Mudd President Talks “Horrible Year” with NPR

Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College, watches a student demonstration in March. (Liam Brooks / The Student Life)

“The meme was that the Claremont Colleges are so hostile to students of color that they have to commit suicide to get attention,” Maria Klawe, Harvey Mudd College’s president, told NPR Thursday.

In an interview about the college’s past academic year, which she called “horrible” and “definitely the hardest” in her career, Klawe traced the reaction of her administration to student deaths, political unrest, and “a list of 60 students” bordering on mental breakdown or suicide.

In March, an external report of the college’s workload and academic climate was obtained and published by TSL. In the report, anonymous students described a culture of insecurity and overwork that strained their ability to eat, sleep, or shower. In the same pages, anonymous faculty members lamented that students had become “less capable” because of the school’s efforts to diversify the student body.

The pushback was immediate. Soon after the report was published, the student organization Black Lives at Mudd led a walkout and demonstration. Over 100 students also staged an eight-hour sit-in of Platt courtyard to protest Associate Dean of Health and Wellness Qutayba Abdullatif being placed on administrative leave after he spoke in support of students. A hastily called community meeting did little to quell student outrage, even after the school cancelled classes for two days.

“We went into crisis mode,” Klawe told NPR. “It was obviously one of these situations that no matter what you do, someone will think it’s not the right thing… After commencement, I had nightmares every single night for a month.”

Klawe also answered questions about the path of her own career, which she has dedicated to diversifying STEM in the private sector and in education. She also spoke about the college’s status as a pioneer of gender balance in the fields of computer science, engineering, and physics.

Students will return to campus for the fall semester in a few weeks. What is Klawe’s plan to keep the college on a healing path? She outlined it to NPR in broad strokes.

“We want everyone to listen to each other and find out: What are the pain points?” she said. “What is working, what’s not? And what could we be doing better?”

She pointed out that the college maintained “some of the best” spring-to-fall retention numbers its ever had, perhaps in a sign that her administration’s efforts did not go unnoticed.

“We have a lot ahead of us, but I have to warn you, I’m an eternal optimist,” she told NPR.

Correction: This article was updated August 4, 2017 at 10:51 PST to properly identify the retention rates President Klawe mentioned. She referred to spring-to-fall retention, not fall-to-spring.
Correction: This article was updated August 4, 2017 at 10:51 PST to more clearly reflect the sequence and context of student-led demonstrations in the wake of the Wabash report. The walkout occured before the sit-in, not after. Furthermore, the sit-in was specifically in reaction to Associate Dean of Health and Wellness Qutayba Abdullatif being placed on administrative leave.
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