Race on Campus. Like other institutions, Bates College is working toward antiracism commitments it made in 2020. Recently, though, it hit a big roadblock: Four staff members hired to lead racial-equity work left Bates within the past year. In this week’s newsletter, Sarah Brown continues our series on campus pledges to improve race relations, investigating whether staff turnover is stalling Bates’s progress.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions about this newsletter, write to me: fernanda@chronicle.com.

Progress Amid Turnover?

On June 15, 2020, the president of Bates College released a nearly 2,400-word statement titled “The Work of Antiracism at Bates.”

It was the second attempt by Clayton Spencer, who has led the Maine institution since 2012, at responding to the murder of George Floyd. Her first, shorter statement condemned police brutality and said that Bates was committed to antiracism. But more than 500 students, faculty, staff, and alumni signed a letter saying that her original message missed the mark and calling on her to develop an action plan.

Many college leaders made racial-justice promises after Floyd’s murder, but Spencer’s statement was more detailed than most. It featured seven categories of commitments to advancing racial justice, such as expanding racial-equity training, making the curriculum more inclusive, and enacting “systemic and structural change across the entirety of the student experience.”

Bates released a lengthy progress report in November 2020 and said they would update the college twice a year, but hadn’t followed up since last fall. On Thursday, a week after I reached out to the college and asked for an update, Bates published a new progress report.

A spokesman for Bates wrote in an email that the college’s commitments are moving forward. The Board of Trustees has created a new equity, inclusion, and antiracism committee. The Bates faculty has updated its tenure and promotion criteria. This fall, the college’s first-year class was one of the most racially diverse ever.

But turnover is threatening to stymie those efforts. Three staff members hired in 2020 to lead racial-equity work all left Bates after less than a year. And Bates’s vice president for equity and inclusion, Noelle Chaddock, quit in July.

A Source of Instability

Steven D. Parker said that Chaddock’s vision for change inspired him to take the job as assistant dean of the Office of Intercultural Education in August 2020.

Parker’s responsibilities included overseeing the office’s physical space, where students can study and multicultural groups host events, and working with student leaders interested in racial-justice activism.

But Parker said senior administrators put him in his place when he tried to push for larger structural reforms. During one meeting, he said he didn’t feel that the Office of Intercultural Education was accessible enough. There was no clear route for students with physical disabilities to navigate through the old building, he said, and it was hidden away from most student foot traffic. He described to campus leaders his vision for moving the office to a more central, easy-to-access location. Their response, he said, was that he should “stick to programming” and working with students.

A Bates spokeswoman disputed his characterization, saying that an architectural firm had recently redesigned that part of the building, and that the office was in “one of the most central and accessible locations on campus.”

It became clear that many Bates students from marginalized backgrounds didn’t feel supported by the college, Parker said. Parker, who is Black, said he also repeatedly experienced racism off campus in the predominantly white city of Lewiston, Me.

In November 2020, just four months after arriving at Bates, Parker quit. This past spring, he became the campus diversity officer at Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College, in Minnesota.

Bates leaders need to start practicing what they preach on racial justice, Parker said. “I would have loved to see Bates College actually engage in the truth that they put out to the world,” he said.

Chaddock, whose pronouns are they/them, announced in July that they were also leaving Bates after two years. They didn’t respond to a LinkedIn message seeking comment.

Rachel Roberson, assistant dean of educational student-support services and Bobcat First, Bates’s program for first-generation students, also no longer works at Bates; she couldn’t be reached for comment. Nicollette Mitchell, who held the newly created role of director of equity and inclusion education, left Bates in August. She declined to comment.

Ellie Wolfe, a junior and an editor at the campus newspaper, The Bates Student, was the first to report on the departures this month. She found that at least 20 faculty and staff members across the college had left in the past year, and that many of them described frustration with a “scarcity mind-set,” where Bates leaders suggested that they didn’t have money for things, even though the college is relatively well-resourced. “Nobody, it seems, who works in the Office of Intercultural Education seems to stay for more than a year, a year and a half,” Wolfe said.

Skye Brown, a first-generation Native American student from Arizona, said when she first got to Bates, administrators described the office as a source of stability for students of color. “During my time here, it hasn’t been like that whatsoever,” said Brown, who’s also an editor at the newspaper and has written about problems with turnover in the office and her experiences at Bates. She added that the office was, in her view, “very hard to find.”

In Thursday’s progress report, Bates leaders said they had hired three new staff members into the office. They said they would consider restructuring the college’s equity and inclusion work and staffing, incorporating feedback from the campus community and outside experts.

Not Hopeless, But Wary

One Bates initiative that is moving forward, thanks to students and faculty members, is a required course on race.

Last October, with tensions running high around the 2020 presidential election, the college highlighted the president of the Bates College Republicans on its Instagram account. After students wrote hundreds of critical comments on the post, the college blocked further comments and hid previous ones, according to The Bates Student. Students from marginalized backgrounds said they felt that the college was silencing them.

They organized a protest and made five demands, including that the college require students “to take a course in critical race theory.”

Last winter, a committee of faculty members and students came up with a proposal for a required course covering race, white supremacy, colonialism, power, and privilege. The requirement is now moving through the faculty-governance process.

Carrie Diaz Eaton, an associate professor of digital and computational studies, said she hopes the course will go beyond checking a diversity box and will educate students on how to grapple with inequity in their particular disciplines — and prompt faculty members to do the same.

Diaz Eaton said she’s worried about what the lack of stable diversity leadership will mean for Bates and for her students of color, who don’t have familiar faces to turn to for support.

But Diaz Eaton is trying to remain hopeful that antiracist change is possible at Bates. She said she’d been drawn to Bates in 2018 because of its bold vision for making computer science more inclusive. She is part of a faculty group that’s rethinking the college’s STEM curriculum, with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Her colleague Therí A. Pickens, chair of the Africana department, feels similarly.

“I have both intellectual and experiential training that cautions me against being hopeless even if I am wary,” Pickens wrote in an email. “I am wary because white supremacy finds increasingly clever places to hide.” —Sarah Brown

Read Up

  • In 1961 pastors, college students, community leaders, and other citizens protested for civil rights in the South. In the activists’ words, this is what it was like. (USA Today)
  • This is the story of how Ellen Garrison Jackson Clark, a Black activist who taught enslaved people how to read and write, ended up in an unmarked grave in California. (LA Times)
  • The historically Black college Tennessee State University, along with other HBCUs across the country, has received unequal funding from the state government compared to predominately white institutions in the state. Our Katie Mangan reported on the people crusading for change. (The Chronicle)

—Fernanda