First year orientation panel sparks controversy

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Illustration by Elora Becker

As part of orientation, first-year students were required to attend a panel about the Core Program’s summer common reading in Thorne Hall Aug. 25. The panel, which was moderated by Associate Dean for Curricular Affairs, Director of the Core Program and math professor Ron Buckmire, consisted of three faculty members: biology professor Gretchen North, psychology professor Patricia Cabral and Media Arts & Culture professor Aleem Hossain. During the question-and-answer segment at the end of the event, students, including Adrian Manhey (first year), raised concerns about the way the panelists talked about the topic of racism and Occidental’s history with race.

“I think the way that some people on the panel talked about some very heavy and serious issues and things that happened really upset a lot of people, and I think justly,” Manhey said. “Because when you describe something that affects people’s lives, even to today, something that was really horrific, something that was painful, and then you skim over it and don’t acknowledge it — that’s going to have an effect and it’s going to hurt people.”

As the panel talked about issues of racism, blackface and anti-blackness, some students were curious about why the college’s past experience with these topics did not arise. Some first-year students were aware of the 2015 occupation of the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center, during which students staged a five-day protest ending with demands designed to better the college experience for students of color, particularly black students. In Spring 2019, photos surfaced of a former alumna and Board of Trustees member in blackface, continuing the multi-year discussion and series of student movements advocating for marginalized groups. New students asked questions about how the administration was dealing with these events and if further steps were being taken.  Andrew Henson (senior) is O-Coordinator of O-Core, the student group in charge of orientation team (O-Team) leaders. Henson said students quickly expressed discontent with the panel to their O-Team leaders.

“Concerns were expressed from incoming students to their O-Team leaders immediately following the event,” Henson said.

According to Buckmire, the goal of the panel was to provide an introduction to the academic experience by having faculty from different disciplines discuss the summer reading.

“The 500 first-year students are sort of observing an academic discussion about a particular text from informed people, how to react to it,” Buckmire said.

According to Buckmire, the summer reading is chosen by the Core Steering Committee — previously the Core Standing Committee — which is comprised of administrators, faculty, staff and student representatives. Buckmire, a committee member, said the committee chose the reading in February and March 2019 and they wanted the summer reading to relate to blackface incidents both at Occidental and on the national level that were prominent at the time.

Many students felt the panel did not adequately address Occidental’s recent history of issues with race. Manhey said he felt the panel should have considered the more personal implications of the subject.

“You need to see that, because it’s such a controversial topic, your opinion on that topic matters a lot,” Manhey said. “I felt that they weren’t pushing themselves to try to talk about this controversial topic in a critical way.”

Manhey said the panel may have been one of the first conversations some students had witnessed about race, and that the detail and thought put into a panel on such an important topic makes a difference. In order to have deep and meaningful conversations, the way the issues are talked about matters, Manhey said. When members of the panel discussed race and, according to Manhey, dodged its relevance to Occidental, Jo Kim (first year) expressed how the panel made her and other students feel uncomfortable about their upcoming experience at Occidental.

“After [the panel] happened, I just felt really small. They made me feel really small. And I felt like I couldn’t speak. I mean, I was already kind of reluctant to speak about my experience, or my culture, I guess you could say. But that just made me feel isolated in a way,” Kim said.

Manhey also talked to other students who expressed the negative impact the panel had on their first few days at Occidental.

“I know a lot of people who were very troubled and anxious about, you know, did they choose the right college? And if this was going to be their life for the next four years,” Manhey said.

North said she had been on at least one orientation panel previously and was approached by Buckmire to be a member of this year’s panel. She said she was pleased to have the opportunity to talk to first-year students, and she thought the summer readings were excellent this year but also very challenging.

“They were full of opinions and information that is not easy to deal with — and, in this country, we’ve had a history of dealing with very poorly,” North said.

According to North, she began her talk on the panel by saying she is not an authority on the topic of race. She said her role on the panel was to talk about how there is not a clear biological basis for social conceptions of race.

“I think that was really one of the messages of the readings too, that the biology of race has been misused,” North said. “The misuse has been done by people in power — it’s been done by the white population.”

Cabral said Buckmire also approached her about being on the panel. According to Cabral, her research focuses on health disparities and often involves race and ethnicity.

“Race is not a topic that can be covered in a one hour session, instead it is and should be a continuing conversation. I would encourage students and faculty to pursue those discussions,” Cabral said via email. “There are also groups or student organizations on campus that can be a great source of information and empathy when a student wants a safe place to have those discussions.”

According to Cabral, the Core Program sent an email to all Cultural Studies Program (CSP) instructors about the reactions students had to the panel so they can be aware and provide information about future opportunities to discuss the summer reading. Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College Wendy Sternberg and Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Rob Flot sent out an email on Aug. 28 addressing the panel and students’ responses.

“We realize that members of the audience may have expected that something different would have come from the discussion of these readings, and we regret that we did not create a structure and process for what we were hoping to accomplish,” Sternberg and Flot wrote in the email. “As a result, it matters to us that some of you felt dismayed and hurt by the program. We want to let you know that we hear you. We can do better. And we will.”

The email mentioned events that would serve as support for students, such as the formation of the Equity and Inclusion Working Group and community events intended to bring the Occidental community together as a whole. They also gave students email contact information for the Intercultural Community Center (ICC) and the Dean of Students Office staff.

Kamilah Cooper-Charles (sophomore), an O-Team leader, said she thinks the email was not a sufficient response.

“It didn’t apologize for what went wrong,” Cooper-Charles said. “I think its focus was apologizing for the manner in which the conversation was facilitated.”

Hossain said that, as a filmmaker, he was asked to to talk about the ways on-screen representation has broader impacts on race.

“I also made a pitch, a bit outside of what I was asked to speak about, that students who care about the central issues in the readings should get involved in the conversation about what the role of Chief Diversity Officer should be on this campus and how that person should be chosen,” Hossain said via email.

Buckmire said he was surprised by some of the questions students asked following the panel.

“It’s Fall of 2019 and the occupation happened in Fall of 2015. It doesn’t come up in the summer reading at all. That’s why it was surprising,” Buckmire said. “I think what some students wanted from the panel and what the panel was intended to do were not the same thing, which is not surprising because students weren’t given any information about what the panel was.”

Henson said the topic of discussion shifted from the summer reading to recent Occidental history following the panelists’ comments.

“Students came in fully expecting the summer reading and responded purely because of statements made throughout the panel,” Henson said.

When the panel was opened up to student questions, first years inquired about Occidental’s history with issues of race, including the 2015 occupation, and why the panel had no black faculty members other than the panel moderator. Students also asked how the administration was grappling with its past issues regarding the marginalization of students of color. According to Henson, many students approached their O-Team leaders afterwards, saying they felt the way the panel responded to these questions was unsatisfactory.

“People would ask questions and they wouldn’t really answer it, but they were just trying to defend themselves. And I think it would have meant a lot more to us if they would have just come clean about it,” Kim said. “It was more like they were trying to defend themselves, rather than try to understand our point of view.”

According to Buckmire, the Interim Director of the ICC Chris Arguedas reached out to him following the panel, and he later met with a small group of students, mostly O-Core and O-Team leaders, to talk about student reactions to the panel.

Henson and Cooper-Charles, who attended this meeting, said they felt disrespected by Buckmire because he denied that students were expressing concerns.

“I think at its core there was a lot of debating experience, which doesn’t really make any sense,” Cooper-Charles said. “We came in prepared to speak about an experience, about having gone through something, and we were told that it was wrong.”

In response to the events of the panel, Flot sent another email to the student body Sept. 5 seeking student, faculty and staff volunteers to lead a series of small group sessions throughout the semester addressing topics raised in the summer readings.

“Validating experience for students is often creating an environment where they can speak. That was not the orientation panel,” North said. “Knowing what I know now, I would do it differently.”

Kim expressed her dissatisfaction with the panel’s response to the distress they caused many students.

“I feel like it’s totally okay to be wrong sometimes. And admitting that shows such courage,” Kim said. “I think if they were able to just admit some of their mistakes, or some of the things we can improve on, that would have helped a lot.”

O-Core leader Ima Odong (junior) said the panel gave O-Team leaders an added responsibility to mend the emotional harm caused to first year students.

“The whole disconnect between the panel and orientation put more work on essential student volunteers,” Odong said. “Having 50 unpaid volunteers having to mend is emotional work, and then having their competency and credibility as leaders being questioned because of administrative and faculty incompetence is just unacceptable.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated a quote from professor Aleem Hossain.