Backlash brews against student race protests at Claremont McKenna College

Student protests that led to the resignation of a top administrator at Claremont McKenna College last week appeared widely supported in demanding actions to address the bias some minority students say they face at the elite liberal arts campus. 

But sharp dissent over the movement’s tactics is now emerging, as students who said they were fearful of speaking out last week have begun to step forward.

One letter to the Claremont community, endorsed by nearly 300 students, expressed support for the broad goals to combat racial discrimination. But it called the use of hunger strikes to force the resignation of Mary Spellman, dean of students, “extremely inappropriate.” The letter also castigated the “cyber bullying” of students over an offensive Halloween costume, the filing of a federal civil rights complaint against Claremont and foul language used against administrators at a protest last week.

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“Never have we been more divided as a community. Never did we think the day would come where we were scared to speak our minds, where fear of our fellow students’ rage silenced us,” said the letter, signed on behalf of the students by Nathaniel Tsai, a junior majoring in government. “It is time for the demonstrations and the hostile rhetoric to stop.”

A second critique was launched this week by two students who called for letters of support for Spellman, saying she had been unfairly targeted. The former dean became the lightning rod for longstanding complaints by minority students alleging university inaction in addressing racial bias and providing resources, such as funding and a dedicated space, to aid them.

In hundreds of fliers posted throughout campus, students described broad experiences with discrimination, including vandalism at the Queer Resource Center, defacement of Black Lives Matter posters, racial slurs and perceived mockery of their cultures.

Spellman was particularly criticized for telling a Latina student that she would work hard to support students who “don’t fit our CMC mold.” The former dean could not be reached for comment.

In marshaling support for Spellman, seniors Rachel Doehr and Katharine Eger said they supported the broader effort to give voice to marginalized students and bring out “real, painful concerns about our college.” But they expressed concern that the effort in part “quickly morphed into a torrent of seemingly uncontrollable anger that left casualties in its wake." 

The students said Spellman had counseled hundreds of students during her years at Claremont and was a particularly strong advocate for those who suffered from sexual assaults. The dean led efforts to establish a new campus center for sexual assault prevention and support and helped strengthen education about the issue at student orientations, among other things, they said.

“There were hundreds of students who relied on Dean Spellman on a daily basis and now they’re left without that support,” Eger said, adding that their intent was not to bring her back but help repair her reputation as she seeks a new job. “But I think students were afraid to stand up. The fear was that you’d come off as not supporting students of color.”

One student who submitted a letter of support but asked for anonymity to protect her privacy said Spellman had counseled her through months of depression and an eating disorder and helped her manage a troubled relationship with a professor. The student said she was heartbroken by Spellman’s ouster and distressed by protesters last week accusing the dean of lacking heart.

“It hurt to hear people say that,” the student said. “She always did her job with a huge amount of heart and love.”

Taylor Lemmons, one of two students who launched a hunger strike last week in support of calls for Spellman’s resignation, said she felt “deepest empathies” toward such students. But she said Spellman had ignored marginalized students and her resignation – which she noted officials chose to accept – would help the campus move forward.

“It is not enough to help just some students,” Lemmons said in a text, adding that she did not regret her hunger strike. “She was legally responsible for ALL students and students were blatantly ignored.”

Last week, campus President Hiram Chodosh announced that new leadership positions on diversity and inclusion would be created in the offices of academic and student affairs. The administrators will work to increase diversity in hiring and in the curriculum, and a new space will be dedicated for work on diversity, identity and free speech, he said.

In an interview last week, Chodosh said he regretted the school had not moved faster and that protests had accelerated reforms.

The letter of dissent from Tsai and others asked the Latina student who filed a federal civil rights complaint against Claremont to rethink her action and allow the campus to find other ways to resolve the issues.

It also criticized what it called the public shaming and cyberbullying of a Claremont student and her friend who were posted on social media wearing a Mexican sombrero and mustache for Halloween. The students have repeatedly apologized, but requests to take the photo down have been rejected.

Tsai, the son of Chinese and Filipino immigrants, said the students who signed the letter of dissent wanted to join efforts to reduce bias and improve diversity -- but through more open forums and broad-based, collective action. 

“It’s all about moving forward,” Tsai said. “We’re a smart group of students. We have a great community and we will rebuild.”

For more education news, follow me @TeresaWatanabe

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