Bucolic Claremont?

A rash of disturbing incidents, ranging from gross insensitivity to racial intolerance to a possible hoax, spread through the usually tranquil Claremont Colleges this spring semester.

The incidents began, on January 9, 2004, during winter break, when four students, including a Scripps woman, vandalized a Pomona student’s art project (an 11-foot cloth-draped metal cross) by setting fire to it on the Harvey Mudd campus. When maintenance workers discovered the remains of the project several days later and reported it, the students immediately came forward, claiming boredom as their impetus to set something on fire. As the act was not done in view of anyone else, nor was it determined that the students meant to intimidate anyone, the incident was not deemed a hate crime. The respective colleges disciplined the students individually (historically, Scripps does not reveal the nature of any disciplinary action).

In the next few weeks, other acts disrupted the community: a racial epithet was scrawled on a photograph of George Washington Carver at Claremont McKenna College (CMC), a Pomona College fraternity’s scavenger hunt list asked for a picture with ten Asians, and a chat room posted hate-filled messages. Several community members expressed fear, tension, and growing frustration, and the belief that the Colleges had not done enough to address issues of intolerance on their campuses, neither this year nor in the past. Others, while condemning the most recent incidents, claimed they were a aberration and did not represent prevalent attitudes or usual behavior at The Claremont Colleges.

Students, joined by faculty and staff, staged marches and held discussions. At one such forum at CMC, the afternoon of March 9, CMC visiting professor of psychology Kerri Dunn spoke out against what she deemed a climate of insensitivity and fear on the campuses. Later that evening, Professor Dunn’s car was vandalized: tires slashed, windows broken, and the body spray-painted with racial slurs and profanity. The reaction of most members of the community was immediate and profound: shock and revulsion. The campus communities mobilized to make a unified response.

As word spread of the latest incident, hundreds of students gathered in various spots to express both outrage and fear. Scripps President Nancy Bekavac, who chairs the Colleges’ Council of Presidents, reported to the emergency central command post in Campus Safety to be in contact with her own staff throughout the night, as well as with the other campus news “We are holding the entire College community responsible for a history of incidents and for the lack of response. We are demanding the implementation of institutional change to make Scripps inclusive and safe for all students.” Diana Fukushima ’04 Diversity Chair Scripps College Council 3 magazine, spring 2004 presidents. Few students and administrators got much sleep. There was concern that there might be more such incidents.

Early in the morning of March 10, it was clear that the Colleges could not productively hold classes while student-run activities such as forums, panel discussions, and sit-ins were occurring on the five undergraduate campuses. All Colleges cancelled classes, including the Claremont Graduate University. This was an extraordinary move; no one at Scripps can remember when classes had ever been cancelled, not even on September 11.

It retrospect, some have criticized the Colleges for this decision, calling it an overreaction to an incident that may have been a hoax.

President Bekavac commented: “On March 10, the Colleges could have responded to the finding of the vandalized car in two ways: by not canceling classes and suggesting thereby that vandalizing a professor’s car is somehow normal or that one ought to be suspicious of vandalized cars and their owners; or they could have responded as they did. As someone on the campus facing faculty and student fears—young women especially felt vulnerable about an early evening violent attack on property at a nearby campus—I have no doubt we did the right thing.”

That day, Scripps held a community forum in early afternoon. Students filled Balch Auditorium, finding spots on stage and in the aisles. Most wore black and stickers proclaiming “Scripps Against Hate.” After opening words from Claremont Colleges Chaplain Catharine Grier Carlson, Professor Roswitha Burwick read a prepared faculty statement, and then President Bekavac opened the floor to comments and questions. For the most part, students and faculty shared stories of concern, including thoughtless or overtly discriminatory remarks and situations they had encountered. There were also more hopeful comments, positing this recent incident as a “wake-up call” to the community.

That evening, in a stunning outpouring of collective emotion and community support, student leaders from the five undergraduate colleges staged a rally, beginning at each home campus and ending in unison on CMC’s Parent’s Field. With TV-news helicopters whirring overhead, and virtually every major local media outlet in the Los Angeles area present, a crowd of approximately 2,000 converged onto the field, chanting and cheering. One student leader from each of the Colleges spoke passionately, including Scripps senior Coren Cooper; Professor Dunn provided a climax to the evening with a surprise appearance and concluded her remarks with a message to those responsible: “[They] should go to hell.

As reported nationwide a week later, the Claremont Police Department and the FBI concluded that Professor Dunn herself committed the vandalism to her car, and turned the case over to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office. The agencies cited eyewitness evidence and inconsistencies in the professor’s statement. Dunn, who was near the end of a two-year contract with CMC, agreed to paid leave throughout the remainder of the semester while continuing to proclaim her innocence.

Campus leaders expressed a common belief: “We may never know what really happened.”

Once again, the College community reeled with this news. Most students were on spring break, but those on campus, along with faculty and staff, convened once again in Balch Auditorium, the afternoon of March 16, to hear this revelation.

President Bekavac, at the meeting in Balch, and in a later statement to the community, emphasized that Dunn is entitled to the presumption of innocence. “While each of us is dealing with our emotions in our own way, we should also confront this recent news, as we confronted the vandalism, together… However painful and confusing this latest development is, we cannot forget the reasons we were outraged in the first place; we cannot avoid the challenges that hatred poses to our community, to our country. We will continue to work to make our campuses welcoming, open, diverse, and productive so that all of us can freely teach and learn to the best of our abilities.”

What form will that work take? Already, a committee of Scripps students is preparing a number of recommendations for action, including suggestions for improving the Core program, College-wide sensitivity training, and increased student involvement in critical College business and planning. In addition, the Diversity Coordinating Committee, made up of students, staff and faculty, will present its own recommendations this spring to the president for College action.

 

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