Dean of Faculty Peter Uvin acted as the first responder from the administration in communicating his concerns with Thursday’s student protest against Athenaeum speaker Heather Mac Donald. Earlier today, The Forum had the opportunity to sit down with Dean Uvin and discuss his response, his emails, and possible future protocols.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Forum: Did you expect the event to result in closing off Heather Mac Donald’s talk and live streaming? What were your initial expectations?
Peter Uvin: No, we did not expect that it would rise to this level. We did receive some early warnings that some students wanted to shut down the event and make it impossible for her to speak, but we actually had little additional warning signs that “some students” would turn into the size that eventually showed up. We did try to plan for [any kind of] disruption, including [one that might potentially involve] a group of students actually trying to make [the presentation] impossible. We did plan for it, but [the crowd] turned out to be much bigger. The live streaming [option] is always ready at the Ath, and we did speak about, if it was necessary, we would go to Plan B (live stream) right away.
As the Dean of Faculty, how did you feel was the most appropriate best way to go about addressing what was happening there?
You mean during or after?
While it was happening, I had the feeling very early on, [or] it seemed obvious to me, that we could not actually solve this anymore. If students were not willing to live by a code of behavior, in which maybe they make a point but then move away, or they negotiate something like, “we get to say something, but then move away”; but they did not. We could not identify at any point who was speaking for them, and [we] even tried before [the event] to reach out to students whose Facebook posts started this. In the absence of that, it seemed quite obvious early on that we could not stop this anymore without a significant amount of force. The decision was made that we could not and should not do that. It would have gone beyond what Campus Safety and even Claremont Police Department could have offered — it would have required more than that. At that time, given that we were not prepared for that, we started Plan B, which was to ensure that her talk gets given. What is interesting, in a way, is that far more people have access to her talk now than if she had simply given it. That doesn’t make it any better, but it does make it ironic.
In terms of addressing how you might go about preparing for a major event on campus in the future, how would you set up otherwise? I know you had the fences and you had some inclination of what might happen, but what additional precautions would you expect to take in the future?
Today, I don’t know, but we clearly need to think about this. You cannot let this act repeat itself. You can get caught once, but you can’t have this happen over and over. I can’t tell you today what the answer is. What I can tell you is, the answer is unfortunately not easy. People often have immediate answers, but on closer inspection, many of them tend to be ten times harder than they seem. I’m afraid that at the end of the day, I don’t know. But this is certainly very high up on our list. Even last night, right after the initial crisis dissipated, we started discussing how we are going to avoid this from happening again. This is very high up on our agenda, as it should be. I just can’t tell you today how exactly we will do it, but it will require serious thinking. Our campus, for good reason, is not set up to do this. We are an open campus with many access points and pores, but we will work on this.
Have you had a chance to talk to different departments, faculty, and President Chodosh to discuss what could be done in the future?
Even yesterday evening, we started with Dean of Students Sharon Basso, Claremont Police Department, President Hiram Chodosh, and others. It is an urgent matter to get this right, or at least, better. But right now, I really have no idea what our concrete actions might be.
As I understand, what might make this particularly difficult is that many protesters were from other campuses. Has that been a part of the discussion and have there been any insights into how this particular aspect of the problem might be addressed?
Yes, there appears to be little doubt that not just many but the overwhelming majority of students were from other colleges. It seems to me that students from CMC were a small minority of the protesters, is that your feeling too?
So, we know that to be the case. The question now is what we do about it. We can’t block off the whole campus, so it’s a difficult issue. There are conversations going on with President Chodosh and the other presidents; I have emailed the other deans of the faculty, so clearly part of the answer needs to be something joint. Beyond that, I can’t say much more. This matters to them too [the other colleges], as it should.
Did your email quoting Cornel West and Robert George represent the sentiment of the CMC faculty at large or your own more specifically?
I wrote it and didn’t have time to solicit feedback, but I’m 100% sure — I would be shocked if there were a single faculty member who did not agree with that. The question to me is not whether the faculty’s opinions are in line with that [the quote] but whether we can live up to that statement.
Along those lines, you and President Chodosh have affirmed the institution’s commitment to free speech, but this seems to be a violation of those values. In light of President Chodosh’s email indicating particular students involved will be held accountable, what kind of disciplinary actions are on the table for these individuals?
I can’t tell you about that at this moment. We have a student handbook, and a procedure that we follow that you know about (and that I hope you don’t have to encounter personally). But we have those procedures, and we will use them. This will take a little more [time] because we will have to accumulate the evidence. In many ways, I must begrudgingly give the students some credit because they avoided the destruction of property and any outright violence, even at points where it got pretty tense. We will have to find out who did what and where they violated our student handbook. But we will most certainly look into this because this is not behavior that we want to condone or should be routine. But again, a large proportion were other [5C] students, which makes this hard.
Any last thoughts or comments?
It’s deeply disturbing, what happened tonight. That students wanted to do this. I understand their anger and pain in many ways, but as I wrote in my email, this is not the way to go about it. Not in general, and even less so at a college. And I think it is very painful for our campus and for most of our students, including our students of color, our faculty, and our staff. So we will have to really think hard and work hard on how we can avoid this from recurring. There are no easy solutions short of a police state, and none of us want to be a police state either. We will work on this. This matters a lot. It’s not just an ephemeral thing; this matters a lot. This is at the core of who we are.