Elephants on Campus


This past semester has been a difficult and tumultuous one at the Claremont Colleges. Three of the five colleges tragically lost students; four of the five campuses saw active protests against their respective administrations; and the only campus without such a protest, Pitzer, saw plenty of controversy of its own. In the aftermath, there has been relatively little discussion about the impact on our campus climate. There has been plenty of discussion about how 5C administrations have reacted, but a lack of discussion about how these events have impacted our student body. While important, the student conduct results from the Heather Mac Donald protests and the response to protests by Pomona's Sociology Department directly impact only a few of us at the Claremont Colleges. There are much bigger questions that need to be addressed, ones that people have barely started to consider. Now that the semester is over, we can start really thinking about these difficult questions.

My purpose here is not to answer the questions our consortium faces, but to lay out the questions so that we can start moving toward answers as a community. I simply hope to address the elephants on our campus.

Some of the most talked about issues on our campus last semester were those surrounding Heather Mac Donald’s scheduled Ath talk and the subsequent protests. However, what should have been the most central questions of these debates have been on the fringe, leaving major issues unresolved. As a community, we need to decide who deserves to be invited to the Athenaeum and who is ‘too controversial’ or ‘too offensive’ to be invited. Heather Mac Donald was one individual invited to campus, but there are plenty of other speakers who may test these boundaries, on both sides of the political spectrum. Should we, as a community, invite Jill Stein, despite her anti-vaxxer tendencies and belief that WiFi causes cancer, or is she too far outside the mainstream? Is Milo Yiannopolous welcome on our campus, or would his tendency to push the boundaries of free speech and political correctness disqualify him from the opportunity to speak at the Ath?

The protests of Heather Mac Donald’s talk also raised crucial questions about how our community should properly respond to talks that some or all of us disagree with. Those protests established a second set of precedents for how to respond to, or protest against, Ath speakers. One precedent, set out by Ath Director Priya Junnar and Ath Manager Dave Edwards, calls on students to ask challenging questions of speakers after their talk, or to walk out of a talk without disrupting the presentation and impeding the free speech of the speaker. The second precedent, set this spring, calls on students to shut down talks that they disagree with. As a community, we need to decide which of these precedents we want to accept for the future, or perhaps find some new balance between the two of them.

We also have important questions before us regarding what the action of attending a talk at the Athenaeum means. Does our attendance legitimize the speaker, or are we simply opening ourselves to multiple points of view? Or is simply inviting a speaker legitimizing their point of view? These questions are crucial to the successful future of the Ath on our campus and must be addressed head-on.

Furthermore, the events at the Ath last semester brought up major questions regarding consortium relations, campus climate and behavior, and political discourse on our campus. Is it acceptable to attend an event when many believe the speaker does not value black lives? Is it acceptable to wish harm on students who are attending such a speaker, to call them Nazis, or to encourage them to engage in self-harm (all of which were shouted at spectators of the protests, according to those I have talked to)? How do we deal with and react to these behaviors, each of which different groups of us may find detestable? Furthermore, what is the most effective way for students to raise important issues on our campus in the future, without alienating those who might disagree with them, and instead encouraging thoughtful discussion and action on the issue? How can we continue to educate people on how to speak and act respectfully to those around them, especially students of color, without being demeaning to those who may unknowingly be engaging in problematic behavior, and still respect their First Amendment rights? And how can we respectfully and openly engage in these types of discussions in the future regarding other contentious political issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict?

The Heather Mac Donald protest was not the only example of unrest on our campuses, and other recent protests also brought to light significant questions about administrative support of students and room for improvement within our community. The RA strikes at Scripps and Pomona create an opening for all the 5Cs, if we so choose, to redefine the role that RAs play on our campuses, both in their relationships with their respective administrations and in their relationships with students. The controversy over hiring practices within Pomona’s Sociology department may allow us to re-examine the role of students in hiring faculty across the 5Cs as well. The protests at Mudd also reveal major issues with Monsour Counseling Services and the state of mental health on our campuses. These incidents should cause us all to ask what we can do to create an environment that improves our collective mental health, regardless of what resources the consortium is able to provide us.

These are incredibly difficult questions that all of us face as members of the 5C community. While those who know me well know I have opinions on many of these questions, none of us can or should answer them on our own. Jane Goodall said that “change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right.” I hope that we can all bring about the change that our campus really needs, together.

So comment on this piece, on social media or on the CMC Forum page. Write more op-eds responding to one or more of these questions. Engage in difficult discussions with your friends on these topics over the summer, especially your friends who attend different member institutions.

But most importantly, I hope that this coming semester, our student governments and our colleges are able to create more opportunities for students to sit down and engage in dialogue over these issues, so that we can work through them together, as a community. I hope that we can have these discussions both within our own campuses and across the 5Cs because the consortium will never heal if we do not reach across 6th St., 9th St., Mills Ave., or Platt Blvd. Be well, and happy discussing.