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Reflections on the Events of July 31

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Dear students, staff and faculty,

I write to offer updates and reflections on the July 31 call about a student to Campus Police.

A number of you have written to me to express concern for the student, especially as we begin the new semester. I want to assure you that I have reached out to her, offered a meeting and apologized on behalf of the college. Dean of the College Susan Etheredge ’77 and her team have been in contact with the student as well, to offer their support.

While the investigation of the incident is ongoing, both the student and the staff member have been invited to participate in mediation, a voluntary process that can offer a path forward for both parties. A core tenet of restorative justice is to provide people with the opportunity for willing apology, forgiveness and reconciliation.

In the context of a profoundly divided political and social climate, in this country and around the world, it is urgent that we, as members of an educational community, learn to speak with one another, not past one another, when we disagree, and to do so with the goal of true understanding. Learning how to have authentic conversations about our identities, especially race and class, is among the most challenging work many of us do—and we all need to learn how to do this work better.

I offer a case in point by sharing several excerpts from the hundreds of messages I have received from students, faculty, staff and alumnae, about the July 31 incident. As you will see, members of our community have expressed a range of perspectives. While you might disagree—even vehemently—with one or all of these viewpoints, they provide a way to understand the challenge that lies ahead in healing and improving our community.

  • “It's not really possible to articulate a ‘truth’ about which experiences are and which are not influenced by race. For the student, race was most certainly central because it speaks to every part of her life experience and how she has seen Black people treated. People of color can feel frustrated by the question—Was race involved?—because to ask the question does not recognize their life experience.”
  • “While instances of racial profiling can stem from hate, I also believe such profiling often stems from a lack of education on the matter. I'm sure many Smith students, employees and faculty come from predominantly white communities, and they, perhaps, have been directly or indirectly taught to fear people who appear different from themselves.”
  • “At this point the lives of three dedicated staff members have been seriously disrupted, their jobs have been jeopardized, they have been labeled as racists and have had nasty comments and threats directed at them.”
  • “The student was extremely hurt by the incident. AND the caller might not have done anything wrong, given the context and the instructions from the college about how to handle suspicions. Both can be true.”
  • “We all think we know the story. We only know the perspective we bring to it.”

Let us each ask ourselves how we move from different perspectives, like these, to deeper understanding and needed structural changes. I am heartened by the fact that a number of our faculty and staff members have been piloting programs to examine the ways in which race, gender, class, implicit bias and power influence our assumptions, interactions and conversations. Clearly, Smith has a great deal to do to ensure that the college is a place where each of us feels we belong. I have never worked at a college or university as committed to social justice as Smith College. However imperfect our campus community—indeed, our world—might be, this ongoing commitment gives me hope.

Each year, I send a message to the community about our sustained work on inclusion, diversity and equity. You will hear more from me soon about specific opportunities for training and education, with the goal of meaningful, systemic change. I embrace the work that lies ahead.

Sincerely,

Kathleen McCartney
President, Smith College