In wake of student activism, college defends hire of sociologist

Amidst a tumultuous period of student demands, protests, strikes and sit-ins at the Claremont Colleges, the Pomona College administration is standing firm in response to criticism after hiring prominent sociologist Alice Goffman.

After a student or group of students emailed Pomona officials a list of demands—chiefly, the immediate dismissal of Ms. Goffman, whose critically-acclaimed book about how policing and mass incarceration affects African American communities has sparked national controversy and allegations of racism—the sociology department emphatically denied the students’ claims.

“We reject the premise that Alice Goffman’s work hyper-criminalizes and hyper-sexualizes African-Americans,” the department wrote in a letter to sociology students. “In fact, her book is widely regarded as a sympathetic and humanizing portrait of an over-policed community, and has been part of the national conversation about racial disparities in crime and incarceration.”

Pomona College Dean Audrey Bilger dealt a similar blow to the petitioners’ hopes, noting in a statement to the COURIER that Pomona follows a “rigorous process when hiring faculty.”

“We are pleased that this process resulted in an offer and an acceptance, and we look forward to [Ms. Goffman] joining our very active, vibrant academic community in the fall as a visiting professor,” Ms. Bilger said.

Pomona’s support for Ms. Goffman in the face of student outcry comes during a wave of student activism across the Claremont Colleges.

In March, Harvey Mudd College students voiced their anger with the school for not releasing an external report that quoted anonymous students and faculty saying the burdensome workload was extreme, and left students with no time for essential activities like eating and sleeping.

After the report was leaked to the Claremont Colleges’ newspaper The Student Life, students rallied and held a sit-in to demand curricular changes, increased mental health funding and more support for students of color. They received some concessions from Mudd President Maria Klawe, who promised $1,500 to each student diversity group and canceled two days of class.

At Claremont McKenna College, a coalition of protesters barred access to a building where conservative commentator Heather Mac Donald was to speak against Black Lives Matter, prompting a fierce free speech debate in early April.

Though CMC President Hiram Chodosh and the Claremont Police Department decided that arresting protesters or forcing them to move could have created unsafe conditions, Mr. Chodosh condemned those who blocked access to Ms. Mac Donald’s speech.

“The breach of our freedoms to listen to views that challenge us and to engage in dialogue about matters of controversy is a serious, ongoing concern we must address effectively,” Mr. Chodosh wrote in a message to the CMC community.

And at Scripps College, resident advisors went on strike April 13 to demand more financial aid and protest what they called a lack of institutional support after the suicide of fellow RA Tatissa Zunguze.

Scripps President Lara Tiedens has met with the RAs several times, and told the COURIER that she and the RAs “share the goals of creating a better Scripps.” The RAs have since agreed to resume emergency duties only.

The letter demanding Ms. Goffman’s termination claimed to have 128 signatories, but the names were “redacted for individual safety in recognition of the violence inflicted on communities of color by various publications, namely The Claremont Independent.”

Anonymous statements and demands have become commonplace since March, when three Pitzer College students received death threats via Facebook from individuals outside the Claremont Colleges for painting a mural at Pitzer that read “White Girl, Take Off Your Hoops”—a denouncement of cultural appropriation.

Many believe the death threats came from people who read an article about the mural published in The Claremont Independent—a conservative campus publication—and picked up by national conservative outlets like The Daily Caller and The Blaze. The Independent received widespread student backlash, and the incident prompted students to protest and petition anonymously.

No sociology students believed to have been involved with the writing of the demand letter responded to requests for comment, but Pitzer College sociology major Simone Bishara said she agrees with the letter’s message.

“Her research contributes to the hyper-criminalization and sexualization of black men and women,” Bishara said, nearly echoing the letter. “Her research methods were questionable. And her hire at Pomona was secretive and seemingly biased.”

Ms. Goffman’s critics claim that Pomona sociology students “were given no notice” that the department was hiring someone to fill the McConnell Visiting Professor Chair position.

“Candidates were only referred to as ‘guest lecturers,’ not as potential faculty members,” the statement reads. “Students attending the lectures were given no platform to provide feedback about candidates.”

However, Pomona student and sociology liaison Mary Alice Koon emailed sociology students ahead of Ms. Goffman’s hiring, inviting them to have lunch with the candidates being considered for the position.

“The sociology department received funding to bring in a tenured, distinguished faculty member from another university for two to three years, and they are bringing the final three candidates to campus,” Ms. Koon wrote, which seems to disprove the claim that Ms. Goffman’s was a surprise hiring.

Ms. Koon did not respond to a request for comment.

Not all sociology students agree with the decision to condemn Ms. Goffman’s hiring.

“I regret the fact that the letter frames itself as being from ‘sociology students,’ thus attempting to speak for all sociology majors,” said one sociology major at the Claremont Colleges, who requested anonymity to speak candidly without fear of retaliation from other sociology students. “As a sociology major, it does not speak for me, and although I take issue with the sociology department’s lack of transparency and student involvement in the hiring process, I do not reject the decision to hire Goffman as the best candidate for the position.”

The letter demanding Ms. Goffman’s termination, which also calls for a meeting with Pomona President David Oxtoby and increased student involvement in the hiring process, said Ms. Goffman’s hire “proves the college’s failure to wholeheartedly address underrepresentation of faculty of color and Pomona’s institutional inadequacy to recognize and advocate for the best interests of students of color.”

The letter also brings up national backlash Ms. Goffman has received for her research methods; among other concerns, critics say Ms. Goffman—a white woman—is racially insensitive, and her bestselling book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City,  contains factual errors and embellishments.

In its response to students, the Pomona sociology department defended Ms. Goffman’s reputation.

“There have been, as there always are, scholarly critiques of the book’s methods and findings. Such debate is to be expected and encouraged in the academic community,” the department wrote. “The methods of On the Run, while controversial, have not been found to be unethical. The University of Wisconsin conducted an internal review…and uncovered no wrongdoing.”

Ms. Goffman, who is currently an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, did not respond to a request for comment.

—Kellen Browning


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