Claremont McKenna College update: Dean resigns after student protests

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The Dean of Students at Claremont McKenna College resigned Thursday, amid a growing outcry from students at the college.

Mary Spellman announced her decision in an email to the student body.

She wrote, in part: "To all who have been so supportive, please know how sorry I am if my decision disappoints you.  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."

The announcement came one day after student protests at the college, where many demanded more inclusive programs for what they call marginalized students, which include students of color, LGBT students, disabled students and low-income students.

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In late October, student Lisette Espinosa wrote an article in a Claremont student publication about feeling marginalized as a student of color at the college. Mary Spellman's response to the article drew the ire of Espinosa and others when she addressed it by saying, "...we are working on how we can better serve students, especially those who don't fit our CMC mold."

One student began a hunger strike this week, and said she'd continue it until Spellman resigned. In a post on Medium, Taylor Lemmons wrote that Spellman should resign "due to her insensitive comments, her inaction in supporting marginalized students at Claremont McKenna College, and the fact that her actions, independent of any isolated incident, reflect her inability to truly understands the students at CMC." At least one other student joined that effort shortly after. 

Claremont McKenna President Hiram Chodosh told KPCC he felt Spellman's resignation was in the best interest of the students. 

“There are times where leaders have to assess what’s in the best interest of the college and I think our dean of students took a very open and candid view of that," Chodosh said. "I think she made a courageous decision.”

He added that the school had been working to address some of the students' recommended changes recently by committing to open a short-term "diversity space," but that other, long-term changes would take more time.  Those include more funding for multi-cultural clubs, new courses, and more diversity in the faculty and staff.

"We needed to shift some human resources around to create some new positions to make that happen," he said, adding that there "was a question of available space for providing support and programming around issues of diversity and inclusion. And we have also committed to those things in the long term."

Denys Reyes, one of the student organizers, said the administration had implemented few of the changes they'd agreed to back in the spring.

"The institution has only now started to respond to our efforts because it's a PR crisis," Reyes said.

She said the dean's comments and her departure are representative of a larger problem at the school.

"I think that a lot of students were hurt by the dean," Reyes said. "But I think that we are looking at an institutional problem."

Pomona College senior Ashley Land agreed. “It’s just like you can feel the tension when you walk onto the campus and we know these institutions were not made for us.”

Students turned out to protest again on Thursday.

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Spellman's resignation and the protests at Claremont McKenna followed weeks of protests in Missouri over similar issues which led to the resignations of the president of the University of Missouri System and the university chancellor. The momentum of that protest appears to have spread to other colleges and universities across the nation, as The New York Times detailed Wednesday.

This story has been updated.

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