As we move into a new academic year, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the past one — specifically on the ways in which Pitzer College and Claremont Colleges administrations responded to student activists last spring.
The 2022-23 academic year at Pitzer was defined by student activism movements to support unionizing workers and their labor rights. Pitzer claimed to celebrate this, touting core values of student engagement and social responsibility and proudly stating that student activists were demonstrating the very identity of Pitzer College. However, my own experiences and those of student organizers I talked to showed me that the actions of the college, specifically those behind closed doors, did not align with these statements.
Last spring, a final class assignment drove me to write an interview-based paper comparing the opinions and experiences of Pitzer students and Pitzer administration around campus activism. While writing, I interviewed many student organizers involved with the Claremont Student Worker Alliance (CSWA) who shared stories alleging the suppression of their activism by administrators.
I also got the chance to sit down one-on-one with a former member of the Pitzer administration in April. After a brief introduction, the administrator told me that they would not be answering any of my questions. I was told by the administrator that they could not comment on current events at Pitzer even though the majority of my interview questions were about this administrator’s personal experiences with on-campus activism, not current events specifically. They then told me that my project did “not read like research” and focused the rest of the conversation on critiquing their perception of my research rather than taking the time to engage in a discussion with me.
The administrator also told me that my research would never be approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB), failing to recognize that projects of oral history and journalism, as mine was, do not fall under IRB standards. Instead of taking the opportunity to teach me, like an educator should, they went out of their way to be condescending. It is quite distressing and disillusioning to walk away from a conversation with someone who holds so much power at your college with the sense that they disregard you as both an academic and a worthy participant of college governance.
My experience with the administrator left me feeling embarrassed and belittled. Unfortunately, I was not the only Pitzer student with a similar experience. Quin Mumford PZ ’24, who served as the vice president for internal affairs on Pitzer Student Senate last year, told me that after attending and speaking at the delegation to the Board of Trustees on Feb. 9, he received an email from another administrator saying he needed to be “more respectful” when interacting with board members.
“I find it very insulting that [they] could come to me, an individual who represents the students, [and] make such an abhorrent demand,” Mumford told me.
Last October, Elena Hockensmith PZ ’24 had a meeting with the same administrator that I did to discuss concerns about events on campus. When Hockensmith attempted to share her and CSWA’s concerns about the way dining hall workers were being treated by a manager, the administrator refused to engage in conversation and asked Hockensmith to leave their office.
Things at Pitzer have changed a lot since my experience and the similar experiences of many other students. Pitzer has a new President, Strom Thacker PO ’88. Many previous administrators have left the college. CSWA members won their campaign to rehire the Pitzer Three and student-led actions have come to a current pause.
However, I remain skeptical about what this year could hold should there be another surge in student-led organizing. If another student movement emerges this year, all eyes will be on President Thacker and other Pitzer administrators to handle things differently.
In the spring, Pitzer College failed its students and its core values. Instead of valuing dialogue, inquiry and action, like they claim, Pitzer repeatedly ignored the voices of students who challenged them. But it doesn’t have to be like this going forward.
I urge President Thacker and the rest of the administration to view any sort of future challenges by students not as threats, but as proof of the students’ love and care for our community. Mistakes are human and college administrations are not an exception to this reality. However, the repeated harsh retaliation and emotional belittling that Pitzer administrators subjected students to last spring was not a mistake but an active choice.
Pitzer owes it to students like myself to make different choices. If Pitzer wants to truly embody the core values of social responsibility and student engagement, administrators need to work with students to create a more supportive campus. When students raise concerns and try to hold the college accountable, administrators should actively listen and ask how they can do better. Student activists should always feel comfortable, safe and heard in these conversations. No one should ever feel deterred from raising their concerns out of fear of retaliation.
The matter of another student movement at Pitzer is not an if but a when. When that movement comes, I can only hope that the Pitzer community will be in the spirit of the core values the college claims to hold.
Sophie McClain PZ ’24 is from Oakland, California and studies American Studies and Philosophy. She loves reading new books, hanging out with friends and spending way too much money on coffee.