CMC Administrators, Students Respond to Last Week’s Protests

Following a Nov. 11 protest organized by Claremont McKenna College students of color, a hunger strike by two CMC students and the subsequent resignation of Dean of Students Mary Spellman as well as national media attention, CMC administrators and students have been discussing and responding to concerns about racial inclusivity and freedom of speech.

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In a Nov. 16 email to CMC community members titled “Our Imperatives,” CMC President Hiram Chodosh wrote that CMC is committed to two values: “unyielding support for the growth and success of our students, even when we may have sharp disagreements,” and “unwavering commitment to free speech, active listening, and the educational mission of the College.”

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Chodosh's email also listed “concrete actions” that the college is taking to respond to the events of last week, including creating a permanent safe space for students of color and inviting an indendent expert to campus to conduct discussions on diversity with students and staff. The email also stated that Nyree Gray, Title IX Coordinator and Chief Civil Rights Officer at CMC, “has provided additional counseling support for our students at least through the end of this semester.” Gray could not be reached for comment.

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Chodosh announced in another Nov. 16 email that Jeff Huang, vice president for student affairs, admission, and financial aid, would serve as acting dean of students following Spellman's resignation.

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“Dean Huang will continue to lead our offices of admission and financial aid with reduced managerial responsibilities to free up his time,” Chodosh wrote.

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Huang wrote in an email to TSL that his primary focus for the time being is supporting students in the wake of last week's protests.

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“Many of our students are confused or hurting in different ways,” Huang wrote. “Some need emotional support and counseling. Some need academic support. Some need both. And others may find it difficult to articulate what they need, but we’re here to help them too. There’s nothing that is more important than supporting our students right now.” 

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On Nov. 13, about 200 faculty, students and staff gathered in the Athenaeum and “engaged in serious, civil dialogue about what we had experienced and learned this week,” according to Chodosh's email.

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In addition, Nathaniel Tsai CM ’17 sent an email titled “Letter From the Student Body,” which Dean of Faculty Peter Uvin forwarded to CMC faculty, students and staff on Nov. 15. In the letter, Tsai listed grievances with student activists and the Associated Students of Claremont McKenna College, as well as Spellman and Huang.

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“These actions were the result of emotional and angered students,” Tsai wrote of last week's protests. “While your good intentions of reform and change were present, many of your actions proved to have a negative impact on the progress that has been made.”

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According to Tsai, 236 CMC students supported the letter at the time he sent it, and 75 more contacted him since it was sent, expressing their support. 

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Although Tsai said that responses to his letter have been “mostly positive,” he acknowledged that some students feel that “if we really supported this movement, then we shouldn’t have released this letter at all.” 

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Tsai's letter criticized students' decision to go on a hunger strike in order to pressure Spellman to resign, speculating about how Spellman must have felt knowing a student would risk death unless she resigned.

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“Your claims of democratic principles through assembly are invalidated by the savagery of your actions,” Tsai wrote.

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Taylor Lemmons CM '17, who went on a hunger strike before the Nov. 11 protest, wrote on her Medium page that her hunger strike was not solely because of the Dean’s email but was also in response to her feeling of marginalization on a campus where black students only make up four percent of the student body.

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“I condemn your use of the word savage in relation to my actions because I believe it stems from a narrative that historically characterizes women, particularly women of color, who speak out, as angry, violent, and animal-like, OR primitive, uncivilized, brutal and vicious,” Lemmons wrote in response to Tsai's letter.

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Tsai also expressed concerns that a Title IV complaint that Lisette Espinosa CM '15 had filed against CMC would negatively impact alumni donations and criticized Huang for failing to defend Spellman from accusations of insensitivity. 

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In response to Tsai's allegation that he did not adequately defend Spellman during the Nov. 11 protest, Huang wrote, “I walked over to the demonstration at 2pm expecting that the format would be that people would take turns speaking from atop the stairs at the Hub patio. By the time I arrived, there was a large crowd and I remained down at the plaza and I regret that.”

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Huang added that he respects the current generation of college students for engaging in conversations about diversity when it would be easier to go silent.

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“Research about your 'Millennial' generation often indicates that you care more about building a better world than any other generation,” Huang wrote. “Sometimes it’s difficult for one generation to understand another generation’s motives and influences, but what I see in our current discussion about diversity and inclusion on campus is passion.”

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Lauren Ison contributed reporting.

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