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CMC dean resigns after protest over racial issues

Claremont McKenna College’s dean of students entered her resignation Thursday in response to pressure from students over an email perceived as racially insensitive.

Mary Spellman’s resignation, effective immediately, comes a day after a heated demonstration in front of the Hub patio on Wednesday, where students protested against alleged racial discrimination and what is viewed as lack of support from campus officials.

In her letter, sent out to students and faculty, Ms. Spellman says she is stepping down “with sadness beyond words.”

“To all who have been so supportive, please know how sorry I am if my decision disappoints you,” Ms. Spellman wrote. “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.”

Tensions came to a head at CMC Wednesday afternoon when scores of students—mostly of color and from other traditionally underrepresented groups—shared stories and demands during the hour-long demonstration, expressing their frustrations with the campus climate and calling on administrators to provide more resources for minority students as well as a sense of safety on campus. CMC President Hiram Chodosh and Ms. Spellman were present to engage the students and try to offer explanations and solutions.

“This is a very emotional moment for our college,” Mr. Chodosh told the simmering crowd. “I can’t begin to reinforce the voices that you’ve heard. I am personally moved by them.”

The CMC protest comes nearly two weeks after a photo was posted on Facebook showing two white McKenna students dressed in what was deemed a stereotypical costume that was offensive to Latino and Hispanic people. The photo was shared throughout social media, causing outrage among students of color at CMC.

One of the women in the photo was junior class president Kris Brackmann, who was dressed as Justin Bieber and holding a sign saying, “Sorry,” in reference to the singer’s latest hit. In response to the uproar, Ms. Brackmann, who was not dressed in the offending costume, resigned from her post.

Screen shots of emails sent by one of the two female students who dressed in Pancho Villa-style costumes went viral among CMC students. An email addressed to CMC student Casey Garcelon from one of the students, whose name is blocked out, said, “I saw your recent post of me and my friends from Halloween and I just wanted to personally apologize if I offended you from our costume choice! That was definitely not our [intention] and I promise it was not coming from a place [of] intentional harm. Again I am so sorry if I or we made you uncomfortable! Everyone at the Claremont Colleges has the right to feel comfortable and I feel terrible.”

The student then explained that all of the offending photos from the Halloween gathering had been deleted and asked if there was anything she could do to “make you feel better about the situation.” The student also asked if Ms. Garcelon would be willing to remove the photo from her Tumblr blog, fresherthanyouheaux.tumblr.com.

“All contact with these women stopped after we made it clear that pictures were not being removed,” Ms. Garcelon wrote. “This shows that their intent was not to actually apologize, but to get us to take down the image and forget it happened. An hour after my post was made, the dean on duty for the weekend called me. She did not ask me how I was feeling, if the administration could support me in any way, or give me any insight to disciplinary action that would follow. Instead, she let me know my classmates were ‘distraught’ and ‘disappointed in themselves for their actions.’”

The offending photo on Ms. Garcelon’s Tumblr page is captioned, “Dear Claremont community, For anyone who ever tries to invalidate the experiences of [people of color] at the Claremont Colleges, here is a reminder of why we feel the way we do. Don’t tell me I’m overreacting, don’t tell me I’m being too sensitive. My voice will not be silenced. I’m mentally drained from being a part of this community and I’ve had enough. If you feel uncomfortable by my cover photo, I want you to know I feel uncomfortable as a person of color every day on this campus.”

Prior to the Halloween holiday, posters were displayed across campus warning students against donning culturally insensitive costumes. In one poster, a woman is seen holding a picture of a costume nearly identical to what the students were wearing in the controversial photo.

But the issues at CMC didn’t start with a single, ill-conceived Halloween photo, according to student and rally co-organizer Aaron McKinney.

“This has been an ongoing problem, not just at CMC but across all five Claremont Colleges,” Mr. McKinney said. “There’s been a feeling and a sentiment of racism and micro-aggressions that students of marginalized backgrounds continue to feel, not only from the student body but also from our faculty. It took a spark from that picture for something more to happen.”

Mr. McKinney told the COURIER that students began meeting months ago and had been planning to act long before the picture surfaced.

An impetus for these meetings was a list of recommendations given to the president’s office by students last April, which included a desire for a “safe space,” or resource center, for CMC students of different backgrounds to congregate.

According to students, CMC administrators promised such a sanctuary would be open at the beginning of the fall semester. The deal was rescinded, however, with CMC claiming that space was insufficient. During the rally, Associated Students of Claremont McKenna College (ASCMC) President Will Su offered his offices as a temporary space for students until a permanent one is created.

Throughout the rally, students shared stories of how they were mistreated and marginalized at CMC—by both students and faculty—due to their skin color or ethnic background from both students and faculty.

An incident frequently mentioned throughout the event was an email sent out by Ms. Spellman that many took as a slight against minority students. In the email, addressed to Lisette Espinosa, who wrote an article describing her negative experiences on campus for The Student Life, Ms. Spellman wrote, in full:

“Thank you for writing and sharing the article with me. We have a lot to do as a college and community. Would you be willing to talk with me sometime about these issues? They are important to me and [dean of students] staff and we are working on how we can better serve our students, especially those who don’t fit the CMC mold. I would love to talk with you more.”

During the rally, students frequently called for Ms. Spellman’s termination and held up signs reading “F**k your CMC mold” and “I’m not your CMC mold.” Two students, Taylor Lemmons and Zain el-Jazara, announced they would go on hunger strikes until Ms. Spellman was fired or resigned.

Ms. Spellman again apologized to students during the rally and insisted she is dedicated to creating inclusive programs and helping underrepresented students at CMC. She later told the COURIER the email was sent in a sincere attempt to help the student.

“The wording was wrong, the intent was not,” Ms. Spellman said.

But some students, such as Mr. McKinney, remain unconvinced.

“I don’t believe they’re doing everything they can do in their power to create a space that is safe for all their students on our campus,” Mr. McKinney said. “I really wish I would have seen more from these high figures that are part of our student faculty.”

The rally comes on the heels of increased tension at the University of Missouri, where days of intense demonstrations led to the resignations of the university’s president and chancellor. At Wednesday’s rally, a student held a sign that expressed solidarity with Mizzou.

The situation is far from isolated. As detailed in a recent article in The Atlantic, students at Yale are calling for the resignation of two married professors. The woman, a professor of early childhood development, sent out an email to the students in the dorm she supervised questioning the wisdom of the school’s attempts to mandate Halloween political correctness.

If a student wore a costume that was ethnically insensitive, she argued, they would learn from the disapproval they spurred and the incident could potentially trigger healthy debate. Her husband, it would seem, is guilty by association.

In The Atlantic article, titled “The New Intolerance of Student Activism,” staff writer Conor Friedersdorf noted that hundreds of students have asked for the professors’ resignation, claiming the email, “equates old traditions of using harmful stereotypes and tropes to further degrade marginalized people,” and “fail[s] to distinguish the difference between cosplaying fictional characters and misrepresenting actual groups of people.”

After the rally at CMC, Mr. Chodosh said the college should heed the words of the students and work to create a college atmosphere that is inclusive to everyone.

“Student voices and experiences are very powerful, singularly powerful,” Mr. Chodosh said. “And we really need to absorb and listen to them. And I think we need to redouble our efforts in concrete ways so that every one of our students feels supported and feels a sense of full belonging.”

The dust-up continued in the wake of Ms. Spellman’s announcement, with upwards of 1000 students gathering to protest again on Thursday afternoon, many chanting, “fight for freedom!”

Posts on Yik Yak, a social media app favored by college students, show that the CMC community is not of one mind. Some students continue to lambast Ms. Spellman, calling her apology disingenuous, in one case accompanied by the hashtag #remorseless. Others expressed dismay, calling Ms. Spellman’s resignation the result of bullying and saying the strong reaction to poorly-chosen wording indicates free speech is endangered on campus.

—Matthew Bramlett

news@claremont-courier.com

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