The last few days at Claremont McKenna College in California are giving Yale and the University of Missouri a run for their money in campus unrest, with both a dean and student government leader resigning over charges of racial insensitivity in under 72 hours.
Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students Mary Spellman stepped down Thursday after she became the object of a student hunger strike for an email deemed by many at Claremont McKenna to be racially insensitive.
Spellman wrote to a student, Lisette Espinosa, after reading Espinosa’s article in The Student Life about her frustrations as a minority on campus.
“We have a lot to do as a college and a community. Would you be willing to talk to me about these issues?” Spellman wrote in her email. “They are important to me and the DOS staff and we are working on how we can better serve students, especially those that don’t fit our CMC mold.”
Those last words—“CMC mold”—kickstarted a campaign to force Spellman out.
Angry students, like Taylor Lemmons, said the phrasing represented larger failings under Spellman’s leadership.
Lemmons declared she was going on a hunger strike until Spellman resigned (another student later joined her) in an essay published Wednesday:
The “fit the CMC mold” statement falls in line with a consistent and systemic non-response model that exists in the Dean of Students office—particularly relate to marginalized students. “Fit the mold” only compounds the instances where she and her office have failed to respond to violence that marginalized students have experienced on this campus.
That same day, a protest was held on Claremont McKenna’s campus organized by CMCers of Color, a student group devoted to fighting racial marginalization on campus, along with several other advocacy organizations for ethnic, racial, and sexual orientation support. Video of the protest shows students holding posters stating: “CMC Stands with Yale Mizzou UCLA,” “It Is Too Late for Sorry,” “Too Much Talking Not Enough Action.”
“This is a way of silencing students of marginalized identities. This is the way to derail the movement,” a student from CMCers of Color screamed as she described how the administration had failed to make all of the changes the group outlined earlier this year.
That student then concluded, “Dean of Students, what’s good?”—a reference to Nicki Minaj’s slight at Miley Cyrus at this year’s Video Music Awards—before Spellman spoke before the crowd of angry students.
Spellman began to speak about proposed changes, such as special mentors for students of color and first-generation college students, before she was interrupted by cries from the crowd. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Spellman said.
“How can we change your heart?” a person shouted from the crowd.
“How can you learn to identify? We’re hearing the same shit all over again,” another cried.
A black male student emerged from the crowd and went to the center, saying, “It’s literally your jobs to take care of us when we don’t feel safe on this campus.”
His statement echoed the cries heard at the past week’s campus protests for “safe spaces,” and for administrators to serve as parents.
“If recent events at Mizzou, Yale University, and countless other campuses are any indication, students are headed in a decidedly less noble direction. Their primary concern is not improving the world, but empowering authority figures to protect them from it,” Robby Soave wrote for this publication.
Spellman lost all chance to respond. One older, unidentified man came to the front and encouraged the students to look to Mizzou and how its president had stepped down. “This whole oligarchy thing is changing. This cannot persist. It cannot,” he said to cheers from the crowd.
“You need to hit them where it hurts,” said a mother of a Claremont McKenna student who had been invited to speak before the crowd. “It may have taken Missouri many, many, many years to accomplish this week what they accomplished, [but] we have a precedence to follow. You can cut that time by huge percentages.”
Cheers ensued at this statement before the crowd screamed, “Bring Spellman out!”
At her second appearance, Spellman tried to explain her use of “CMC mold,” saying “it’s the thing I talk to students about every day. ‘What do I do? I don’t fit in. I’m not the perfect CMCer.’”
A voice from the crowd cut Spellman off and asked her to explain the term as she was trying to do so. She conceded the phrase was part of “a poorly worded email that was intended to support a student. I apologize again.”
While the crowd focused their anger on Spellman, few in the crowd or the Claremont McKenna administration dwelled on an Asian female student who was attacked during the protest for talking about a racist incident in which a black person shouted “go back to your home.”
The Asian student said, “We should not distinguish people on their race. Black people can be racist.” An audible sense of horror overcame the crowd with murmurs of “Oh, no” heard in the background.
A young black woman is seen approaching her, gesturing for the Asian student to leave and rolls her eyes on the sides. “How is this relevant to the college failing to provide a space for people of color?” a person is heard shouting.
Claremont McKenna College President Hiram E. Chodosh was ambivalent about this exchange and did not denounce the students who sought to quiet their peer.
“On the one hand, I feel very uncomfortable when anyone in the community is precluded from saying what they want. On the other hand, I would be equally uncomfortable when a group of students organized a particular message and counter messaging, from their view, disrupted their ability to provide that message,” Chodosh told The Daily Beast.
“I think there was an ambiguity in the nature of the forum that took place. I think that if the forum were clearly an expression of protest by students who wanted to voice their pain and their self-empowerment through a certain point of view than obviously voices that are dissident to those are disruptive.
“If the purpose was an open forum where anyone was able to speak, the dissuasion or the elimination of any particular voice would have been inappropriate,” Chodosh explained.
Chodosh’s comments suggest that despite the protest’s image as an open forum for students, it wasn’t actually so open.
“I think the forum itself carried that ambiguity and that was the root of discomfort of what occurred in that instance,” he said.
Claremont McKenna College student body President William Su admitted that he had trouble hearing the entirety of this student’s speech and would not comment specifically on it.
However, he heartily endorsed Spellman’s resignation. “It’s not about intentions. It’s about perceptions. Students don’t even feel her office is a safe space,” Su told The Daily Beast. “I’m pretty happy she resigned. I think it’s the best move for our institution.”
Earlier this week, Su called for junior class President Kris Brackmann to step down after Halloween photos circulated of her standing with students in costumes deemed racially insensitive.
Brackmann resigned Tuesday morning after her classmate, Casey Garcelon, changed her Facebook cover photo to a picture of Brackmann with four other college students, two of whom were white female students wearing ponchos, sombreros, and mustaches.
While Brackmann was dressed as a dancer in Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” music video, the photographic proof of her association with these two students was sufficient for producing massive campus backlash.
Brackmann, who volunteered as a mentor for a young girl from a low-income family that recently emigrated from Mexico (according to her LinkedIn profile), also released her own apologetic resignation in an email, as reported in The Forum:
“As a bystander I did not assertively speak out against the costumes, despite knowing that they were disrespectful. Even worse, I associated myself with the offensive message by willingly standing in a photo with the costumes. My actions poorly represented me as someone who is supposed to represent all students. I am regretfully sorry to have been associated with this harmful incident.”
Claremont McKenna is not the only campus in the country wrestling with outraged fallout over Halloween costumes.
Students at Yale University called for Nicholas and Erika Christakises, the Masters of Silliman College, to resign after Erika Christakis wrote an email criticizing sensitivity guidelines for Halloween costumes.
“If you don’t like a costume someone is wearing, look away, or tell them you are offended. Talk to each other. Free speech and the ability to tolerate offence are the hallmarks of a free and open society,” she wrote in an email to a dorm.
This suggestion was met last week with throngs of angry students screaming and cursing at Nicholas Christakis as he patiently tried to explain how free speech works.
And Ithaca College may soon join the ranks of Mizzou and Claremont McKenna in forcing out top brass.
Students at the upstate New York school called for president Tom Rochon to resign.
His opponents argue that under his watch, Ithaca College has not adequately addressed “the issues surrounding diversity and inclusion on this campus… in equitable ways or ways that students of color, allies, in the campus community believe are good for us,” as Student Government Association President Dominick Recckio said at a Wednesday protest, according to the Ithaca Journal.
Some of the specific complaints of racial insensitivity stemmed from a lecture in October in which Tatiana Sy, an alumna of color, referred to herself as a “savage hunter.”
When two of her co-panelists subsequently referred to her as “savage,” some in the college community were outraged. They were even more disappointed by Rochon’s response not to outright police speech.
“In general, the college cannot prevent the use of hurtful language on campus. Such language, intentional or unintentional, exists in the world and will seep into our community. We can’t promise that the college will never host a speaker who could say something racist, homophobic, misogynistic, or otherwise disrespectful,” Ronchon said in a statement. “Even so, we reaffirm our commitment to making our campus an inclusive and respectful community.”
The recent protests on campuses reveal a paradox: Students want their colleges to protect them and create “safe spaces,” while simultaneously retaining the right to precisely dictate the terms of such an arrangement, regardless of its plausibility in a university system, let alone the so-called real world.
“I’m saddened by it,” Chodosh said when asked about the spate of recent unrest on college campuses. “I am hopeful that our college and university community can work through the conflicts in a transformative way to both provide that sense of home and support and reinforce the educational and societal value of free inquiry and expression.”