Two Pomona College students spray-painted “Charles Kesler is a Nazi” in large black capital letters April 19 on Walker Wall, which has served as the college’s free speech wall since the 1970s.
Kesler is a Claremont McKenna College government professor and editor of the Claremont Review of Books, an influential conservative publication.
The painters, who requested anonymity to avoid disciplinary consequences, told TSL they do not know Kesler personally but wanted to raise awareness of his presence on campus.
“It is too fatuous to comment on,” Kesler wrote in an email to TSL in response to questions about the incident. He did not respond to a request for further comment.
The painters referred to how Kesler has published articles regarding his “support” of Trump through large national publications such as The Washington Post, has been featured in Politico and Chronicle of Higher Education, and is a “leader in his field recognized by top political scholars.”
“When people criticize Trump, why do they not criticize the person next door to them who is writing the academic underpinning for his role?” one of them said. He added that he does not literally consider Kesler a Nazi.
The two students said they do not wish to see Kesler ostracized, fired, or otherwise punished..
“Our whole goal is not to tell people what to think of Charles Kesler. That was never the goal. It’s to make people aware of who he is and what he does, and for them to make that decision for themselves,” the other student said. “We have nothing personally against Charles Kesler.”
Pomona Removes Walker Message
Pomona painted over the message April 20 after acting Dean of Students Janet Dickerson received “a call of concern” that morning, she wrote in an email to TSL.
A committee of students, faculty, and staff — including ASPC president Maria Vides and others on the Student Affairs Committee — judged the message to have violated “established community norms” delineated in Pomona’s student handbook, Dickerson wrote in an email to students the afternoon of April 20.
Pomona has mostly allowed the Walker Wall to “resemble the standard constitutional norms toward free speech,” Dickerson wrote. However, she added that, according to the handbook, Pomona may still paint over postings on the Wall that are “obscene by community standard,” “specific threats or attacks on an individual,” and “specific incitements to violence.”
“It didn’t take a great deal of time for the group to come to consensus that ‘Yes, this is an individual person who is being attacked on the Wall,’” Dean of Campus Life and committee member Christopher Waugh said.
Another message recently painted on Walker Wall reading “the yt [white] mind is weak” was judged to be “offensive” but not to violate community norms, Dickerson wrote in an email to students Tuesday. Waugh said there is a separate bias-related incident investigation into that message.
“The free speech wall is, I think, an important feature of campus,” Waugh said. “And I think it’s an important opportunity for us to have conversations about things that are placed.”
Despite the recent controversies, Waugh praised the overall role of Walker Wall on campus as a means to spark dialogue as “part of a vibrant community.”
Kesler’s Students Decry Message
Government major Vi Nguyen CM ’21, who is currently in Kesler’s Introduction to American Politics class, said she felt “disappointment” that people would call Kesler a “Nazi.”
She said the message was not “a very productive means of creating conversation,” particularly due to its use of the term “Nazi.”
“It’s extremely disrespectful toward those who have suffered in the Holocaust,” Nguyen said. “Comparing Nazism to someone who is conservative just furthers political polarization.”
She agreed with Pomona’s decision to remove the message, since Kesler is a professor on campus. “[The Colleges] should make their professors feel comfortable,” Nguyen said. “I wouldn’t want Charles Kesler coming here and feeling unsafe.”
Nguyen added that Kesler is “renowned for his conservative thought” but does not force people in class to concede to his personal ideologies.
“Kesler has never called us incorrect or talked to us in a patronizing manner,” Nguyen said. “The only thing he does is challenge us to think differently. He never imposes his conservative thoughts in our mind. … He makes me feel super comfortable, makes me feel as though all my thoughts are valid.”
While the “majority” of her class is “liberal,” Nguyen said, “everyone says what they want to say.”
Another student — government and legal studies dual major Ross Rieggo CM ’19, who has taken two of Kesler’s classes — said he was “a little shocked that someone would outright call him a Nazi.”
Rieggo said people have frequently “thrown around” the word ‘Nazi,’ especially in the “media.” “When Trump has been running for elections, people have been calling him ‘Nazi’ since then … but in some sense or form of that, I think we become desensitized to that word,” he said.
Nevertheless, he said he thinks Pomona should not have removed the message from Walker Wall.
“Students are entitled to their opinion. I personally don’t like some professors that I’ve had, [so…] I don’t think I would have taken [the message] down,” Rieggo said.
Nguyen said she hopes people will continue to open up political dialogue even when differences arise.
“For Kesler’s views, the way I would deal with it, as a student [myself] who doesn’t agree with him, [is] by saying, ‘Wow, he has an effect. Politico and all these crazy news people have published articles about him. He’s clearly important. He clearly has an effect on national politics,’” Nguyen said.
She added that it is important to understand Kesler’s views, specifically to comprehend the current political climate.
“I think it’s to our best advantage to hear [Kesler’s] ideologies and to hear that this is what a Trump supporter sounds like, and this is what they believe in.” Nguyen said. “If we do want to get rid of what is Trump right now and what the government is right now, we have to be able to understand that perspective, rather than just name-call and push Kesler out of the way.”
This story was updated in May to include more information that became available.
Ariel So SC ’20 previously served as TSL’s editor-in-chief.