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The Unyielding Racism Of The "Elite" Liberal Arts College
A recent lawsuit from a former Bard College professor, along with a rise in resignations from faculty of color, illuminate what has long been an open secret in academia.
Spelman College students on an exchange program at Skidmore College, 1960
The ideal of the liberal arts college is a familiar fantasy: ivy-covered New England walls, dorm room discussions of Aristotle and Goddard, vintage sweaters and Blundstones accessorized with fair-trade single-origin coffee in reusable cups. The kind of thing that makes up F. Scott Fitzgerald novels and Vampire Weekend songs, Tik Tok video compilations of winter days in the cozy library.
But any level-headed attendee of these institutions recognizes this fantasy for what it is: a fantasy. For students of these colleges and universities, there exists not one, but two campuses; one for the idle, libertine upper-classes who can afford to fully indulge their academic and creative whims and another for everyone else. These colleges are hotbeds of elitism, racism, and the perpetual dismissive liberal saviorism that sees low-income and students of color as nothing more than charity projects for their wealthy, white peers and administrators.
A lawsuit filed on August 25, 2022 by a former professor and administrator (identified as Jane Doe) at Bard College in Annendale-on-Hudson, New York, outlines a decade-long pattern of institutional racism and misogynoir upheld by top administrators at the College. The full 55-page brief can be read here, but I have outlined below the key allegations made by Doe concerning her time at Bard.
(Author’s note: as the lawsuit has yet to be resolved, phrases like “claims” and “allegations” reflect the legal status of Doe’s case.)
As an undergraduate, I attended two institutions affiliated with Ms. Doe: I spent one year at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, a campus owned and overseen by Bard in the nearby town of Great Barrington, Massachussetts, and three years at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York where Ms. Doe was a tenure-track faculty member before working at Bard.
Ms. Doe holds a PhD from Harvard University in English and American Literature. Prior to her role at Bard, where she worked as the Associate Dean of Students, Director of Multicultural Affairs, and Visiting Assistant Professor, she was a Mellon Fellow at Stanford University, a tenure-track assistant professor at Skidmore College, a fellow at Oxford University and Harvard University, and a tenure-track professor at the City University of New York. During her time at Bard, Ms. Doe alleges the following incidents of racism, violence, and discrimination:
-During her interview, Doe was verbally offered a tenure-track position by long-time college president Leon Botstein, as she had at Skidmore College and CUNY. Before accepting the position, Bard announced her arrival as a non-tenure visiting professor, an action which led to hostility from her CUNY employers and forced her to accept a lower-paying job than she had applied for, was qualified for, and then offered.
-Administrators, many of whom had never worked anywhere besides Bard College and did not hold doctoral degrees, were promoted above Doe. Doe did not receive any promotions while at Bard for nearly 10 years, still a “visiting professor” at the time of her dismissal despite the college’s own policy to limit “visiting professor” titles to 7 years.
-The school’s opportunity program for students on financial aid (many of whom were students of color) restricted access to certain academic programs and instituted policies that socially segregated its participants from their wealthy, white peers. Many students involved in this program were repeatedly discouraged from taking part in the full range of Bard offerings by administrators. The program was managed by White administrators with no background in critical race theory and no prior experience working with diverse populations.
-During Doe’s time at Bard, the four-year graduation rate for Black students was roughly 50%.
-Bard falsified enrolment data, winning a $300,000 grant with a proposal that claimed Bard had 167 Black students, nearly triple the number they actually had.
-Guests of Doe, two academics and artists who are Black, are held at gunpoint by local police while staying on campus. This was the result of a guest of another faculty member feeling uncomfortable sharing space with Black people. No one ever apologized to Doe or her guests.
-A professor accuses a Black student’s senior project in Psychology of being “anti-white” and refuses to work with the student. This prompts the college’s first and only Black psychology professor to leave the college. The psychology department has not had any Black faculty since.
-A white administrator would regularly compare Black faculty to her estranged adopted Black sister, whom she described as “scary” and “mentally ill”. The same administrator would caution a student against attending the University of Chicago because of the school’s physical proximity to Black people. Despite multiple reports made against this administrator, she would later be promoted to Dean of Students.
-Doe is called “feral” and unqualified by the Head of Race and Ethnicity Studies, a white woman, during a faculty meeting for teaching an interdisciplinary course on race. Doe had previously taught in English, medieval studies, and history at Harvard University.
-Senior administrator David Shein repeatedly treats Doe in a hostile manner, including physically confronting her and shouting at her and shouting at her partner. When Doe brings these events to the attention of her supervisor, he laughs in her face.
-Doe is confronted by a student with a history of racist, violent behavior, including threatening to kill his girlfriend a year prior to his confrontation with Doe over her anti-racist work. Following this incident, Doe is refused a locking office door, something given to all other administrative offices and the offending student is not punished.
-Years later, that student’s testimony against Doe is used by the college to discredit her.
-After receiving violently racist anonymous emails sent to Doe and other Black faculty, Bard administration identified the sender as a Bard Alum but refused to share their identity with Doe, and again refused her a locking door to her office. The sender was never punished by Bard.
-Top-level administrator David Shein is the subject of decades-long allegations of racism and sexual assault, including with Bard undergraduate students. Despite Shein’s behavior being an open secret amongst students and faculty, he is never punished.
-A female Black student is raped by a White male student. She files a Title IX report but is continuously denied an investigation, a No-Contact Order or a change of housing. Only after a female White student reports the same male student for rape is her no-contact order granted. The Black student is then asked to leave the college.
-In September 2018, the student files a lawsuit against Bard for the treatment of her case. Doe is accosted for providing the student with support and is accused of encouraging the lawsuit.
-The following summer, Doe is suspended from her position and forbidden from interacting with students or alumni (a decision that has since been reversed). In her decade at Bard, Doe developed prestigious programming, received glowing reviews from students, and was never subject to any investigation or violation of Bard policies.
-Doe was then the subject of a 19-month investigation with its roots in racism and homophobia. The probing investigation elicited reports from students that had minimal contact with Doe but close ties with administrators. Despite the hostility of the investigation, it could find no policy violations and could not recommend terminating Doe.
-Nonetheless, Doe is fired.
At the conclusion of Doe’s complaints, the following statistics are outlined:
This list is not wholly exhaustive of the complaints outlined in the document nor is it inclusive of the meaningful, powerful work that Ms. Doe performed at Bard College. But it is eerily reminiscent of many of the experiences faced by faculty of color at comparable institutions and illuminates an obvious pattern in which prestigious, “progressive” institutions gain prestige and publicity from the work and qualifications of faculty of color while maintaining a hostile, under-compensated work environment.
Skidmore College students, 1971
Speaking anecdotally, I found my time at Skidmore College to be characterised by the same intentional hostilities towards faculty, staff, and students that Ms. Doe describes in her lawsuit. As a white student, I faced no racial discrimination myself, but listened to countless stories from my peers and professors about racism at an institution that advertised itself with a progressive, inclusive image.
During my time at Skidmore, I watched administration debate whether or not students deserve to get paid minimum wage (a multi-month battle with administration eventually won students the right to earn minimum wage, but the college refused to codify into policy that students will always get paid at least minimum wage), knowing that low-income students and students of color disproportionately took campus jobs. I asked our college president in an extended email that included a bibliography to take down a racist “lawn jockey” statue in his yard, a large home at the front of the college. His background was in African American literature (he was White) and he was previously teaching in Virginia, he told me he would look into it and was unfamiliar with the controversy. The statue was later removed when I published the letter in a campus newspaper and he was contacted with requests by donors and prominent faculty members to remove it. At Skidmore, students from the top 1% of households by income make up 15% of the student body. Students in the bottom 80% of households by income make up 23% of the student body. At Bard, the problem is hardly better.
Many liberal arts colleges are in rural, majority white communities, particularly for historic colleges in New England. As of 2020, Annendale-On-Hudson has a population that is 71% White, 11% Asian, 3% Black, and 15% of other backgrounds. For Saratoga Springs, the population of the town is 85% White, 4% Black, 3% Asian, and 8% of other demographic backgrounds. While data on student diversity is often readily available by colleges, information on faculty diversity is much harder to come by and often relies on anecdotes or memory. Across three years as a student studying in four different departments, I was instructed by a total of three professors of color, a number higher than most of my peers. The Skidmore College History department holds no Black faculty members in any speciality, with three faculty members dedicated to the teaching of European history and zero faculty members working in African or Black History. I was incredibly lucky to take a course in Skidmore College’s newly-created Black Studies when it began in 2020, led by an incredible scholar and mentor (Dr. Winston Grady-Willis) who was returning to Skidmore after a decade of teaching at other institutions, in large part due to Skidmore’s failing to address racism on campus.
While Professor Grady-Willis chose to return to Skidmore, many other faculty members left the college, publicly citing the institution’s racism as their reason for leaving. A year after my own graduation, Religious Studies professor Bradley Onishi (who was so popular among students that he was selected as the faculty speaker at my own graduation) resigned from his tenure-track position in a public letter. Onishi writes that the public perception of Skidmore was “as a forward-thinking place with a creative ethos and wonderful student body” but found that his own experience was not as wholly positive as the reputation of the school presents. He writes,
“As an Asian American, I now know Skidmore as a place where Asian people are taught about in the classroom by experts in their fields, but where Asian faculty (especially Asian women) are often called the wrong names in the halls by those same experts. I know it as a place where senior White colleagues often choose to remain silent or simply ignore the microaggressions and behind-the scenes attacks their Black and POC colleagues endure regularly. I know it as a place where LGBT students have been asked to name their sexualities and gender identities aloud in class (something about which I emailed you and the Director of the Gender Studies program, but never received a response). I know it as a place where hostility often dons the guise of gentility to great effect. I know it as a place where those who see themselves as fighting the “good fight” politically off campus often convince themselves that there is no possibility they are part of the problem institutionally on campus. Together, these amounted to a hostile work environment and contributed significantly to my decision to leave the College.”
Onishi’s letter came after the resignation of Wendy Lee, an Asian-American English professor at Skidmore. In her own resignation letter, she states that the college “has been a revolving door for Black and POC faculty and staff, especially Black women and women of color faculty and staff.”
Following Onishi’s departure, the department of Philosophy and the department of Religious Studies joined the long list of Skidmore departments populated entirely by White professors.
While reading Ms. Doe’s lawsuit, I began to be struck by the question, why didn’t she just quit? Her job was emotionally exhausting and required her to maintain both an administrative and teaching role in which she was persistently diminished and devalued. Her requests for a raise were refused. She had previously been affiliated with Harvard and Stanford and held a long, impressive resume. But as I continued reading, I realised my own naivety. Without Ms. Doe’s presence, the instances of racism and misogyny she describes would have gone wholly unchallenged. The students—most importantly the students of color—that found her to be an ally and mentor would have been left without guidance or kindness or advocacy.
There is a particularly cruel irony that those most subjected to discrimination and hostility undertake the most powerful and meaningful work. Students and faculty of color (as well as low-income students) battle with administration, craft school policy, and consult with administrators on how to build community and support for marginalized populations. This work is largely unpaid and actively opposed, yet when it comes time to implement progressive change, administrators receive the credit of doing “radical work” or “redefining education”. Those who challenge the college are silenced until they can be deemed “brave”, their resilience to internal opposition becoming yet another marketing point for a racist college with a multimillion dollar endowment.
In Doe’s case, and across the higher educational landscape, academics from marginalized backgrounds fight for scraps of career opportunities and must arrive at institutions with a longer, more prestigious resume than their white counterparts. For white students, working with professors of color often becomes a voyeuristic talking point to boast their liberal academic credentials. Faculty of color are made to be experts on race, regardless of their background, then silenced when their presence elicits any feelings of discomfort from their students or employers.
Employees (and students) of these institutions are then given an impossible choice: do they take on the simultaneous roles of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion specialist, psychological councillor, strategic development officer, highly-qualified academic instructor, and public face of diversity at their institution (with minimal compensation and perpetual pushback), or do they simply do their job as described and watch the institution around them fail to serve its community? Even for university employees that choose the latter, they still risk pay discrimination and hostility from coworkers.
I wish I could conclude this piece with some optimistic drivel about a few bad apples, but it is clear that the American Liberal Arts System was designed for wealthy, white students and a nepotistic circle of faculty and administrators. The principles of liberal arts should lead us to higher visions of justice: perpetual questioning, feeling in touch with history, challenging power and forces of marginalization, but it is clear that to many these words are nothing more than commencement speech fodder and inspiration points for Latin mottos. Even still, a handful of individuals—like Ms. Doe and many of the faculty members and students I have been lucky to meet at Simon’s Rock, Skidmore, and Goldsmiths—continue to do the difficult work, the work they should not feel required to do, to improve the lives of their peers, colleagues, and friends.
Doe’s case, I hope, brings a large amount of publicity and light to the deeply embedded issues endemic to Bard and its peer schools. Racism, misogyny, homophobia… these things are systemic issues, but they’re carried out through the will of individuals and bureaucracies. While we cannot de-institutionalize what is a fundamentally institutional structure, we can admire Ms. Doe’s compassion for her community, share her anger at the wilful failings at Bard, and continue to demand the deconstruction of failed progressivism.
This piece cannot be written without a thank you to Malchijah, Adia, Amal, Kimberly, Amr, Gabe, Shayna, and the countless others who continue to amaze me with their honesty, kindness, and dedication. I don’t have the words to express my gratitude for the tireless work that the professors from marginalized backgrounds I studied under continue to do at Skidmore College and Goldsmiths, University of London.
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