Mary Spellman, the dean of students at a small California college called Claremont McKenna, resigned on Thursday after students criticized her response to a racist school climate — including students of color being spit at at parties, white students posing in racially offensive Halloween costumes, and vandalism of posters supporting Black Lives Matter.
Following the latest controversy on the campus, which involved two students posing in Mariachi-like costumes while another student held a sign that read “Sorry,” student demonstrations grew. On Wednesday, President Hiram Chodosh suggested several steps to address the students’ concerns, including creating forums to discuss the school climate, creating an officer on diversity and inclusivity in both the academic affairs and student affairs office, and a “new programming space to support campus climate” for those two staff positions. However, the president promised to create a safe space for marginalized students eight months ago, and hasn’t acted since, according to The Huffington Post.
“To all who have been so supportive, please know how sorry I am if my decision disappoints you,” Spellman wrote in an email announcing her decision. “I believe it is the best way to gain closure of a controversy that has divided the student body and disrupted the mission of this fine institution. Most important, I hope this will help enable a truly thoughtful, civil and productive discussion about the very real issues of diversity and inclusion facing Claremont McKenna, higher education and other institutions across our society.”
Spellman’s resignation comes on the heels of the resignation of University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe, who was also criticized for not doing enough to address several racist incidents on campus. Students at Mizzou pushed back after a swastika was drawn with feces on the bathroom wall and the African American student association president was harassed by men in a pickup truck. The mostly black football team went on strike.
“Use my resignation to heal and start talking again to make the changes necessary to change what we can change today and in the future, not what we can’t change, which is the past,” Wolfe said in his resignation letter, just a few days after the football team said they wouldn’t play until he stepped down.
Spellman’s resignation echoes Wolfe’s — it calls the college “divided” and asks for more “thoughtful” discussion moving forward. But advocates for racial justice say that comments such as these don’t accept responsibility for the school climate, criticize the way students of color try to bring about change on campus, and put the onus on students of color to create a less divisive campus climate, even though they are usually the targets of threats and intimidation.
Similar protests have continued on the East Coast as black college students push back against everyday racism. Student protests heated up at Yale University this week after a faculty member publicly responded to an email asking students not to wear blackface, feather headdresses, and war paint by saying students should simply look away or tell others they are offended. In New York, hundreds of Ithaca College students, including some faculty, are calling for the ouster of college president Tom Rochon for his lack of reaction to similar incidents, such as two white male alums calling a black alumna a “savage” during a recent alumni panel.