Senior Class Senator Ricardo Parada (senior) authored a letter to the editor March 21 calling for Vice President for Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) Rhonda Brown’s resignation, which detailed concerns about Brown’s past behavior. The letter discussed cultural graduation, the Multicultural Summer Institute (MSI), a lack of funding for specific on-campus events and Brown’s job performance. One week later, 77 alumni wrote a letter to the editor backing Parada’s claims and requesting that the Board of Trustees and President Jonathan Veitch conduct an evaluation of Brown’s performance and competence. In response, Brown wrote a letter March 28, defending and explaining her decisions as the CDO as well as highlighting recent programming from the Intercultural Community Center (ICC).
Occidental College hired Rhonda Brown Jan. 11, 2016 as the Chief Diversity Officer (CDO). During the 2015 AGC Occupation, the student demands included the expansion of the role of CDO by promoting the new CDO position to vice-president level and increasing the budget of the CDO office by 50 percent. The administration first acknowledged the idea of a CDO position in an email from Jorge Gonzalez in March 2015 and President Veitch followed up June 18, 2015 with an email describing the CDO strategic plan working group, which created the position and oversaw the hiring process.
Brown visited the Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) Senate meeting March 19 in order to address student concerns regarding the planning of cultural graduation, in which students wear decorated stoles in celebration of their identity. At the meeting, Parada voiced the concerns of his constituents, which included high stole costs, potentially offensive designs and the absence of a committee of underclassmen to assess cultural graduation.
According to Brown, cultural graduation has previously been planned by a committee of underclassmen. Brown said she opted against having a committee because she felt that seniors should decide their own graduation. In the past, Brown said students have been accidentally excluded from cultural graduation as a result of the underclassmen committee’s decisions.
Despite concerns about costs and stole designs, Brown said this year there are more options for students than there ever have been before. This year, Brown has allowed students to customize blank stoles in case they choose to not identify with the stoles provided. According to Brown, in the past, the committee decided what each student would wear.
Brown mentioned Kente as a point of contention surrounding cultural graduation in the past. According to Brown, Kente cloth is a traditional cloth from Africa which uses a variety of colors and designs. Brown also said that if students found Kente offensive, they could choose a stole with a national flag or a blank space that can be personalized.
“There was a complaint from an African American woman saying she didn’t like Kente,” Brown said. “In the past, that would’ve been the only selection for an African American. So if you had a problem with Kente you would’ve had a problem if it were done the way before. So I didn’t create a problem, I’ve allowed others to have [more options].”
Brown initially came to the ASOC meeting March 19 to clarify confusion regarding funding allocations for cultural graduation. According to ASOC President Zach Solomon (junior), this financial clarification gave senators an opportunity to voice their concerns on cultural graduation.
“In the conversation, we realized we had some questions, and we were aware of existing concerns around the way cultural graduation was being run this year in terms of student feedback, and that was kind of why we felt we needed to have that conversation,” Solomon said.
The recent calls for Brown’s resignation have not been limited to issues surrounding cultural graduation. Students and alumni have pointed to Brown’s work with MSI as another point of contention, outlined in Parada’s letter to the editor and the alumni’s letter to the editor. According to Jagmit Dhami (sophomore), academic liaison of the Diversity and Equity Board (DEB) and member of ASOC Senate Joint-Committee of Academic Affairs, the committee met with Brown prior to winter break in order to discuss moving forward after the MSI town hall and report. Dhami said that the group was seeking more student involvement in MSI and looking into the potential of a formalized student committee to oversee the program.
According to Dhami, Brown asked the committee to provide evidence for information that was not included in the report in order to move forward. The committee told Brown they could not change the report because the document was finalized. According to Sophomore Class Senator Nkese Jack (sophomore), Brown refused to take action unless the report was corrected, but failed to send the group anything to correct the report.
Brown said she believed the report was not factual in multiple places regarding hiring practices, jeopardizing the potential for collaboration moving forward.
“The recommendations come from the document itself, so if the document is flawed, the recommendations are flawed as well,” Brown said.
According to Brown, she was told the document would not be revised. Instead, the committee proposed writing a co-statement about how the groups are going to move forward, which Brown was not interested in.
“I think that a co-statement implies that the first statement is correct,” Brown said. “I wanted to correct the first one, and then we can do whatever we do together afterward — that’s fine — but the recommendations from that report suggest that I did not follow practices in hiring or practices in training and I did.”
Jack said that while the group acknowledged that there may be inaccuracies within the report, they are choosing to focus on reforming MSI as a program.
“I think Rhonda focusing so much on the corrections in her report showed us that she wasn’t that interested in moving forward but she was more interested in changing the way people perceive [her],” Jack said.
According to Jack, the committee made efforts to involve students in the process of assessing MSI.
“We thought it would be important for students who either have done MSI in the past like myself or people who are in this committee or very aware of MSI to be able to talk to these professors and administrators about what worked, what didn’t work and actually hear the input from students ourselves,” Jack said.
According to Jack, Brown did not agree to this, which set back the group’s potential for organizing action.
Brown acknowledged the group‘s interest in an advisory committee, but said that herself, former Director of MSI Kerry Thompson and Dean of Students Rob Flot made the decision to review MSI through a program review, as opposed to an internal or external advisory committee. Brown said she suggested that the DEB-Senate Joint Committee should be engaged in the program review as there would be the opportunity for input and suggestions. According to Brown, the committee had other intentions and priorities.
“We fell to the place of where are we going to meet, are we going to move forward, or are we not. And then we stagnated at that stage,” Brown said.
Despite Parada and other individuals and alumni calling for her resignation, Brown said that while she recognizes differing expectations regarding her job, she is confident in her ability to fulfill her duties.
“It is not so much that I’m not doing my job, it is that I’m not doing my job the way you think I ought to be doing it,” Brown said. “And we’ll always have a difference of opinion as to how people think their job should or should not be done, or what they prioritize and what they don’t, but at the end of the day, I work for Johnathan Veitch, and if he’s uncomfortable with what I’m doing or how I’m doing it, he’ll tell me, and he can ask for my resignation.”
Veitch said that the college hired Brown to work with the Occidental community and implement a strategic plan for diversity aligned with the College’s mission.
“While it is understandable that different people have different views on what the strategic plan for diversity should look like and how it should be carried out, Rhonda deserves the opportunity to articulate and advocate for her vision of such a plan,” Veitch said via email. “I believe Rhonda can work with the community to do just that.”
While there have not been any more developments regarding the calls for Brown’s resignation, ASOC Senate discussed the possibility of establishing a liaison to the ICC to mend and improve relations March 26, although this position is yet to be confirmed according to multiple ASOC senators.
Peri Wallent contributed reporting for this article.