Amid racial bias protests, Claremont McKenna dean resigns

Claremont McKenna College’s dean of students resigned Thursday amid protests over racial tensions on the campus, the same day that student demonstrations roiled more than 100 colleges and universities nationwide.

Dean Mary Spellman at Claremont McKenna stepped down after she sparked a campus protest and hunger strikes by two students this week over her email to a Latina student saying she would work to serve those who “don’t fit our CMC mold.”

Spellman later apologized, but her remarks appeared to be a tipping point for students who have pressed the campus for months for greater diversity among faculty and staff and more funding for multicultural services.

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Spellman’s resignation came days after student protests over racial discrimination pushed the University of Missouri’s president and chancellor to resign. Hundreds of students at Ithaca College in upstate New York have demanded the resignation of President Tom Rochon over accusations that he has failed to address racial insensitivity. Racial tensions also prompted hundreds of students to demonstrate this week at Yale University.

David Menefee-Libey, a Pomona College politics professor, says the national student protests are giving voice to myriad difficulties facing young adults.

“It’s a tough time to be a young person in the United States today, particularly a young person of color,” he said. “Economic opportunities are constrained. Access to higher education is constrained. Interactions with public authorities are fraught, especially interactions with police.”

At Claremont, about 30 students of color wrote to President Hiram E. Chodosh in April, saying they felt excluded, isolated and intimidated. The 1,300-member undergraduate student body is 43% white, 12% Latino, 10% Asian American, 8% mixed race and 4% black, with the rest international students and others.

Students have compiled a list of instances of bias, including vandalism at the Queer Resource Center, the defacement of Black Lives Matter posters, racial slurs, perceived mockery of their cultures and what they allege were university efforts to silence their complaints.

Their requests included a new resource center, funding for multicultural clubs, more diverse hiring, a mentoring program and an administrator to oversee diversity. Students said their pleas to Chodosh, Spellman and other administrators went largely unheard, according to the Student Life campus newspaper.

The tensions escalated after Spellman responded last month to an op-ed by Lisette Espinosa, who described her discomfort as a low-income Latina student at Claremont. Spellman's pledge to help students who don't “fit the CMC mold” prompted more protests and triggered a university review of her office.

In her resignation email Thursday, Spellman wrote: “To all who have been so supportive, please know how sorry I am if my decision disappoints you. I believe it is the best way to gain closure of a controversy that has divided the student body and disrupted the mission of this fine institution.”

Spellman and Espinosa could not be reached for comment.

Taylor Lemmons, a Claremont student who began a hunger strike this week to draw attention to the demands for Spellman’s resignation, thanked supporters Thursday.

“Let this be a message to anyone who sees a wrong and speaks out to make it right. You can do it,” Lemmons wrote. “All you have to do is speak up, be strong in your convictions and never give up.”

On Wednesday, 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 a letter to the campus community.

“I stand by our students,” Chodosh wrote. “I support their right to speak out forcefully, and want their voices to be heard.”

After Chodosh’s announcement and Spellman’s resignation, student protest leaders said they would continue to press for greater institutional support for students who feel marginalized.

“This is not the be-all and end-all,” said Jincy Varughese, 21, a senior environment, economics and politics major. “The fact that it took eight months of protest and two students saying that they wanted to go on a hunger fast to create all of this to happen is very telling.”

Varughese says students want to be involved in creating and designing temporary and permanent resource centers that have been promised as well as in the hiring of the new dean of students and a diversity administrator.

“I think we are seeing some movement in claiming a voice for ourselves and receiving acknowledgment that we do have a problem,” Varughese said.

Teeana Cotangco, a Claremont freshman of Filipino ancestry, said she had not experienced any bias and had made a smooth transition into campus life as a member of the women’s basketball team, Christian athletes club and Asian Pacific American mentoring group. But she said she welcomed the student activism on race.

“I feel if we just overlooked it, the issues would just boil over,” she said. “Somebody had to take a stand.”

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Students across the nation also protested the escalating cost of education and mounting debt. The Million Student March is intended to bring attention to what organizers say is a crisis in education brought about by budget cuts, administrative bloat and corporate influence, which have cut off access to higher education for many and left many others deeply in debt.

Demands include tuition-free public higher education, cancellation of all student debt and a $15 hourly minimum wage for all campus employees.

Claremont McKenna is often ranked among America's top liberal arts colleges. 

Claremont McKenna is part of a consortium of seven campuses that make up the Claremont Colleges and includes Pomona College, Scripps, Harvey Mudd and Pitzer College.

Noted for its highly selective admissions, Claremont McKenna tied with Vassar College as the nation's 10th-best liberal arts college in U.S. News & World Report's 2013 rankings. The campus enrolls about 1,250 students; annual tuition and fees top $44,000.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

7:03 a.m.: This article has been updated with background information about Claremont McKenna College.

8:39 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional details throughout.

This article was originally published at 3:25 p.m.

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