Vandalism Unifies Linked but Distinct Colleges in the Battle Against Hatred
The Claremont Colleges have long been unlike any other consortium in American higher education. It’s a loose collection of seven neighboring but distinct institutions, and a place where academic and political contrasts are sometimes thrown into sharp relief.
Pitzer is known for its liberal activism. Claremont McKenna has been a breeding ground for political conservatives aiming at the high reaches of government and business.
Scripps, a women’s college, specializes in languages, music and the arts. Heavily male Harvey Mudd focuses on science, math and engineering.
Pomona, the oldest of the undergraduate schools, is also the most prestigious. It was rated the fourth-best liberal arts college in the country in the most recent U.S. News & World Report rankings.
But the varied group -- which also includes two graduate institutions and has 7,500 students overall -- has been pushed in recent days to find common ground in the face of a crisis.
In an unusual step, the five undergraduate campuses were closed Wednesday after a visiting professor’s car, in what police classified as a hate crime, was spray-painted with ethnic slurs and had its windshield smashed and tires slashed the night before.
The professor, Kerri Dunn, a white woman who is converting from Catholicism to Judaism, spoke Tuesday night before at a forum at Claremont McKenna on racial intolerance.
Sensitivities were raised earlier this year by other incidents. In January, four students stole an 11-foot cross from a dormitory courtyard at Pomona and set it afire at Harvey Mudd. Last month, a student discovered a racial slur written on a picture of George Washington Carver, the black agricultural scientist, at a Claremont McKenna dorm.
Students and faculty said the events were particularly unsettling because the vast majority of undergraduate students live on campus, close together.
“You fear that someone who is violent and underground is living in your midst, not in an off-campus residence,” said John Seery, a professor of politics at Pomona who has written extensively about liberal arts colleges.
Seery said the degree of tension was new at the campuses, but that “issues of inclusion and race and gender and sexuality have always been hot-button issues and contested and passionate. We’ve been struggling with these issues a good time, to varying degrees of success and failure, but there was something extraordinary about this last incident.”
On Friday, a last sunny day of school before spring break, the colleges were speckled with fliers declaring such things as “Make your anger purposeful” and “Eracism.”
Tyler White, 19, a Claremont McKenna freshman from San Antonio who was practicing golf shots on the lawn in front of his dorm, called the car vandalism “a really bad, horrific, incident.”
But, he said, referring to the demonstration and teach-ins Wednesday, “the rallies have been the best part of this. They have really brought the community closer.”
At Pomona, a 4-foot-high wall extending for several hundred yards was painted over with slogans such as “We support hate-free campuses.” Nearby, students sunbathed while reading textbooks with the snow-covered, smog-tinged San Gabriel Mountains behind them.
Carey McDonald, an 18-year-old Pomona freshman from Columbus, Ohio, said the vandalism and other incidents might be a distressing overreaction from a small number of students to a very liberal atmosphere.
There are “cute, stereotypical differences” attributed to the various Claremont colleges, but “there’s not much political diversity
Students said two theories are floating around campus. One is that whoever vandalized the professor’s car was working with an off-campus hate group.
The other is that students interested in promoting a discussion of racism staged the incident to provoke an outcry.
“It’s Machiavellian, but we don’t want to be stupid about it,” said McDonald.
But Lindsey Wollschlager, 21, a Pomona history major from Cannon Falls, Minn., dismissed the idea of a hoax. She said that for someone to raise the possibility was “so sick. They are in denial. People don’t want to accept that a well-educated, liberal community can have hate.”
Police said Friday that they had no suspects in the case and that no arrests were expected over the weekend. Claremont Police Lt. Stan Van Horn said his department was reviewing videos taken by surveillance cameras near the site where the vandalized car was found.
He also said police were considering whether Dunn knew the vandals. On Thursday she said she thought the perpetrators possibly knew her or were acquainted with people who knew her.
Whatever the outcome of the case, it has triggered an unusual bond among the colleges.
“I can’t think of anything in my time here that has so unified these campuses, " said Nancy Y. Bekavac, a lawyer who has been president of Scripps more than 13 years. “No one, no one, would want this” controversy. “But the response of students, faculty and staff has been not only emotionally moving, but positive. Students who had felt that perhaps they didn’t have a voice here have found their voice.”
Administrators at the colleges generally operate independently. Each institution manages its own admissions, financial aid and core academic programs, but they share services such as campus security and a library. Students are free to take classes and eat in the dining halls on each other’s campuses.
“We are like America under the Articles of Confederation: a weaker central administration and sovereignty in the states,” Bekavac said.
She conceded that the organizational setup is mystifying for students. Among administrators, Bekavac said, “our communications tend to be internal, within our institutions. If something happens at another institution, I may not hear about it, but the students will hear about it, and they’ll demand that I respond. But I don’t know what they’re talking about, and they think I must be lying.”
The schools appear to be on an upward path. At Scripps, for example, applications this year totaled more than 1,700, up 25% from a year earlier, for the school’s 215 spaces for entering freshmen. The campuses are also generally well off financially, particularly Pomona, whose endowment tops $1 billion.
Pomona was established in 1887. When the impulse arose to expand in the 1920s, leaders decided to create a new school, what is now Claremont Graduate University, rather than enlarge Pomona. That pattern repeated up to the founding of the newest institution, the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences in 1997.
The colleges say they have worked hard to recruit underrepresented minorities to their student bodies, but the results are still modest: 9% Latino, 5% black and 1% Native American.
Bekavac and Pomona President David Oxtoby dismissed the possibility that the colleges would suffer either lasting or short-term recruiting damage from the recent controversy. Oxtoby said he spoke to a prospective student this week who was impressed by the schools’ handling of the incidents, and Oxtoby thinks others are likely to feel the same way.
Seery agreed. “These are top colleges, they are very competitive, and lots of people are trying to get in.... If you got into a Pomona College, Harvey Mudd, Pitzer, Scripps or Claremont McKenna and that’s where you were wanting to go, you probably wouldn’t be too deterred whether you’re a person of color or not,” he said.
William G. Tierney, director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at USC, said, however, that racial incidents “can dissuade students from applying [to] or attending a college, because the college can seem unwelcoming. [But] they can also galvanize the community and create a turnaround, if the community is serious about fighting acts of intolerance.”
Times staff writers Joy Buchanan and Arlene Martinez contributed to this report.