Pomona attempts to remedy racially, politically uncomfortable climate

Pomona College is taking steps to improve campus climate after their Task Force on Public Dialogue published an in-depth report in May revealing racial and political discomfort on campus. Students said the discomfort they experienced led to stifled speech.

As a result, Pomona President G. Gabrielle Starr introduced a new initiative called “Shaping Dialogue Now.”

This initiative, which will include faculty, staff, and students, “will promote creative thought, inclusive environments, reasoned discussions, and intensive engagement,” Audrey Bilger, dean of the college, wrote in an email to TSL.

Starr called on Pomona to confront the link between campus climate and free dialogue in a final statement concluding the work of the task force.

“It is clear that dialogue cannot be addressed without attention to improving the inclusivity of our community,” Starr wrote.

First-years also had a new session on “Communicating Across Difference” during fall orientation.

Graphic by Meghan Joyce

“Early reports from students who participated in the session indicate that they thought the material and exercises were effective, and would help them in challenging conversations in class and on campus,” Bilger wrote.

The task force surveyed 592 students and 146 faculty members last semester and followed a series of incidents at the 5Cs involving campus climate, including a student protest blocking a controversial Athenaeum speaker at Claremont McKenna College, an offensive 5C social media group, and CMC becoming the first California college to earn the highest free speech rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Eighty-eight percent of students of all political identities agreed that the campus climate stifles speech that could be found offensive, a statistic 30 percent higher than that of college students nationally and 25 percent higher than that of Pomona faculty.

Alejandro Guerrero Varcia PO ’19, who served on the task force last year as Pomona’s junior class president, helped conduct one-on-one conversations as well as a larger open forum to gauge student perceptions of culture and speech on campus prior to the survey.

“Dialogue is everywhere on this campus,” Guerrero Varcia said. “[However,] what I really got from those conversations, there’s this big understanding [that] not all Pomona students feel they have the same agency to navigate [dialogue].”

In total, only a quarter of students surveyed said that colleges should be able to restrict the expression of upsetting or offensive political views, though 83 percent — including 95 percent of “very liberal” students and 68 percent of “very conservative,” “conservative,” and “moderate” students — agreed that colleges should be able to restrict the use of intentionally offensive language and slurs.

The study examined differences in response based on race, gender, and political leaning. Self-identified “black,” “very liberal,” and “female” students were most likely to favor more restrictions on speech. “White,” “conservative,” and “male” students were most likely to favor fewer restrictions.

Three-quarters of conservative students strongly agreed that campus climate prevents them from expressing beliefs that could be offensive to certain groups, more than twice the percentage of “very liberal” students who shared that belief.

“I’ve spoken to people of various political beliefs on campus already, and I’ve gotten an impression from people who are more politically conservative that they don’t want to be ‘outed’ as politically conservative,” Jack Weber PO ’22 said.

More than half of students, including over 80 percent of those who self-identified as “very conservative” to moderate-leaning, said Pomona is a “good place” for racial and ethnic minorities and LGBTQ+ students.

Sixty-five percent of white and Asian students rated the climate as “good” or “excellent.” However, only half of Hispanic students and 43 percent of black students rated it as “good” or “excellent.”

Less than half of each demographic of students answered with “agree” or “strongly agree” that they felt confident Pomona “would do what is right” if they raised an issue of discrimination on campus. Only 19 percent of black students in particular responded with “agree” or “strongly agree” with this statement.

“The administration is … learning that they need to involve more people in the conversations,” Guerrero Varcia said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Bilger is the dean of students. The article has been updated to reflect that she is the dean of the college. TSL regrets this error.

This article was last updated on Sept. 23 at 3:28 p.m.
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