OPINION: CMC, don’t let donors dictate curriculum

A girl in overalls walks towards a Claremont McKenna dorm.
The trajectory of CMC’s Racial-Ethnic GE proposal underscores the Board of Trustees’ gross outsized influence on curriculum, argues Laleh Ahmad CM ‘20. (Wendy Zhang • The Student Life)

In 2020, I was at a large dinner with many trustees, faculty, members of administration and a couple of other students. I had just sat down and begun to eat when an older trustee asked to sit down beside me. “Of course,” I said. He thanked me and then turned to the rest of the table. He put his hand on my shoulder and announced “This is the brilliant psychology professor I was telling you all about!”

Used to this (I had already been introduced as the other South Asian student present earlier that evening), I smiled and said, “No, sorry, that’s Professor Umanath, I’m a student.” The trustee, totally unfazed, laughed and said, “Wow, you two look so similar!” We don’t. Then he said, “In a good way!” Uh, alright. Then he winked. 

Superficially, this interaction might seem humorous. But it’s worth contemplating seriously when you remember that Claremont McKenna College’s bylaws explicitly state: “Ultimate corporate responsibility for and authority over all matters relating to Claremont McKenna College … shall be vested in a Board of Trustees.” 

“All matters” includes the curriculum. 

On June 18, 2020, in response to the Minneapolis police department murdering George Floyd, President Hiram Chodosh introduced the Presidential Initiative on Anti-Racism and Black Experience in America. A general education (GE) proposal emerged in February 2021 as a faculty response to this initiative, which would mandate students to take a class focusing on issues of racism, the social constructions of race and the contributions of racial-ethnic groups in the United States or abroad. It would also be an overlay course, not limited to any specific department. 

The faculty voted in favor of the GE proposal in April 2022 after two years of active faculty participation in drafting it. President Chodosh, however, chose not to submit the proposal to the Board as is typical, but instead to remand it to the faculty. To many, this decision was disappointing and shocking, as it effectively nullified the faculty vote, defied all precedent regarding faculty governance of the college and undermined the influence that faculty should have regarding curriculum.

The concept of a race and ethnicity GE was first floated during the 2015 protests by campus group CMCers of Color and has been raised as a possible solution to campus climate concerns by students since then — but quashed by administration at every turn. 

The CMC administration has long favored symbolic change and virtue signaling over structural upheaval, such as announcing a presidential initiative but making no clear move to hire more faculty of color. Most students and alumni of color would be unsurprised to learn that the CMC administration has yet again failed to take a substantive move to create a safe environment for them, despite using them as spokespeople and tools to advance a toothless image of diversity and inclusion. Students know that people are often punished for protesting, whether it be implicit or overt. Students involved with #NobodyFails were frozen out of administrative decision-making and students protesting Heather Mac Donald’s racist speech were suspended. 

These diversion tactics are a classic move for CMC’s administration. In fact, attempts at change that pass through the administration often share a similar trajectory: When change threatens to arise, CMC’s administration drowns it in bureaucracy. Protests are met with disciplinary action, leaving students only one option: meet with the administration. And thus begins the never-ending cycle of meetings, reviews and emails until students eventually graduate and the next cycle of admitted CMC students forget what it was that those students even wanted. 

But today, students are watching. Students and faculty notice, too, that the Dean of Students’ office has been extremely involved as well, with the Dean of Students office policing language around support for the GE. In another example, Dean Dianna Graves showed up to an ASCMC forum organized for professors Dr. Livesay and Dr. Espinosa to explain the proposal to students and answer questions. Even ASCMC has not strongly advocated on behalf of students. This behavior does not go unnoticed. 

The myth of a well-meaning and supportive administration is one that CMC is particularly good at circulating because, for the most part, it does actually employ well-meaning and supportive staff. The issue, however, is that these well-meaning and supportive staff report to the President, and the President reports to the Board. 

If a proposal fails before it reaches the Board, then no individual trustee can be at fault for voting “no;” And so, President Chodosh, and by extension the Dean of Students office, becomes the intermediary for these anonymous and powerful trustees. 

The most recent update, in which the Board has suggested sweeping changes to the GE proposal, was contradictory at every turn and effectively forced faculty to restart their long process, one that began over two years ago. It was an extremely transparent move by the administration and the Board to pivot blame for the GE’s failure on the faculty by requiring the GE to go far beyond its current form, both content and length-wise, a proposal they themselves have been against and know faculty will disagree with. 

But faculty have something the Board doesn’t: expertise on curriculum. The administration and the Board have no qualifications to justify their outsized influence on the process of creating and teaching the curriculum. Ideally, faculty shouldn’t have to appease the board. But, for now, faculty should be empowered to directly engage with the Board, respond to their concerns and shape curriculum without first needing to go through administration. At the end of the day, the GE is a step in the right direction — and the administration needs to get out of the way.

Guest writer Laleh Ahmad CM ’20 is an alum from Karachi, Pakistan. She is currently based in Washington, D.C. where she works for a financial crimes prevention nonprofit and spends her free time reading, biking and hanging out with her cats.

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