An Open Letter on the Protests at CMC

First, and let me be very clear, I am not asking you to agree with me. All I am asking is that you listen.

I know that you are upset with the things happening at Claremont McKenna College, and that is okay. I want to try to give some context to some of the things you said bothered you, and if you’d like, we can talk about them more. Because I would like a dialog. Not an ideological rant—but a real conversation. Where we can each bring something to the table; where people aren’t afraid to ask questions, engage, discuss.

You should know that I do not write this maliciously or callously. I am aware that someone’s job ended because of the recent protest. However, I believe you are mistaken if you truly think that that decision was defined by one event.

One of the major downfalls of most student movements at college campuses is that they tend to lack a form of institutional memory. However, I feel that I am in a unique place to offer some perspective on this issue, so I’d like to share my story. I have been a student at CMC since the fall of 2009. (And yes, for those of you who are counting, that is the same time that Dean Spellman arrived at CMC.) In the fall of 2010, I began having medical problems—severe ones. On September 25, 2010, I woke up in my dorm room, unable to see out of my right eye at all. I went to the emergency room and they made several follow-up appointments for me, and very quickly I became very consumed with doctor’s appointments.

In all honesty, not having had something like this happen before, I did not know how to handle the situation. But I did what I thought any rational person would, which was whatever the doctors told me. Apparently that was wrong. I had emailed my professors to let them know why I was missing class, and one of them forwarded my email to Dean Spellman. Dean Spellman then called me… to lecture me. Specifically, she wanted me to know that I should have “contacted her sooner”—“as soon as I knew there was a problem,” not “after the fact,” as it was much more difficult to ensure that professors would be lenient later.

The semester did not improve from there. The initial contact with Dean Spellman was jarring to me, but I rationalized it. I assumed I had transgressed some sort of protocol that I wasn’t aware of by contacting my professor directly. Prior to this, I hadn’t had much reason to interact with them, so I wasn’t really sure what the departure point was in asking for extensions and leniency.

However, I soon realized that perhaps I was not the one in the wrong. Due to my missed classes, I was told by Dean Spellman I had to drop classes and apply for part-time status. Despite providing documentation from Monsour's learning disabilities specialist and my neurologist requesting specific accommodations to allow me to complete classes that semester, those accommodations were denied by the Academic Standards Committee (ASC) at CMC. When I met with Dean Spellman to inquire as to why my request had been denied, she told me that I “wasn’t technically disabled.” And yes, that is a quote. I remember it so specifically.

She told me about how she had just been to a disability training program where she had just learned all about disabilities, and I “wasn’t technically disabled, you know, because [I] could get better. [I was] just sick.” And therefore, the school was not required to provide disability accommodations to me. She also took that moment to tell me that the school does not usually allow part-time students to live on campus, but that they would make an exception for me, because she knew that I came from a low-income family, and I probably wouldn’t be able to find anything in Claremont that I could afford. 

I was furious. And I was powerless.

The Dean of Students is supposed to be the student’s advocate in ASC meetings, but my dean didn’t believe what I was saying. I was trying desperately. I jumped through every hoop, did everything I was asked, but when push came to shove, my dean simply did not believe it was the business of the college to help or house me. She thought she was doing me a gracious favor by allowing me on campus.

At every subsequent interaction that semester, it became increasingly clear that Dean Spellman really just wanted me to leave. It was not a suggestion made in kindness or concern for my health. It was calculated. The college felt I had become a liability, and I had to be managed.

For a long time I felt like I was the only student who’d had such a negative interaction with Dean Spellman. And part of that was because I didn’t like to talk about leaving. But after I came back, and I found my place at CMC again, I connected with person after person who had had similar experiences. I do not think that Dean Spellman is a bad person. In fact, I’ve seen her change remarkably from when I first met her to now. But I do not think she is a good dean of students. I cannot honestly say that she always has the best interest of the students in mind, not when CMC students are continually treated as potential liabilities to the college.

In her article on the CMC Forum, “Room for Dissent,” Jessica Jin says that an individual dean “has very little bearing on the individual experiences that shape our time at CMC.” Respectfully, I have to disagree. For myself, and many other students who find themselves experiencing unforeseen problems while at school, the Dean of Students plays a defining role in our college experience.

However, I understand that my experience is not universal. Dean Spellman was a good dean for many students at CMC, and I know that a lot of you are very hurt by her resignation. But for certain CMCers (many of whom were students with disabilities, low-income students, or students of color), their interactions with Dean Spellman were not pleasant. Their problems were dismissed, belittled, or often pushed off campus. So I agree, Dean Spellman’s resignation did not give the campus any closure or understanding of why people were so frustrated with her. As Jessica wrote in her piece “Dear Claremont Independent“: “We should have asked for a trial by facts — not by fire.” However, I refuse to believe that it is simply too much to ask that all students at CMC have a dean that advocates, represents, and is an ally to all students equally. Yes, Dean Spellman may have been a good dean to some, but every single CMC student deserves a great dean.

So, where do we go from here? We engage. As I said before, I don’t expect you to agree everything I say, but I really do think it’s well past time that people started talking.

Carol Ann Routh CM ’15 is a senior majoring in Art Conservation. She enjoys actually graduating this year?

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