On March 25, President Katherine Bergeron hosted an all-campus forum, billed as “a community conversation on free speech, equity and inclusion.” The event started on time at 4:30pm in Palmer Auditorium, but went over the expected end time by over 45 minutes. The entire auditorium was nearly full, resulting in the use of an overflow room with a stream of the event.
President Bergeron pledged to enact a five-part agenda aimed at assuaging concerns. She plans to have policies toward speech on social media reviewed, as well as the procedures for reporting bias incidents. In addition to finding a full time Dean of Equity, Bergeron will appoint an interim dean. Last, she pledged to create a more regular forum to discuss campus-wide issues.
Following Bergeron’s comments, Liza Talusan ’97, former chair of the Connecticut College Alumni of Color committee and a member of the College’s Alumni Association Board, spoke briefly about her role as a facilitator. Short of a few attempts to enforce the time constraints of the forum, Talusan gave the students nearly unfettered ability to speak their minds. The forum quickly took a life of its own.
Ayla Zuraw-Friedland, editor-in-chief of The College Voice, spoke as an individual in solidarity with marginalized groups on campus, specifically calling out President Bergeron, asking her to speak off the cuff and to condemn hate speech by name. Zuraw-Friedland’s insistence voiced many of the student body’s concerns: that the forum would not suffice, and neither would the administration’s five-part agenda if it did not recognize and decisively address the rights of the offended.
Bergeron pushed back on the implication that anyone, other than herself, writes her emails for her. “I stand in solidarity with you,” Bergeron remarked, “[…] you need to know that. I don’t think anyone stands more in solidarity with you than I do.” But many students felt the words were too non-committal, too political, and ultimately unsatisfying.
Citing the First Amendment, Bergeron attested the right to free speech of the individual, even in cases of bigotry. Equally, she championed the right of other individuals to speak out against it, noting that this bigotry is part of a “structural problem.”
While Bergeron called out “bad speech, hate speech, extreme speech,” referring to them as “challenging things,”. Certainly the entire student body was feeling challenged, but more present was the desire for some guidance in navigating the charged complexity of race issues on campus. Specifically, students were disappointed with her avoidance of the term “racist” to specifically identify the incidents that prompted this forum.
“We’re disappointed that Bergeron didn’t come out there and openly condemn hate speech,” Michael Fratt ’15 told The College Voice, “it was the overarching desire for students.” Fratt was the first student to speak at the forum, and he noted that he was proud of the way his fellow students conducted themselves.
This defense comes a day after Connecticut’s National Public Radio affiliate published an article after speaking with Professor Pessin. The WNPR column notes that Pessin told them, “the entire event has been taken out of context and that the outcry is not about his alleged racism, but is a concerted effort to attack his reputation because of his pro-Israel point of view.”
Out of all of the speakers, two students stood up for Professor Pessin. One argued that his words were misconstrued and taken out of context, while another bashed The College Voice for “yellow journalism.” Connor Wolfe ’16 spoke out about the injustices of anti-semitism, before detailing some his opinions about Israel’s political and militaristic situation. Subsequent student speakers channeled his concerns about anti-semitism into a discussion about the well-being of the greater campus community.
The Professor’s claims of bias because of his pro-israel political stance never factored into the discussion. Arguably, the whole event was only indirectly about him, although one Palestinian student who’d had the words ‘pitbull’ spray-painted on his car did sarcastically thank the professor for providing the ammunition. The student told the story of being a refugee from a war-torn country, ending his contribution with a concise “free palestine.”
Largely, however, the forum was mostly concerned with the visibility of the underrepresented at Connecticut College. “Why did it take this incident for us to start talking about this,” said one student, who urged that we use the recent events to address a larger problem: the stories and experiences of minority students and their experiences of bigotry, discrimination, and racism at Connecticut College.
The campus conversation quickly became a forum for these experiences, but perhaps more importantly, it became a space for all in attendance to listen to and empathize with their peers.
Many stories emerged detailing incidents of being stopped by campus police on the suspicion of not being a student, or of bias reports going largely unconsidered by the administration. Jamie McKay ’15 commended the courage of the student speakers, but says that “stories of pain and of anguish” were the motivating factor in her choice to speak up.
One student, Jason Hamburger, at first intended to defend Professor Pessin, a favorite professor of his. However in hearing narrated the emotions of the student body changed his mind and instead took the microphone and apologized for ‘his ignorance.’ He was met with a roaring applause. Alumnae Max Nichols ’14 used the forum to bemoan the college’s policy of ‘risk-aversion,’ suggesting the College use this opportunity to take definitive, progressive action rather than remain ambiguous.
At one point, Bergeron did eschew diplomatic language, expressing a sincere, “I love you,” to the many in attendance. The proclamation, however, seemed to fall flat on the ears of the students, particularly those feeling estranged from an administration unwilling to openly denounce the elephant in the room. •