During the past several days, I have listened and responded to many alumni, parents, and commentators on the periphery of our community, as well as students, faculty, and staff within the College. I have heard strong support or deep concerns (or some measure of both) in the wake of controversy, protests, administrative actions, expressions of dissent, and news coverage throughout. Disagreement is stressful for all of us, and it is also completely healthy when the campus is having a serious, difficult conversation about extremely sensitive and important concerns.
Some doubt whether the distress and frustration expressed by our students are real and worry about overreaction. We can hardly discard painful narratives just because they may not match our own experience. We listen, we feel, we inquire to understand more fully, and we act as we see appropriate. This issue made news but it is not new. We have had these conversations before, in our country, in our college, in the past and now. The specific changes we announced last week are actions we had previously needed and committed to taking, and the protests accelerated the normal pace of action.
Some of you are worried about free speech. Students spoke up sharply in public, even making some of us the target of their harsh criticisms. Beyond these loud expressions, we have seen sharp dissent in a student journal and a letter signed by over 200 students. Some have been critical of senior leaders, including me. If we believe in free speech, we must extend our acceptance even to speech that is painful or harsh.
We have organized our priorities according to two fundamental values: (i) unyielding support for the growth and success of our students, even when we may have sharp disagreements, and (ii) unwavering commitment to free speech, active listening, and the educational mission of the College.
Doing both well is imperative.
Here is a summary of the concrete actions we’re taking to realize these dual priorities.
Student Support and Collaboration
As you know, we have appointed Jeff Huang, Vice President for Student Affairs, Admission, and Financial Aid, to return to the Dean of Students Office (DoS) to serve as Acting Dean of Students. He will be relieved of many of his current duties to make space for the important work he will take on in the DoS. We are all grateful for the dedication of his tremendous talent and heart in this transitional role.
We have invited an independent expert, who began conversations with students, staff, and faculty on diversity and inclusion last spring, to conduct a deeper and broader review of the Dean of Students office and its capacity and performance in support of our students. This review will focus on any and all barriers to the full student experience and sense of belonging within the college community, from admissions and financial aid, to academic and professional advising, to training, care, and support from the Dean of Students office, community programs, and the work of the personal and social responsibility initiative.
Students will have opportunity to contribute their views on the new staff positions. Simultaneously, to meet the immediate needs of our students, we have invited an experienced expert in diversity and inclusion to work with our students directly in the coming days. We have been working over the past few days with student input to identify an appropriate temporary space. Building on this process and with broad-based community input, we will choose a permanent space to support students and reinforce the value of diversity and inclusion.
Nyree Gray, our chief civil rights officer, has provided additional counseling support for our students at least through the end of this semester.
Dean Uvin chairs the personal and social responsibility committee on climate (now in its second year of work), which has representatives of students, faculty, staff, alumni and parents and is dedicated to identifying actions that create a more inclusive campus. In the light of the current situation, the Campus Climate committee has decided to temporarily expand its membership to ensure a broader representation of students from across the college and to focus its work on developing an inclusive process for campus-wide, action-oriented conversations. This committee will meet again tonight.
Free Speech, Active Listening, and Clear Policy
Our students continue to exercise their voice. Strong opinions and dissent have been publicly expressed and published, some with harsh criticisms of senior leaders of the college, drawing the attention of national news. Even when we are in disagreement with the opinions expressed, we are proud of this process. If we are to take free speech seriously, we must embrace, support, and listen to the opinions that we may least want to hear. Our students are teaching us how to practice what we preach.
Last week, the staff of the College met once (and will meet again this week), and members of the faculty met twice (and will meet again today) to discuss the events on our campus. At these meetings, differences in opinion were clearly expressed, and all members of the faculty remain committed to the values of free speech and critical inquiry.
Speaking freely is necessary, yet insufficient without active listening.
On Friday evening, nearly 200 people gathered in the Athenaeum for a conversation about the events of the week. About 25 faculty, 20 staff, and nearly 150 students engaged in serious, civil dialogue about what we had experienced and learned this week. Dean Uvin provided tools for listening, learning, and expressing different views and perspectives, and we all observed a shared feeling of relief to connect and share our positions of both difference and commonality. Student-organized fora on campus over the weekend continued opening doors to more respectful conversation about the issues.
Clarification and reinforcement of what we encourage and what we prohibit are also vital. Yesterday, Dean Uvin reminded students that “hurtful, ad hominem attacks, vitriol, and other disrespectful personal statements are fully protected by the First Amendment and violate no formal college policy. At the same time, these sorts of attacks instill fear and undermine the commitment to mutual respect.” Dean Uvin concluded: “This is not the way we want to behave, nor is it the way any of us will achieve our goals in a sustainable manner.” He also clarified that, “while even aggressive and hurtful statements are covered by the First Amendment, any threats of violence are illegal, violate College policy, and trigger immediate investigation and strong discipline.” He urged students to contact us if they experience or observe any such threats. Finally, we sense “a collective desire for more—more conversation, more understanding, and more collaboration, leading to concrete action.” We commit to work with all our students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, and trustees to realize our mission of thoughtful, productive, and responsible leadership and make our campus community a empowering and free learning environment for each and every student.
These are demanding, impressive commitments and conversations.
I believe in this process, and I believe in our CMC community.
Thank you for your inspiration.
Hiram E. Chodosh
Claremont McKenna College
500 East Ninth Street
Claremont, CA 91711-6400
Business No. (909) 621-8111