OPINION: Support for Black students at Pitzer is long overdue

Two students chat, smiling, while walking.
Pitzer College needs to embody its values and better support Black students, argues Luciénne Reyes PZ ’24. (Xiao Jiang • The Student Life)

During an overnight visit to Pitzer College as a 12th grader in February 2020, I remember noticing how few students of color there were in comparison to white students. 

One would think that Pitzer’s reputation for social justice would denote a racially diverse student body. However, the admitted class profiles from 2017 to 2021 reflect Pitzer’s standing as a predominantly white institution. Black students are one of the groups at Pitzer that have less representation in particular, comprising 6.5 percent of the admitted class of 2021. 

Moreover, despite its core values of social responsibility and intercultural understanding, Pitzer is not exempt from racism. Pitzer still has much to do to support Black students and promote their success.

In an interview with TSL, Paris Primm PZ ’22, president of Pitzer’s Black Student Union, said she did not believe the campus climate regarding Black students had substantially changed since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the following protests against police brutality.

“[Since my first year,] it has always been all white guilt or being on eggshells [with respect to] wanting to talk about certain issues,” she said. “Maybe there’s a teeny more willingness to learn [about Black struggles] just because of so many acts of violence that happened [in] spring and summer 2020.”

Primm described being Black in a predominantly white institution as “Just so many things. Definitely the microaggressions … and there are so many things I don’t process until way later, like, ‘What did she say to me? That was lowkey racist.’”

On Sept. 14, 2020, BSU emailed a document called the Pitzer College Black Student Union 2020 Address to the Pitzer community, listing ways Pitzer could better support its Black students. Several listed items resembled a list of demands made by the consortium-wide BSU in 1968-69.

The 2020 statement’s call for “aggressive recruitment of Black students” at Pitzer parallels the 1968 document’s demand for “an active recruitment of minority group members [to] be initiated immediately” at all Claremont Colleges. Both documents ask for more Black administrators and faculty, stronger financial aid packages and more curricula on preventing anti-Black racism. 

The establishment of an intercollegiate department of Africana studies in 1969 fulfilled the demand in 1968 for Black studies. Yet the prevailing similarities between the two addresses signify the insufficient progress towards racial equity at Pitzer in the 52 years since the consortium-wide BSU released its demands.

Furthermore, in a letter on Nov. 4, 2004, Pitzer’s BSU called for “a component integrated into all Freshmen Seminars that address, explain, and emphasize the dynamics of power and privilege in this country throughout the course of the semester.” This component has not been systemically implemented in Pitzer’s first-year seminar courses. Such a component in a seminar only exists at the individual discretion of the professor.

In an email to the Pitzer community on Oct. 19, 2020, Pitzer President Melvin Oliver detailed Pitzer’s plans to meet the demands of the 2020 address. Although Oliver wrote that Pitzer does not have the resources to eliminate loans from financial aid packages as demanded in the address, he wrote, “We are also in the process of making inquiries with both Posse and QuestBridge as to their costs and viability to help Pitzer recruit and enroll more diverse students,” among other actions. 

During the interview with TSL, Primm said she believed Oliver’s response was adequate.

“And I would also say the whole social response was decent as well,” she added. “We didn’t mention the Office of [College] Advancement or the Community Engagement Center [in the address], and they were still reaching out and creating programs.” 

Primm described progress towards meeting BSU’s demands as “baby steps,” mentioning that there are three new Black faculty and staff at Pitzer this year. Additionally, she stated that the Office of Admission is forming a partnership with Young Black Scholars, a college preparatory program. Primm said the best response came from the Community Engagement Center, which now has an Amplifying Black Communities Program Assistant position open to Pitzer students, a paid position to work on making changes at the CEC to better serve Black students.

While Pitzer administrators met with BSU last year several times to discuss the address, Primm said that such meetings have not yet resumed this semester. She partly attributed this to the difficulties of running a club after more than a year off campus and helping underclassmen acclimate to campus life. However, she said another reason the meetings haven’t continued is that administrators did not reach out to BSU.

I understand that returning to campus and COVID-19 protocols have tasked the administration with additional challenges this year, but the administration should have already reached out to BSU by now, considering that only a few weeks in the semester remain. Despite Pitzer’s progress towards meeting BSU’s demands, they can still do more, particularly after decades of failing to adequately support Black students. 

In an email to students on Nov. 2, Oliver encouraged them to complete the National Assessment of Collegiate Campus Climates, a survey about campus racial climates. In another email to students on Nov. 8, political studies and Chicano studies professor Adrian Pantoja wrote that the survey responses would guide policy decisions towards fostering racial inclusion. 

“As Associate Dean of Faculty, Chair of the Racial Justice Initiative, and co-Chair of the Diversity Committee, I will help lead campus discussions when we have the survey results,” Pantoja wrote. “Student voices will be essential in developing action items from those results. I look forward to those conversations.”

If administrators will hold discussions with students, they don’t have to wait until the survey responses have been collected. This doesn’t mean they should make potentially premature policy decisions without giving everyone the opportunity to voice their concerns; it only means they should have started more conversations sooner. Even when the administration is responsive to student pressure, it bears a responsibility to exercise additional proactive measures towards racial justice at Pitzer. These include continuing to converse with BSU, as making decisions about issues that most directly affect Black students should center Black student voices. 

The challenges associated with returning to campus constitute even greater reason to actively maintain conversations with BSU and other interest groups. Half of the student body is new to campus. Transitioning to in-person college isn’t quick for everyone. Many students are still adjusting to campus life in November; marginalized students are more vulnerable to academic setbacks from the difficulties of learning to navigate a new environment. There is no better time than now for Pitzer to embody its core values by more proactively upholding Black students, furthering its advancement towards racial equity and ensuring that all students can succeed. 

Luciénne Reyes PZ ’24 is from Los Angeles, California. On Halloween, she went trick-or-treating in the Claremont neighborhood with friends.


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