Pitzer College reversed its decision to censor a piece of student artwork that criticized Pitzer trustee Robert Fairbairn for his position as a vice chairman of BlackRock. Students were notified of the decision in a March 4 email from Allen Omoto, vice president for academic affairs.
Pitzer’s ties to BlackRock, the world’s largest asset management company with over $8 trillion in assets, have faced student criticism before, also in the form of artwork: in 2019, Pitzer’s Free Wall was painted with a message accusing Fairbairn of profiting from “concentration camps.”
At the time, Pitzer’s Board of Trustees Chair Harold Brown defended Fairbairn, calling him the “embodiment of Pitzer core values.”
Malcolm McCann PZ ’22 submitted the artwork, a manifesto titled “WE NEED TO KNOW,” to Pitzer’s manifesto project, an initiative spearheaded by Pitzer College Art Galleries, Pitzer’s Writing Center and Pitzer President Melvin Oliver’s racial justice initiative. The purpose of the project is to remember the death of George Floyd, confront the inequalities in our society and “suggest new ways of reimagining the world towards a more emancipatory and equitable future.”
McCann’s manifesto includes a series of images with black capitalized text of imperative statements beginning with “ASK TRUSTEE FAIRBAIRN WHY BLACKROCK” and referencing BlackRock’s environmental controversies, purchase of GEO Group shares and investment in Elbit Systems, a multibillion dollar Israel-based defense electronics company. GEO Group is a multibillion dollar company that develops and manages private prisons, immigration detention centers and mental health facilities.
McCann initially submitted his manifesto Feb. 23 and told TSL the piece was rejected, and that he was asked to revise his manifesto to not include Fairbairn’s name.
According to documents obtained by TSL, McCann’s manifesto was rejected two days later on the grounds of directly naming a community member, and McCann was encouraged to resubmit a manifesto free of any community members’ names. The rejection cited Pitzer’s community guidelines of “calling each other in.”
Students Demanding Change, a Pitzer-based group calling for Pitzer’s divestment from BlackRock since 2019, planned a virtual demonstration for Pitzer’s March 4 College Council meeting to address what they considered censorship of McCann’s work, but the rejection was revered hours before the meeting.
Amanda Gómez PZ ’23, a founding member of SDC, cited student backlash as a driving force behind the reversal. McCann and his manifesto, she said, “is actually upholding Pitzer’s core values.”
“Pitzer is really willing to capitalize off of whatever trends they see in activism but not actually willing to do the work to change their institution from the ground up.”
When TSL requested comment on this allegation, Pitzer spokesperson Jim Marchant responded with Omoto’s initial March 4 statement.
The manifesto is now hosted on the Pitzer College Art Galleries website in its entirety.
Omoto told students in his March 4 email that he is “creating opportunities for education and broader dialogue” on “free speech, personal and artistic expression, and academic freedom.” The email did not mention Pitzer’s relationship with BlackRock or Fairbairn.
“It is important to note that staff in academic affairs and also student affairs have spent hours working through a set of knotty issues to chart the best course forward in publishing this manifesto,” Omoto said.
The reversal of the decision received criticism from some members of the Pitzer community for its timing and lack of accountability, including Dan Segal, a Pitzer anthropology and history professor.
“The Pitzer administration suppressed student artistic expression to shield from criticism a college trustee who is a leading BlackRock executive,” Segal said via email. “I welcome the administration’s reversal of that suppression, but that the administration waited a week before reversing itself is risible; and far worse is that the reversal came without accepting responsibility for its wrongful conduct.”