PO Sociology Students Criticize Controversial Hire
Amanda Larson | April 28, 2017, 3:02 p.m.
An anonymous letter protesting the hire of Alice Goffman, a controversial sociologist currently working as an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, was sent to the Pomona College sociology department on April 21. The letter demands that Pomona rescinds Goffman’s offer, respond to the community, and increase transparency in the hiring process.
Goffman’s book “On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City” describes the war on drugs in a Philadelphia neighborhood where Goffman lived while conducting research. The letter, which claims to have 128 signatories — the names were “redacted for individual safety in recognition of the violence inflicted on communities of color by various publications, namely The Claremont Independent" — condemned Goffman’s research.
“Hiring white faculty who engage in voyeuristic, unethical research and who are not mindful of their positionality as outsiders to the communities they study reinforce harmful narratives about people of color,” the letter stated, adding that the hiring of Goffman opposes Pomona’s commitment to support students of color.
The letter mentions that Goffman’s research methods have been critiqued in publications such as The New York Times and brought up claims that the data she has derived from those methods are false.
Aside from the controversy surrounding her work, the letter claims the hiring of a white faculty member calls into question the college’s commitment to diversity in higher education. There will be no women of color in the Sociology department at Pomona next year if Goffman is hired. Goffman, a white woman, was chosen for the position of McConnell Visiting Professor of Sociology over two black women.
In a statement emailed to TSL on April 27, Sociology students at Pomona described how they viewed the hiring of Goffman as interconnected with other activist movements undertaken by students of color across the 5Cs.
“Given the lack of adequate faculty and administrative response and the continued delegitimization of student organizing, we felt moved to collective action," the students wrote. "We see how our grievances are connected to a larger issue of accountability and transparency in academic affairs and broader activism against institutionalized oppression that has been occurring throughout the 5C’s. We will continue to push all those involved in Goffman’s hire for an honest commitment to 'diversity and inclusion.' We stand by our original sentiments because we care about the future of the Sociology Department.”
The sociology department responded to the original letter with a statement affirming its support for Goffman’s hire. In it, they address the claims made in the letter that Goffman’s research creates sensationalist narratives about communities of color.
“We reject the premise that Alice Goffman’s work hyper-criminalizes and hyper-sexualizes African-Americans,” the department wrote. “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.”
Additionally, the letter affirms Goffman’s research methods as ethical, citing an internal review conducted at the University of Wisconsin.
“The University of Wisconsin conducted an internal review,” the department wrote, “and uncovered no wrongdoing. Further, it is publicly known that Goffman shares the royalties from her work with her research subjects and continues to have warm, personal relationships with them to this day.”
The sociology department attributed the alleged lack of transparency in the hiring process to college-wide practices. In an email to TSL, Vice President of Academic Affairs Audrey Bilger wrote that students were involved in the process.
“Students were invited to attend her talk, and she went to lunch with students,” Bilger wrote. “The sociology student liaisons provided student feedback.”
The letter from faculty supported the possibility of increased student involvement in the hiring process and increased communications between students and faculty. Bilger wrote that she hopes this communication will serve as a starting point for determining the future of the department.
“Sociology faculty have reached out and invited sociology majors to meet with them,” she wrote. “I think that’s really important, to start a conversation and have the chance to listen. I hope that is the starting place and the path forward for our community whenever there is this kind of discussion or questioning on campus."
The Sociology students who wrote the original letter released another statement on April 25 criticizing the Sociology department for its "blatant disregard of our concerns" and for failing to respond to student requests for a meeting in a timely manner. The students also argued in the statement that Goffman is unqualified for the position at Pomona because she is not a tenured faculty member at the University of Wisconsin.
"We (still) reject the hire of Alice Goffman," the statement reads. "We remain critical of the ways the Claremont Colleges perpetuate oppression against students of color, especially Black students, and members of our communities who exist outside these elite, exclusionary institutions."
Maria Vides PO ‘18, incoming president of the Associated Students of Pomona College, wrote in a message to TSL that she sees the hiring of Goffman as a failure to uphold the institution's commitment to diversity and inclusion.
Goffman’s hiring “is the ultimate demonstration that despite Pomona's ‘commitment’ to diversity and inclusion, the college and its academic departments are still not doing enough to truly implement these values in the underlying structures of Pomona, the institution,” Vides wrote. “Goffman's work, to my understanding and interpretation, is permeated with toxic racialized perspectives. Pomona prides itself in the quality of critical minds it fosters. So I find it troubling that when critique and dissent is used to hold the college accountable, these qualities are no longer the pride and joy of Pomona.”