Letter to the Editor: Faculty must be active in rebuilding community trust after failed academic panel

2681

To the faculty of Occidental College, 

We address you as former leaders of the Orientation program and as students deeply affected by the faculty panel that took place Aug. 25 during the Introduction to the Academic Experience. This panel was part of an informational presentation given to incoming students regarding the academic climate of Occidental, the Core Program and the summer reading. 

In beginning this letter, please note that we are reaching out to the faculty of this institution. As Orientation leaders, we were charged with providing the newest members of the college with the methods of communication necessary for success in your classrooms. Our time in this role has passed, however, and we now return to these spaces as students. As such, we find it in our immediate interest to address those who participated in the aforementioned presentation directly. It is the faculty who committed the harm we outline below, and it is the faculty whom we feel must recognize their respective roles in subsequent efforts made to repair it. Student movements past and present have succeeded in putting pressure on the administration, but here we turn our focus to our educators, the individuals who have devoted their lives to preparing students to enter an “increasingly complex, interdependent and pluralistic world” (Occidental College Mission Statement). In order for students to fully engage in conversations regarding identity and privilege and begin to tangibly combat their consequences, you our mentors — must acknowledge your power to influence these conversations and contribute to the changes that Occidental is capable of making. It is unacceptable for a school that boasts of its educators’ intellectual abilities to curate and facilitate discussion of the ongoing violence incurred by anti-blackness and white supremacy with blatant disregard for the particular context, care and nuance necessary to guide such lectures. 

As Orientation leaders who shape, plan and execute a program that equips incoming students with tools for understanding and navigating identity and privilege, we make clear the necessity of these skills in creating safer environments both inside and outside of the classroom. We find it disturbing that four professors violated this safety, ultimately harming students before classes had even begun. 

In this letter, we firstly provide our own summary of the events that took place Aug. 25. We then discuss a meeting that took place between professor Ron Buckmire and several student representatives which demonstrated complete unwillingness on the part of Buckmire to acknowledge or remedy the damages inflicted by his panel. We go on to present four demands to the faculty of Occidental. We end with an acknowledgment of the pattern of reaction, racism and reliance upon student activism and labor this institution continues to display. 

This summer’s common reading selections were intended to serve as textual references “to stimulate discussion and critical thinking” about the “Excellence, Equity, Community and Service” theme framing this year’s Core Program. These selections included the work of Brent Staples, James Baldwin, Ian Haney López, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Marlon Riggs and Kimberlé Crenshaw, all of whom discuss “race, racism, white supremacy and intersecting forms of oppression” through various mediums. The panel curated and facilitated by Buckmire was intended in turn to introduce Occidental’s Academic Program and members of its esteemed faculty to an audience consisting of the Class of 2023 and the 2019 Orientation Team through intellectual engagement with these texts. 

The three faculty members chosen to participate in the panel were Aleem Hossain of the Media Arts & Culture (MAC) department, Patricia Cabral of the psychology department and Gretchen North of the biology department. The first half of the panel consisted of questions prepared and prompted by Buckmire to these panelists, while the second allowed new students to provide their own questions and comments. Throughout the panel, a series of alarming statements were made. Below, we have provided several of these statements, as well as other remarkable occurrences from the panel. Though based on both eyewitness and recordings, our references below have been kept general for the sake of accuracy: 

  • As part of her introduction, North declared that she lacked the knowledge and qualifications necessary to discuss race in an academic context. 
  • White people were referred to as “the most mixed race” owing to their history as colonizers. During this comment, the genocide and invasion of the lands of indigenous peoples was described flippantly as “impolite.” 
  • When questioned about the discovery of a picture of a member of Occidental’s Board of Trustees in blackface, Buckmire laughed while describing the incident. 
  • Buckmire passively described the picture as having “appeared” last spring, and the “alleged” actions of the Board member as “cosplay.” 
  • While the panelists referenced subsequent listening sessions to address the discovery, they failed to acknowledge the fact that student organizing catalyzed those sessions and other administrative responses to the blackface incident. 
  • In response to an inquiry as to tangible measures being taken by the college following the events of last spring, Cabral reminded students to ask themselves what they could be doing to effect change on this campus. North joined her to tell the incoming students that they need to be the ones who keep the administration’s “toes to the fire.” This implies that institutional accountability should fall primarily on students. 
  • When an incoming student pushed panelists to move beyond merely identifying anti-blackness on campus to properly addressing and combating its consequences, they were condescended for misinterpreting the panel’s intentions. 
  • When a student expressed concern about the lack of black faculty on a panel framed around issues of anti-blackness, the panelists interrupted the question by pointing to Buckmire while Buckmire himself waved. 
  • Clearly misunderstanding the intention of the critique and then offering a subpar explanation for it, Hossain simply told the student to continue challenging this lack of representation. 
  • To conclude the presentation, North and Buckmire superficially spoke of the need for student support of burnt-out black faculty members. Having pointed out the systemic overworking of black faculty, the panelists normalized this phenomenon, perpetuating the issue they had just identified. 

Having been asked to digest the summer reading materials as a way of “joining [other] new students, faculty, and staff in … conversation,” to take “an important first step in building and participating in [our] intellectual community,” members of the Class of 2023 entered campus prepared to think critically about the ways race, white supremacy and intersecting forms of oppression influence and shape these selections and their own lives. To be met with blatant ignorance of the very real and violent consequences of these themes just four days after arriving, represents an abuse of the trust students place in members of this faculty to listen to, and accept, intellectual contributions. For incoming students to be addressed in a manner inconsistent with that which Orientation Leaders urged them to adopt when engaging with members of our community represents an additional misuse of trust. In efforts to rebuild this trust, we ask that faculty reexamine their repeatedly demonstrated reliance on the student body to fix a campus community of which they constitute only a part. 

In an attempt to address the harm caused by this panel, a meeting was called between Buckmire, the moderator of the panel, associate dean for curricular affairs, director of the Core Program and a mathematics professor; Ella Turenne, former director of Student Leadership, Involvement & Community Engagement (SLICE); Viktor Kerney, associate director of SLICE; Chris Arguedas, interim director of the Intercultural Community Center (ICC); current students (and co-writers of this letter), Kamilah Cooper-Charles (sophomore) and Andrew Henson (senior); and recent graduate Pablo Saleta ‘19. We (Henson, Cooper-Charles and Saleta) entered the meeting with several objectives: to learn more about the formation of the panel (especially how faculty members were chosen to participate), to convey the hurt experienced by both incoming students and returning students, to hold the faculty accountable as the cause of this hurt and to begin the process of moving forward. 

When asked about the formation of the panel, Buckmire spoke to the diversity of academic disciplines he had hoped to assemble for the discussion. When we asked him whether or not the panelists he selected were equipped with the proper knowledge to participate in such a lecture (please remember that North made explicit statements regarding her lack of qualification), however, we were met with vague answers that downplayed the importance of such knowledge. In our efforts to relay the harm experienced by students, we referenced conversations in which incoming students questioned their choice to attend Occidental, citing concerns regarding a lack of safety and support. We then described Orientation Leaders’ utter disappointment with the faculty and the loss of trust between these Leaders and their students regarding the language and conversation tools being taught. Buckmire immediately attempted to quantify the harm we described, asking approximately how many students had expressed concern around their decision to come to Occidental. Little else was offered in response besides this question. 

As the meeting came to a close, we offered a short-term plan to begin mitigating the harm caused. Our suggestion was that the faculty on the panel apologize directly to every incoming student during Convocation, the last event of Orientation. We emphasized the urgency of this as a means of rebuilding the institutional trust incoming students had lost before classes had even begun. Although we were told by Buckmire that an apology would most likely not be taking place, we were assured that this information would be passed along to the “higher ups.” Immediately following Buckmire’s departure from the meeting, we were informed by the administrators and staff present in an earlier meeting with Buckmire that he had made no acknowledgment of any faculty-caused harm at any point following the events of the panel. 

As former coordinators and leaders of New Student Orientation, we are incredibly invested in this institution’s growth and its role in addressing harm. During Orientation, we worked tirelessly to ensure that each incoming student entered the academic year equipped with the personal and relational tools to fully engage with Occidental’s community. We feel that the failures of the panel undid much of this intentional, nuanced work. In moving forward from it, therefore, we seek solutions outside of Occidental’s traditional approaches of encouraging campus dialogue and forming committees. This administration’s pursuit of objective descriptions of the harm students subjectively experience necessarily separates the administration from the very community it expresses a desire to build. Moreover, this course of action consistently burdens marginalized students, relying on the knowledge and experiences of these individuals to make change. In this way, administrative assessments of issues students themselves assess time and time again acts as a facade, creating the illusion of systemic change instead of seeking more tangible and engaging courses of action. 

We have provided four demands that we believe are more effective than the creation of committees and the encouragement of dialogue while remaining attainable. They do, however, rely on growth at the faculty level. Unless a willingness to learn and change exists within our educators, we fear that the students of this institution will be unable to form or maintain the trust that is so vital to maximizing their development as intellectuals and as people within this community. 

That being said, our demands are as follows: 

We demand unity between the Orientation process and the academic school year accomplished by a standardized training process for the faculty of Occidental College. An intentional, school-wide training would engage students and faculty in shared conversations on issues of social justice, inclusivity, equity and standards of discourse as well as unify campus-wide values and practices. 

We demand universal recognition and honoring of academic courses involving student-faculty research that has shed light on historic student activism. We demand that Community-Based Learning courses and research be adopted and built upon as they facilitate reciprocal community-building, promote academic success for marginalized students, and promote shared values across disparate academic departments and community constituents. 

We demand a move past data-gathering as a “solution” action. It is a fact that climate surveys have historically failed to adequately address harm on our campus. The need to keep seeking information in this way is a bulwark for actual change and makes invisible the work that students have already done to raise awareness of harms perpetrated on this campus. 

We demand that the faculty members who participated in the panel provide a verbal apology to the student body. These individuals owe the students in attendance an acknowledgment of the racism that defined this poorly prepared dialogue, the silencing of student voices that took place during the Q&A, and the breach in trust caused by the severe harms inflicted throughout. 

We must acknowledge Occidental College’s pattern of harm, violence and reactionary attitudes — none of which truly addresses the inherent institutional actions which perpetuate a detrimental environment. Its repeated reliance on the expectation that student activism and labor be the only proactive, effective, and intentional response to these violences — especially when these efforts lack the needed resources and support to remain sustainable — is unacceptable. Occidental College must assume a proactive role in addressing the needs of its community as a whole — including students, faculty, staff and the surrounding Los Angeles neighborhoods — to work towards an environment that allows for transformative cultural shifts. 

Sincerely,

Kamilah Cooper-Charles (sophomore), Henrik De La Torre (senior), Jagmit Dhami (senior), Riki Eijima (senior), Andrew Henson (senior), Malvika Khanna (senior), Ima Odong (junior), Marge Wilson (senior) and Rachel Winningham (senior)

Co-signers: Amaryllis Argueta (sophomore), Aarushi Arora (sophomore), Erin Ball (senior), Haley Carlton (sophomore), Mary Craggs (junior), Raveena Dhiman (sophomore), Ruby Ferehawk (junior), Charlie Finnerty (sophomore), Liz Frissell (sophomore), Eduardo Garcia (sophomore), Ricky Henderson (junior), Mindy Hoang (sophomore), Dion Holden (sophomore), Emma Jaime (junior), Cleo Juster (senior), Julissa Larios (sophomore), Jack Leonard (sophomore), Nicole Matsanov (sophomore), Nina Morse (junior), Lara Nott (sophomore), Emma Pottenger (junior), Shae Sakamoto (senior), Adnan Shihabi (senior), Lucy H. Smith (sophomore), Kate Strathmann (junior), Luca Van der Meer (sophomore), Evie Wasson (junior), Lulu Wiesemann (sophomore), Christina Zekoll (sophomore), Emily Zepeda (sophomore), Odelia Zuckerman (sophomore)