On Wednesday afternoon, shortly before the demonstration led by CMCers of Color, student journalists from The CMC Forum and The Student Life met with Claremont McKenna College (CMC) President Hiram Chodosh to discuss the issues facing CMC, the changes to come, and the values that underlie our identity as a college. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kevin Tidmarsh, The Student Life: I wanted to talk about the faculty side of things, because a lot of the bias-related incidents that people mentioned in the letter came up in class; presumably, some of them were from tenured professors. How do you go about having a training that is inclusive of students with marginalized identities when you have professors who maybe won’t be able to or won’t be willing to change their views?
President Hiram Chodosh: I think that there’s a lot of work that the faculty is engaged in, that Dean Uvin is engaged in, and again, just having more support for this work in terms of how one has difficult conversations in class, how we take advantage of the broadest diversities that we have in our classrooms, and I think that takes a lot of training. You’re right that whatever the faculty member may be, whoever that faculty member may be — some people may be better at those things than others. Some of them may grow into those capacities more easily than others, but that’s true of every organization when you’re trying to do meaningful things around difficult conversations. I mean, I think that at every level our society, our staff, our faculty, our students have tremendous learning needs. We all do, in how we deal with matters of difference and different human experiences and how we are open and expressive and learn from being wrong or from sometimes saying things that might cause offense, and to develop the tools and strategies to understand and transcend those divisions in our society.
So I think it’s a much larger issue than just focusing on a projected demographic of a faculty member or the tenure system. No one institution’s faculty are at a state of optimal capacity for doing this. We’re all learning. It’s the underlying dedication to the educational process and to the growth of each and every student that’s really vital here.
TSL: I want to ask you specifically, though: if you heard tomorrow about a faculty member making a racist comment to a student in class and that faculty member had tenure, what would happen to that faculty member? What’s the disciplinary process there?
Chodosh: First of all, there would be an investigation of what exactly happened in the classroom. And, there are sort of two intersecting values that have to be reconciled through those particular instances. One, of course, is academic freedom and freedom of speech, which is a core value of our educational institution. And the other is policies dealing with harassment or any kind of atmosphere that prevents a student from growing, succeeding, pursuing their education in ways that are supportive. Depending on the instance, there can be scenarios in which the free speech policy kicks in and there are no consequences other than perhaps a direct discussion with that faculty member. And then there are other instances in which there are other strategies of accountability and censure, and so forth.
The Administration’s Role
Jessica Jin, The CMC Forum: I think it’s very clear to me that every part of the institution has a role in terms of fostering a culture that is inclusive. And so, that means administration has a role, students have a role, and the faculty also have a role. How would you parse out what you think the administration’s role is relative to faculty and students moving forward?
Chodosh: I think that first is tone-setting. I think that’s very important. I think that making sure that we are understanding these issues in a broader context. Obviously the challenges that we are facing are not unique to any one community, any one college; these are broad societal challenges. And we have specific challenges at our college that we have to deal with, so it’s not to universalize them. By putting it in that context, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t deal with our own challenges very seriously.
I think that it’s making sure that there is full accountability and transparency and that the resources are brought to bear on wherever we have observed gaps. And so, if we’re not performing well, if we realize that staff are not as adequately trained or that we don’t have as much expertise built into our administration, then that’s something that we want to very much address. So, I think those are some of the responsibilities. I think that we also have a responsibility to look at these situations very self-critically and to look within to see what we have not done and see what we need do in the future and how do we stand up to our own priorities and responsibilities.
Job Postings for Two Diversity Positions (one under Dean of Faculty, one under Dean of Students)
The Forum: What does the timeline look like for hiring these positions?
Chodosh: We have not yet posted these, but they have been authorized. The job descriptions have been written. I’d say in the next couple weeks the jobs will be posted. We’re also looking at some exciting, some potentially exciting internal people to bring in. So, I can’t promise that because it’s highly dependent on chance and luck, but we’re going to do our very best to bring someone in, and I’d say by the beginning of this next academic year, we should definitely have those positions filled.
Race, Gender, and Sexuality Theory Additions to the Curriculum
TSL: I know that it’s been brought up also that the GE requirements or potentially the topics that are discussed in the freshmen seminars might be changed in order to include a race, gender, sexuality, or just in general, a difference requirement. Is that something that you’re working towards?
Chodosh: As I’ve said to students, GE requirements are a very, very big institutional issue. And that, there are a lot of things that we should be exploring first to make sure that whatever our general education program is is meeting the needs of our students; I think that’s a very important conversation that we should be having generally with our faculty. And I think that we’re ripe for that conversation, given the time that has passed since the last general education reform. That all has to be worked and done and led by the faculty and the Dean of Faculty. I think there are many, many things that can be done in improving engagement around diversity and inclusion and student understanding of what it means to live in our world, what it means to live in and with communities of different resources and experiences and backgrounds and religions and ideological perspectives. And I think that in continuing to commit our very, very best efforts to improve our classroom experience in all our respects is of continuous and paramount interest to all of us. So, while I support a fresh look at general education, I also support a fresh look at everything that we’re doing to make sure that we are meeting the short end of very long term educational needs and learning objectives of our students.
TSL: I’ve heard it might be easier to institute a change in the first year in the freshman seminar, like incorporating a difference requirement in there. Is that something you’d consider?
Chodosh: The sophomore dinner comes to mind as an exemplar of ways in which we can channel really great learning experiences through assets that we have. I think also the sophomore leadership experience and other such experiences can be mined, developed, expanded, leveraged to achieve some of these goals in ways that, at times, a curricular requirement isn’t necessarily as effective. So I think we’re looking at all that. I think looking at all of it freshly is a healthy thing to do. But I also think that the notion of content alone as the solution is to be questioned. I think that content makes a difference but I think we have to look at the kinds of transformational experiences that students can have or that anyone can have in a certain kind of format, not just learning about something but learning to do something, learning how to listen, learning how to accept, learning how to learn across these very divisive lines that separate many parts of our society.
The Forum: You said earlier that one of the administration’s roles in inclusion is tone-setting, and I think many students would argue that the tone the administration is setting, just looking at faculty alone, is that this is a white place; we don’t have a very diverse faculty at all. Is CMC going to make an active effort to hire more diverse faculty?
Chodosh: I think that when I talked about tone, I wasn’t so much talking about the signaling of how a particular campus is perceived, but you’re right, that’s a very important element, a very important dimension, and while I think that compositional diversity is not an end in itself, and can often lead to — if only looked at on its own, can lead to some undesirable results; that insuring that our students come through our program having been taught by as diverse a range of professors in all respects I think is a very important goal. And I think that the dean has worked with our hiring committees this year on how to increase and enhance the pool, worked with committees on the phenomenon of implicit bias, and I think that that work will continue going forward to try to improve the quality and variety of professors and others that students experience while at our college.
The Forum: I understand what you’re saying, but at the same time, what’s troubling to me is that we don’t have a single black professor that I can think of off the top of my head. Why do you think that is? Is it just that black professors don’t want to apply here because they think that there’s tension? I mean, this could be taking us outside of their search entirely because faculty don’t even think that it’s a great culture.
Chodosh: In any sort of recruitment, in any sector, whether it’s a college or whether it’s a corporation or whether it’s a governmental enterprise, the lack of a strong cohort in any demographic group is a major impediment to recruiting. So, this is true of women, this is true of any underrepresented group. It’s a much greater challenge when you are recruiting someone to a community in which there is a lesser number than what that candidate may view as a fully supportive peer group. That’s a challenge and it’s something that we endeavor to overcome, but I think you’re right that, sometimes, you can create either a virtuous cycle, because you’re moving in the right direction, or you can sometimes experience a vicious cycle, because, for other reasons, you’re moving in the other direction. So that’s something that I think we’re very cognizant of.
The Forum: That would imply that this isn’t just a student problem, that there might be some institutional efforts that need to be —
Chodosh: I don’t think it’s just a student problem. I think this is a major challenge in our society, I think that universities — you look at universities around the country and see the tremendous resources, much greater resources than we have at the Claremont Colleges, and in some ways much greater success that they have in terms of compositional diversity, still struggling brutally with the histories that we’re dealing with here, and so I think we need to look at it from every angle. There’s no one fix. This is a process, and it’s one we have to be continually committed to — all of us, each of us. It’s not as simple as just hiring a couple people or creating a space or improving the training of a faculty hiring group. I think we have to be both committed to the larger issues but also to the internal ones, and I mean that both in an institutional sense as well as an individual one.
Yale and University of Missouri
TSL: Have you been paying attention to what’s been happening at Yale and Missouri? How do you think CMC relates to what’s happening at those schools right now?
Chodosh: I think in many ways, we’re part of one iteration of a very large national conversation. Those conversations can be either poorly handled or well handled. I think we have the ability here to have those conversations in a healthy, open, and productive way, and I’m committed to that, and I hope everyone else in the community is committed to that, because I think with that mutual commitment, we can do some very good things through these conversations. The risk always is one of further polarization and partitioning, and that is not what we seek here. We seek to deal with the realities and to deal with the experiences as we find them, and to grow from them.
The Forum: To me it seems like, the issue at Yale is a drastically different view between the professor that wrote the letter and the students that are protesting regarding what higher education is. The professor’s stance is more about higher education as a place to challenge you, as a place where there’s a breadth of intellectual differences, and in that, there may be some offense that happens. The students’ perspective, or at least the push back, is that, well, I want a home — that was a phrase that was used — this is a place that should be a safe space. What is CMC’s commitment? Where is CMC’s place on that spectrum?
Chodosh: I think we have to be committed to do both, frankly. I understand the tension between the two. First of all, in general terms, we don’t like the free speech that we disagree with or we don’t like the free speech that hurts us. No one does. I think in the case of students who don’t experience the same sense of privilege that many in our community do, that it’s harder to say to someone who is in real pain and is really struggling to find a home, to find that security, to say, oh, we just believe in free speech.
So, there has to be some way of managing this dual commitment to provide the most supportive environment but to do so without curbing the ability to have open dialogue around critical issues. One without the other seems to me to be a bad choice. And, recognizing that doing both is very, very challenging, I think that is where our commitment has to be. And we have to find our way through. How do we speak freely without the kind of offense that took place here? I mean, what was the value of the speech through the Halloween costumes? So, that’s not what we were talking about here. There are other instances in which one has to take great care that an exercise of free speech in an intelligible, collegial, open way would be somehow frustrated by the claim of anyone in our community that it is doing offense and thus must not, cannot be sustained.
I think you’re right about Yale. Those are two really important competing values. We have in our society many such competing values. And the question is how we manage the tension or contradiction between, and I think that is a particularly great challenge on our residential campus, but if we can’t do it on a residential college and a liberal arts residential campus, then I’m not sure where it can be done.