Students Talk Race on Campus
Because of the sensitive nature of many statements made at the April 1 Senate Public Meeting, any students not in Senate who did not give the Quest explicit permission to reproduce their names in print will remain anonymous.
Last Friday’s Senate Public was, for once, a bustling and well-attended affair. The Student Union saw more bodies in it than during some balls as students, staff, and faculty piled in. Student Body President Safi Zenger began by reminding those gathered, “Believe it or not, this meeting happens every week.” The week’s Senate Public had been designated as an airing of grievances surrounding Reed Psychology Professor Paul Currie’s recorded racist statements and the college’s response to them. In the aftermath of student protests during the previous two days, expectations were high for the voicing of student dissent in a public forum attended by staff and faculty.
After a quick round of committee reports which will be detailed at the end of this piece, Zenger thanked everyone for coming after an emotionally and physically arduous week. Zenger first gave an overview of the event, saying that it was important to invite as many community members as possible to discuss the video of Paul Currie, the recent protests, and the administration’s response.
The first student to speak was First Year Fatuma Hussein. Hussein shared her frustration at the video of Currie which circulated on Twitter, showing him harassing employees at a local establishment, questioning their immigration status, and hurling racist stereotypes about Latine people. Hussein felt desensitized, saying that she hadn’t initially allowed herself to process “how fucked up it is.” Hussein reflected on the recent protests, saying that she “felt so belittled by Audrey [Bilger]” and other administrators present. She described students bringing their experiences with racism on campus to Bilger and being met with little sympathy. Hussein said it was “condescending and dehumanizing to get nothing for her pain,” adding that she was embarrassed to have recommended Reed as a school to other people of color. Hussein’s speech was met with applause and a few barks from Senator Nina Baca’s dog, Henry.
Next to speak was First Year Betty Demissu. Demissu expressed that, while the week had been exhausting and draining, she had also found support from Reed’s Black Student Union and Latinx Student Union. Demissu felt that trust had been broken the past week, not knowing which professors and administrators she could trust to listen and respond to students’ concerns. She had also felt that trust had been built between students, and called for continued solidarity among the Reed student body. Demissue concluded by saying, “Paul isn’t the only problem. We need to keep going towards solving the bigger problem.”
A senior who spoke next wanted to address concerns they’d heard from community members not involved in the protests who felt that they were pointless, that Currie will be fired and that the process will take time regardless of student demonstrations. The student said that it was a common sentiment among students of color that they don’t belong here, and that they find this alienation implicitly or explicitly from the words of their professors, or from the “institutional problems” that contribute to making Reed unwelcoming towards students of color. They said of the protests, “If you feel that things escalated too quickly or were too intense, It’s because there has been rage, discontent, building everyday in Black and brown students. It wasn’t intense for students of color because that’s how things at Reed always feel.”
Senior Cyana Ruiz asked if Oleson or other faculty had an example of a time when the faculty termination process was “seen all the way through.” Ruiz asked if there was any documentation of those processes that students could see. Ruiz raised questions about how policy changes would be made to “deal with racist faculty, vocal or otherwise so that an incident like this doesn’t happen again?” Ruiz called for transparency in this process, stressing that trust between students and administrators was “crumbling,” and that administrators needed to “commit themselves to transparency.” Zenger then asked administrators to step up if they’d like to respond.
Junior Kiana Cunningham-Rodriguez spoke next, announcing herself as a hispanic first-generation American. Cunningham-Rodriguez characterized her first reaction to the video as a dejection that “nothing will happen and there is no avenue for that.” Cunningham-Rodriguez remarked, “obviously, that’s not how things have turned out,” but felt that her initial reaction spoke to the effects the college’s “tone and bureaucracy” have on student outlook. Cunningham-Rodriguez described working in the past with Assistant Dean of Institutional Diversity Jessika Chi — “who is amazing,” said Cunningham-Rodriguez — and feeling that “things will not change.”
Cunningham-Rodriguez told the audience about visiting the college with her mother, how her mother had been so proud to send her to Reed, feeling positive about the community, and how she’ll have to tell her mother she doesn’t feel that way. Cunningham-Rodriguez was upset that “there is video proof of someone saying something so reprehensible,” and still a satisfactory response is so difficult to get from the college, questioning how she can trust that any testimony she gives in bias incident reports or directly to administrators will be taken seriously.
First Year Cassie Minicucci was shocked at how hard it was to get administrators to speak with students. Minicucci expected more from college leaders, saying that administrators not coming forward to address questions made of them directly was “indicative of poor leadership.”
Senior Naama Friedman stepped up to speak about Thursday’s protests and conversations with administrators. Friedman first spoke about an email that was sent to students saying that members of CAT, Bilger, and Oleson would be present for a meeting with the public. Friedman arrived at a tent set up outside commons with a sign that read “face us in Eliot,” and asked administrators to “face students on our turf, on our terms.” Friedman described a private conversation with Bilger where the president said she found the experience of speaking with students in Eliot Hall very uncomfortable. Friedman expressed the need for transparency from administrators and other students, saying “Things tend to die out here pretty quickly because people are so disconnected.” Friedman then offered to answer any questions other students had about experiences with faculty, staff, and administration during the protests of the past couple of days.
A Sophomore who wished to remain anonymous stated the importance of making sure students who participated in sit-ins in Eliot and professors who spoke up from students be protected from disciplinary actions. They stressed that it is unfair that Currie’s students, his advisees, and those who need to take his classes to graduate have lost opportunities, and expressed hope that the college will do something to compensate them. They said that they had voiced all of these concerns to Oleson, and asked Bilger and Oleson to answer questions students had raised during the meeting.
Senior Aditya Gadkari expressed pride in the student body, especially BIPOC students who have been responsible for organizing many of the demonstrations and events over the past week. When he first saw the video of Currie, Gadkari laughed and said “nothing will happen,” sending the video to friends at other colleges who also laughed and said “another one.” Gadkari said that he has had to rely on other BIPOC students to know “what spaces are safe, who to be wary of, who to be afraid of.” Gadkari continued, saying that when faculty were caught being racist in public in the past, their behavior had been handled as a public relations issue and that it was up to students of color to keep each other safe. While he didn’t know if any progress had happened since then, Gadkari hoped that events like Currie’s display of racism were a “loud and clear display of why changes need to happen.” Gadkari said that while accountability for Currie was necessary, “the list is much longer than him,” stressing that this shouldn’t always result in termination, but that there needed to at least be conversations with faculty and transparency on accountability processes.
A sophomore who will remain anonymous told the audience how they were born in Guadalajara and came to the US before they turned 3, saying that they have “dealt with that fact every day of my life, at Reed, and at other institutions like it.” The student expressed once thinking that Reed was somehow better than other institutions on issues of racial injustice. They expressed gratitude for the financial aid they’d received, but wanted to draw attention to how the college values DACA recipients and undocumented students. The student said that rhetoric supporting DACA recipients at Reed is often about how they grew up in the United States and how they contribute to academia. They asked faculty to ponder why their worth is based on being “basically American,” on being able to “conform or contribute value.” “Maybe our worth isn’t based on what we can do that you don’t want to. Maybe we should be valued because people inherently have worth.”
Dean of Faculty Kathy Oleson was next to speak. Oleson asked students to send her questions if they had any. She said that she came to teach at Reed because she wanted Reed to be a place where students can learn, be challenged, and know that they are being evaluated by their work, commenting that “recent events have shattered this feeling in many students.” Oleson said she enjoyed meeting with Senate earlier in the week and talking about their questions.
Junior Wani Pandey said they thought faculty might feel that protests were a severe reaction to Currie’s conduct, and that students are holding a high standard. Pandey said they grew up with professors in their family and knew how hard they worked, but assured them that they were held to a high standard. “Paul was not in a vacuum,” said Pandey, explaining that Currie “existed in an environment that fostered him and let him grow.” While students want to make a change, Pandey said faculty have a more long-term presence at the college and therefore a greater ability to make real change. Pandey urged the faculty to think about what they have done to make Currie’s behavior a possibility. She expressed great regard for her professors, saying that sometimes she “lets them get away with shit they shouldn’t,” but feels that teaching is the best position they could be in. Pandey impressed on faculty that they have to be better, take action, hold their coworkers accountable, and be anti-racist. To conclude, Pandey thanked the professors for all their hard work.
First Year Jewel echoed statements regarding protection for demonstrators.
A sophomore who wished to remain anonymous introduced themselves saying, “I think I’m still a neuro major.” They asked how people are supposed to sign up for Psych 333, a required course for neuroscience majors, which was previously taught by Currie. Associate Professor of Biology Derek Applewhite said that the Biology-neuroscience department was considering making Psych 333 optional, and said that a committee is working to make sure that Currie’s students, advisees, and mentees are given the opportunities that have been jeopardized by Currie’s conduct.
A first-year said that a year ago he submitted his enrollment deposit for Reed because he thought he would be valued here. The student said the administration had “done a great job of making him doubt that.” He dared the faculty to prove him wrong, to show him that they care for and value him.
A Reed senior said they were in the room with Bilger during Wednesday’s demonstrations, reporting that students cried in front of Bilger, sharing with her the pain they experienced attending an institution that did not make them feel valued. The student characterized Bilger’s responses as “cold,” and said they didn’t feel that they were heard. The student thanked those who came, assuring them that they did make a difference, and stressed the importance of maintaining pressure on the administration. The student said that Bilger told demonstrators she could not give them a timeline on Currie’s disciplinary process. This, the student said, was a lie, and that other students read through the faculty constitution and put together a timeline of the faculty disciplinary process.
Student Body Vice President Margot Becker wanted to thank the student for sharing that, as well as the students who put the timeline together (published in this issue of the Quest) and said she was appalled that this work had to be done by students.
Senator Lennox Reeder said that they never expected Reed to feel comfortable, citing Oregon’s history of racist laws which have been shockingly horrid, even for the US. Reeder said seeing Currie’s video upset them deeply, that they wanted to vomit and cry at the thought that someone who teaches people how to interpret the world around them would say such awful things. Reeder felt that Bilger should be made uncomfortable by the sit-ins, that he and most BIPOC students are uncomfortable at Reed. The audience giggled as Reeder said candidly, “it’s a dreadful place.”
Ben Salzburg, class of ‘94, class of ‘20 MALS, was outraged at the news he had recently received about Student Body Info emails being moderated by administrators. In response, Zenger spoke briefly about SB Info’s moderation, telling attendees how after going to multiple administrators trying to get SB Info unmoderated, Senate made their own listserv. Zenger, alongside other senators with a special shout-out to Senate Secretary Miles Sanford, handpicked students’ emails from the campus directory, working with Computer User Services to make an unmoderated SB Info.
A first-year said that they had heard a lot of students having trouble trusting faculty and administration and that Oleson had said that Currie’s actions had broken trust with students. The first year continued that if Oleson had really been listening, she would have known that this instance was only one instance among many.
First Year Aidan Mokalla brought up how many people whose families have been in the US for a long time talk about Currie’s remarks as making them angry or upset, which he understood. Mokalla wanted to say that questioning someone’s immigration status, even in a sanctuary city like Portland, is a threat, stressing that in the circulated video, Currie did not just hurt and offend the people he insulted, but threatened their livelihood.
Zenger closed the meeting by thanking all who spoke and attended, expressing her pride in a student body that has supported one another in a time of crisis. Zenger spoke about the Eliot sit-ins, how demonstrators put graffiti on Eliot’s walls on Wednesday and then cleaned it up the next day. She was grateful that students had the “flexibility to acknowledge they maybe didn’t do the most effective thing.” Zenger said it’s okay to get passionate and to make mistakes, but that going back and cleaning is emblematic of the fact that students hold themselves accountable in a way that the administration doesn’t. “If we can go back and right our own wrongs, why can’t they?”
Before students started speeches, Financial Committee had to make a quick allocation. Cunningham-Rodriguez announced that Terrarium Club presented a budget for an event and Financial Committee voted to fully fund. The motion passed unanimously to an uncharacteristically roaring round of applause.