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Connecticut College Students Rally, Urge President for Change

WNPR/David DesRoches
A packed auditorium listens to Connecticut College students speak.
Credit The College Voice/Contributed photo
Students enter President Katherine Bergeron's house on Sunday.

Dozens of students marched to their college president's home on Sunday after racist graffiti was found in several campus bathrooms.

The graffiti read, “no n------”, with the “n” word spelled out. Sources tell WNPR that the graffiti was found in several bathrooms and in different handwriting styles.

The Connecticut College students – charged with mounting frustration over the graffiti and the president’s reluctance to address another recent incident of discrimination – were welcomed into President Katherine Bergeron’s home.

Students asked for classes to be canceled on Monday, and for the college to instead provide opportunities for the community to discuss the recent events. Bergeron was quick to act.

Monday was set up with events throughout the day – some unstructured time for reflection and conversation, and some formal events, including an “open discussion with President Bergeron and senior administrators.”

Hundreds of students flooded into a balmy auditorium Monday afternoon, as Bergeron talked about the importance of diversity and the danger of discrimination.

“I think it’s very important to recognize that if we want change, we also have to begin by listening,” Bergeron said.

But many students and faculty say they haven’t been heard for over a week. Monday’s events followed a controversy sparked by a tenured philosophy professor’s Facebook post, which was seen by many as racist. That set off a firestorm of discussion over the boundaries between free speech and the right of students to feel safe and free to express their own views.

The president had never publicly condemned hate speech, at least not until racist slurs appeared on campus walls. Bergeron talked about how she grappled between the idea of free speech and the college’s goal to create an inclusive environment. Here's Bergeron on Monday, speaking at the forum:

If I’m going to be very honest, I will say that I was grappling between the two poles of the ideas that I put forward last Wednesday. I was grappling with the notion of what it means to be free, to be able to say what you want. And this other notion that we are part of a body that has higher standards. That second part didn’t come through, that’s because I didn’t say it clearly enough.

Sophomore Ramzi Keiss said he’s disappointed that it took so long for the president to publicly condemn hateful language. 

“The administration said it was because they took time to listen – how much listening do you need to make that decision, to condemn hate speech? I don’t think it takes that long a time,” Keiss said, noting the contrast in response times between the racist graffiti and the Facebook post.

Sophomore Anique Ashraf said it’s a shame the administration has relied on students to teach them how to handle these incidents. Here's Ashraf speaking to WNPR:

It’s not our job to educate them or to make them understand about issues of diversity and racism. The fact that 70 of us had to walk to President Bergeron’s house to make her understand what racism is, and to make her release a statement about that, after a month-long process, and a petition that’s a week and half old, with over 500 signatures, says a lot about this administration.

Listen below to students sharing their views after the forum with the president and senior administrators:

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The petition on Change.orgwas created by senior Ayla Zuraw-Friedland. It calls for the college to condemn Professor Andrew Pessin’s Facebook post, which referred to Gaza as a “rabid pit bull” that’s “in a cage because of its repeated efforts to destroy Israel and Jews.”

As of March 31, the petition had garnered over 500 signatures.

Bergeron has not mentioned her opinion over whether Pessin’s post was racist. At an event last week, Bergeron said that his post showed “poor judgment,” and that it “was not in keeping with the level of discourse that I have come to expect from the Connecticut College community and, in particular, from its faculty.”

Her language regarding the graffiti was stronger.

“As your president, I will not tolerate forms of racist or hateful speech designed to demean, denigrate, or dehumanize,” she stated in a letter to the college community on Sunday.

Credit WNPR/David DesRoches
Senior administrators at Connecticut College listen to students speak.

David Canton, chairman of the history department, said the “n” word is what gets people “riled up,” and likely sparked the fast response. 

“The tragic part is we become split – you end up with competing oppressions, and not seeing the coalition,” Canton told WNPR.

Sophomore Keiss said he understands that this problem exists, but that the students are moving past it.

“Both different events hurt different people,” he said. “It also requires a little focus on each individual event itself, and focusing on why each individual event itself is hate speech, and why it’s wrong.”

President Bergeron has ordered an update of the school’s protocol for handling bias incidents. An investigation into the graffiti is underway.

 

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.

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