Black Lives at Mudd and others demand better support for Black students

A laptop screen shows a page of text that reads "BLAM Statement of Solidarity and Call to Action"
Several student groups are demanding Mudd administration actively address systemic racism after receiving two statements from the college they say fell short. (Yasmin Elqutami • The Student Life)

Several student groups are demanding the Harvey Mudd College administration actively address systemic racism after receiving two official statements from the college administration they say fell short.

Black Lives at Mudd, HMC Take a Stand, the Living-Learning Community and ASHMC criticized Mudd President Maria Klawe’s first statement released on June 1, which did not mention Black Lives Matter, use the words “Black” or “police” or reference any of the names of Black people killed by police.

“I read the statement and I was like, ‘Wow, this really didn’t address anything,’” BLAM co-president Natasha Crepeau HM ’21 said. “It was frankly insulting to not have any mention of Black people, Black Americans or police brutality.”

“As someone who cares a lot about the college and the Harvey Mudd community, I felt really let down by the Mudd administration in that moment,” Crepeau added. “They had a moment where they really could have comforted and stood by Black students and they wasted it, in my opinion.”

BLAM co-president Camille Simon HM ’21 also criticized Klawe’s refusal to acknowledge what Black Americans are fighting for.

“It seemed like a generic half-hearted, ‘something is going on in the world’ type of message,” she said. “Nothing in there addressed how she felt or how people on campus could be affected by it.”

On June 6, BLAM released a statement calling on Klawe and Harvey Mudd administration to “renew the college’s commitment to the Black community.” They asked the college to end relationships with organizations believed to profit from private prisons and the police — relationships such as the college’s partnership with Sodexo and the National Science Foundation’s undergraduate research experience at UCLA on research projects that work with police.

“You see your friends and members of BLAM dropping out in the middle of their college careers or they go somewhere else or they just disappear.” — Natasha Crepeau HM ’21

The statement also asks Mudd to hire a tenure-track Black/Africana studies professor, hold workshops addressing systemic racism for all faculty and staff and include material about systemic racism and prejudice in the new Core Impact course.

“While we appreciate President Klawe making a statement, we are alarmed by the failure of her message to address the issue at hand: continuous police brutality and the murder of Black people,” BLAM said in the statement. “The avoidance and complacency of her statement speaks to the administration’s neglect of Black students at Mudd and ignorance of the Black community at large.”

BLAM also drew attention to the history of Black students at the college, from their overall presence at the college — Black students make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, but just four percent of the college’s student body — to retention rates of Black students at Mudd.

The 4-year graduation rate for Black students of the classes of 2018, 2019 and 2020 was 40 percent, 50 percent and 85 percent, respectively. Comparatively, the overall graduation rates of the 2018, 2019 and 2020 classes were 84 percent, 88 percent and 88 percent, respectively.

“I am glad that they are at least talking about the retention rate. I feel like Black students at Mudd always knew that was a thing,” Crepeau said. “Because you see your friends and members of BLAM dropping out in the middle of their college careers or they go somewhere else or they just disappear.”

The BLAM presidents met with Klawe June 11 but didn’t feel she addressed their concerns or was receptive to their demands.

“She just asked us [what we wanted], again putting the burden on us to fix what we want to fix,” Simon said.

Crepeau said the meeting exemplified a longstanding issue regarding the relationship between Black students and Mudd administrators.

“It takes both sides to be open to having a conversation and sometimes when Mudders and Mudd admin have conversations, it feels like the admin isn’t as open to having an honest conversation about what is going on or not as receptive to student thoughts,” she said.

“One of the things I like a lot about Harvey Mudd is we say every day we’re not perfect, we can get better.” — Harvey Mudd President Maria Klawe

The President’s cabinet also hosted a June 23 webinar and student Q&A with the HMC Take a Stand advocacy group.

“I have said very clearly that Black lives matter and that antiracism efforts matter, and that changing the way all aspects and all organizations in this country [function] in ways that support Black people, is really important,” Klawe said during the webinar.

Klawe acknowledged room for growth in Harvey Mudd’s support of its Black community members.

“One of the things I like a lot about Harvey Mudd is we say every day we’re not perfect, we can get better,” she said. “And I certainly think that with respect to the support that we give to our students of color, our Black students in particular, and our faculty of color, our Black faculty in particular, our staff of color, our Black staff in particular, there is absolutely no question we can do better.”

During the webinar, Klawe announced a partnership with Shaun Harper, the head of the Center For Race And Equity at USC. Dean of Faculty Lisa Sullivan also announced membership with the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity and a plan to talk with the HSA department about hiring an Africana studies professor. 

But not all of BLAM’s demands have been met.

Andrew Dorantes, the college’s treasurer and vice president for administration, said that Mudd was not planning on dropping Sodexo, but they were open to continuing the conversation with students.

Klawe also re-emphasized at the time that she could not publicly support the Black Lives Matter organization as the president of Harvey Mudd, citing “many different viewpoints about various things” and wanting to consider the college’s staff members of color who Klawe says aren’t all in support of Black Lives Matter protests.

Crepeau disputed the notion that Klawe was supporting staff members of color by not saying Black Lives Matter.

“I don’t know if staff members are aware of how she is portraying them,” she said. “There is a lot of subtext about her talking about non-Black POC not being comfortable with her saying ‘Black Lives Matter.’”

One factor in Mudd’s low retention rate for Black students, Director of Admissions Thyra Briggs said in the town hall, is that there are so few Black students attending Mudd to begin with — “a problem in itself,” she said — so even one Black student leaving Mudd can affect the retention rate of Black students significantly.

Through petitions, emails and statements made at the June 23 virtual town hall, students demanded that Klawe and the college administration officially recognize Black Lives Matter and police violence.

Klawe released a follow-up statement titled “Addressing Systemic Racismwith the President’s cabinet a day after the webinar.

“The specific actions included in the June 24 statement are the beginning stages of addressing those issues, and the College anticipates continuing this work well into the future.” — Harvey Mudd spokesperson Judy Augsburger

The statement included the support for Black Lives Matter and the condemnation of police violence that BLAM said was missing from Klawe’s first statement made nearly a month ago, and promised to meet some, but not all, of BLAM’s demands.

The statement laid out a plan for how Harvey Mudd would address systemic racism on campus. Klawe highlighted initiatives such as anti-racism sessions at orientation and developing curriculums that “addresses systemic racism.”

“It felt like too little too late, almost. You should have been here weeks ago in terms of her stance, not just now,” Crepeau responded.

Simon added that she wanted to see a more explicit acknowledgment that Mudd can do better to support Black students.

“President Klawe has stated clearly and unequivocally that ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and she stands behind her [June 24] statement,” Mudd spokesperson Judy Augsburger said in an email. “She has been quite open and firm maintaining that this is what she believes — and that this message is an important and vital one for both our campus community at Harvey Mudd College as well as in all communities across the country.”

HMC Take a Stand was also dissatisfied with the June 23 webinar and sent Klawe and the Cabinet a statement June 29.

“I would like to see [Klawe] acknowledge the amount of work Black students put in to try to make Harvey Mudd a place for Black people.” — Natasha Crepeau HM ’21

“We asked for a conversation about the petition, and we neither discussed the petition nor got a proper conversation,” the response said, while acknowledging that the cabinet did respond to many of students’ concerns.

In response to concerns from BLAM and Take a Stand, Augsburger said Klawe was open to dialogue.

“President Klawe approached those two conversations as opportunities to listen to the concerns of our students, faculty and staff” to find a ‘path forward,’ Augsburger said. “The specific actions included in the June 24 statement are the beginning stages of addressing those issues, and the College anticipates continuing this work well into the future.”

The BLAM presidents asked Klawe to work with Black students directly.

“You have to be willing to put in active work and consider your own privileges and how that impacts you, and I don’t think she considers the privileges of her being a white woman versus being a woman of color,” Crepeau said. “I would like to see her acknowledge the amount of work Black students put in to try to make Harvey Mudd a place for Black people. I think the Mudd administration has a problem with using its Black students as tokens.”

BLAM wants an apology from Klawe for her earlier statement and for taking so long to address racism in the Harvey Mudd community. Augsburger did not address whether or not Mudd would release an apology.

“I would like an apology. It doesn’t even need to be addressed to the entire campus in my opinion. I think she needs to apologize to BLAM, especially the people who met with her and had this conversation with her,” Crepeau said.

During Klawe’s 14-year tenure as president, Mudd’s gender equity has increased significantly. HMC was 29 percent female and computer science majors were ten percent female in 2006. Female representation has increased under Klawe to its current level of 50 percent female and computer science majors are now 49 percent female

The BLAM presidents see increasing Black representation in STEM as the next battle for Klawe and Mudd to undertake.

“If Harvey Mudd really is going to be an institution that prides itself on being all about equity in STEM and impact on society, then you have to acknowledge that in order for that to happen you will have to have a lot of discussions with people who disagree, because that is all part of making sure that people’s voices are heard. Having equity in STEM means all kinds of things, it doesn’t just mean gender,” Crepeau said.

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