College engages in community conversation about racism, equity and inclusion

The Connecticut College community came together Monday, March 30, for an important campuswide conversation about racism, equity and inclusion.

Classes were cancelled, and the events, which were mandatory, included a discussion with faculty with an introduction from President Katherine Bergeron, an open discussion with the president, and members of the College’s senior administration and a dialogue with George Lipsitz, professor of Black Studies at UC Santa Barbara, and Barbara Tomlinson, professor of Feminist Studies at UC Santa Barbara. 

“These are important conversation for students and our entire community,” said Ethan Underhill, president of the College’s Student Government Association. “I am proud to be a student at this College, especially at this time when so many students are passionately involved in grappling with these critical issues.”

Dean of the Faculty Abigail Van Slyck called Monday’s forum “an opportunity for us to come together, to learn, to talk about where we are as a community and to forge a way forward.”

“We’ve cancelled classes today not because we don’t care about our educational mission, but because we think that this gathering is absolutely essential to that educational mission,” she said.  

Associate Professor of Religious Studies David Kyuman Kim, who also spoke at the forum, agreed. 

“Diversity education is not an afterthought. A liberal arts education should be — it isn’t yet — it should be about diversity education. It should be about inclusion and equity,” Kim said. “We want to not run away from, but run right into the culture of racism that we live in. Don’t let language fool you; try to understand it. Try to understand the way that language makes certain folks suffer.”

Kadeem McCarthy ’15 was one of many students who spoke during the all-campus events. He credited his professors with helping him understand the meaning of marginalization.

“It’s putting people in a margin; it’s putting people to the side; it’s making them other,” he said.

“There are people on this campus who feel extremely vulnerable right now,” he added.

The conversations were initially spurred by two incidents; the first was an August Facebook post by a professor that compared Gaza to a “rabid pit bull,” which came to the attention of students and the College in late February; the second was a racial slur found scrawled in bathrooms in the student center on Sunday, March 29.

Following the discovery of the Facebook post, students and faculty called on the College make a strong statement against racism, bigotry and hate speech. Many of the College’s departments and programs released such statements, and, on March 29, President Katherine Bergeron wrote:

“Connecticut College is a community that values the dignity of all people. As your president, I will not tolerate forms of racist or hateful speech designed to demean, denigrate, or dehumanize.”

Throughout the discussions, Bergeron has maintained strong support for the free expression of ideas. Free speech is essential to an academic environment, Bergeron said, however, members of a community also have a responsibility to govern their speech and actions according to certain principles designed for the collective good. 

“Even though speech may be protected does not mean that we have to approve of the odious things that people choose to say with their freedom,” she said.

The continued discussions were largely the result of student activism. Students brought the initial Facebook post to the attention of the community and, through sustained activism, prompted a March 25 all-campus forum. Students again came together spontaneously a few days later and went to Bergeron’s house to convey their continued concerns. The students, president, faculty and members of the senior administration spent several hours in an informal conversation that led Bergeron to call for the daylong community forum on March 30.

“We like to talk about ourselves as a student-centered College. What you showed us yesterday is that we are a student-driven College,” Kim said to students during Monday’s event.

In her remarks at the March 25 campus forum, Bergeron outlined an action plan to continue making progress on the issues brought forward during the campus conversations. She announced:

  • An interim dean of institutional equity and inclusion will be named this week.
  • The College’s protocol for bias incidents will be reviewed.
  • The College’s social media policy is under review.
  • The creation of a community council through which issues of concern can be raised and discussed.
  • The Vice President for Administration will review security procedures in the College’s public buildings and across campus.

“This is a point for stopping and taking a series of steps for us to be able to be the positive change that we need and that the world needs,” Bergeron said at Monday’s all-campus event. “This is the foundation of true education – moments like this.”

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March 30, 2015