BRUNSWICK, Maine — Bowdoin College’s ongoing efforts to accommodate a more diverse student body continue to make the 222-year-old liberal arts college a target for national conservative media.
The latest volleys in what some label a “war on political correctness” came after the student-run newspaper, The Orient, reported that students involved in a Feb. 20 party featuring mini-sombreros and tequila had been placed on social probation, moved to different housing and banned from the college’s annual Ivies celebration and that student government would consider impeaching members who attended.
The backlash intensified after Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell offered her views in the March 3 column, “Political correctness devours yet another college, fighting over mini-sombreros.” Soon the story was picked up by conservative publications, including The National Review and the Conservative Angle, as well as by anonymous sports bloggers, one of whom criticized Latino students by name and published photos from their personal Facebook pages along with their hometowns.
Thousands of anonymous comments blasted the college administration for bowing to the “PC police,” while other comments — and personal emails and Facebook messages — directed hate-filled criticism and threats at students and faculty who objected to the party.
Students at the center of the conflict say national media reports intentionally mischaracterize what’s happening at Bowdoin as part of a false narrative of “political correctness gone wild,” inflamed amid a climate of hate and violence fueled by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
“This has gone beyond people being upset and having public discourse, which I think can be healthy,” Michelle Kruk, a senior, vice president of Bowdoin Student Government and a member of the Latin American Student Organization, told the Bangor Daily News. “There have been incredibly violent attacks on myself and other students of color …”
Kruk had just come from her second meeting with Bowdoin security in an effort to protect herself after a sports blogger posted her personal information as part of a blistering attack. She and other students declined to be photographed because they fear for their safety.
“Many publications are lying,” Dash Lora, also a senior and member of the Latin American Student Organization, said. “They’re depicting us as oversensitive students who got offended by small sombreros, but this is bigger than that. It’s about these type of parties simplifying one’s culture to a stereotype.”
‘None of us people of color matter here’
The “tequila party” — now known as “Sombrero-gate” by students, some of whom are selling T-shirts of former college president Joshua Chamberlain wearing a sombrero — is the most recent example in a string of parties deemed culturally offensive by the college.
In November 2014, more than a dozen members of the men’s lacrosse team were disciplined after dressing up as Native Americans at the team’s annual “Cracksgiving” party. In October 2015, members of the sailing team wore baggy clothes, gold chains and cornrows to a “gangster party.”
National media claimed the college offered counseling to students who saw mini-sombreros, but Latino students say counseling was made available only after they were bombarded by hate-filled racist and sexist emails and messages like this one from someone who described herself as a 1979 graduate of Old Dominion University: “Whiny college students like you really need to be kicked in the ass and told to get over yourself already … You are being ridiculous and you are taking political correctness to [sic] far and you are abusing your office.”
The email also suggested that Latino students at Bowdoin “get laid, have some taquila [sic] and a toke or two and unbunch your panties.”
“Students of color here are facing that type of violent backlash,” Kruk said. “So far it hasn’t been anything physical, but I think given all of the anonymous attacks like on [the anonymous chat site] YikYak, a lot of us are feeling pretty unsafe.”
At a Feb. 24 student government meeting, some students of color described feeling excluded from the college community,
“This is not about hats. This is about the treatment of people of color,” Kruk said. “When you have students calling you ‘spics’ and the students using the N-word to students’ faces, those are tied to a type of racist, ideological violence which can then turn into physical violence, which it has … When something like the tequila party blows up, it’s just like, ‘We’re done, this is the last straw.’ And at this point, it’s happened to enough demographics that … at this point, to all of us, it’s like, ‘Well, damn, none of us people of color matter here.’”
Students say those dismissing the administration’s response as “PC gone wild” are encouraged and empowered by Trump’s presidential campaign, which celebrates white privilege and provides cover for racism.
“What is particularly scary now is he has sincerely offended everyone in this country who is not a white, cisgendered, straight male who is able-bodied, and it doesn’t matter,” Kruk said. “There are black women getting kicked out of his rallies, men getting hauled out for being fat … this is incredibly violent and he’s winning primaries. He is not winning in spite of his bigotry, he’s winning because of it.”
Earlier this month, sophomore Richard Arms acknowledged in a letter to The Orient that he had written a then-anonymous email alerting one of the sports bloggers about Bowdoin’s “PC rats.” Arms wrote, “We’ve found ourselves right in the middle of an authoritarian takeover by PC culture and its crooked army.”
Arms softened his language in a letter to The Orient, arguing that he shouldn’t be penalized for having been “born into privilege,” and that he doesn’t understand why the party was offensive, but would like to. Arms wrote that he didn’t attend recent discussions about race on campus because he was intimidated by the idea of standing in front of “100 outraged students … and saying that you disagree with them.”
Kruk said that rationale rings hollow when the offenders have been told repeatedly that such behavior will not be tolerated and have failed to attend open discussions and other educational opportunities offered on campus.
“How white students don’t understand that we’ve been putting up with so much for so long that if we seem angry, or we seem threatening — again, that’s just white students’ perceptions. It’s like, they need to understand what has been happening,” she said.
Michael van Huystee, who graduated from Bowdoin in 1992 and now lives in Cape Elizabeth, said he was embarrassed when he heard his alma mater “being bashed for two hours” on a Boston sports radio talk show recently.
“It just looks horrible. It’s certainly not the way I want my college to be portrayed, but also because I don’t think it was handled well,” he said. “The general sentiment of most of the folks I’ve spoken to about this is that the administration wildly overreacted. It’s downright funny how this has been mishandled. It seems so disproportionate.”
Since circulating a March 4 letter by President Clayton Rose, the college’s administration has not addressed the matter publicly.
Van Huystee, who described himself as “100 percent Dutch — Caucasian,” said Thursday that Bowdoin administrators should “teach the kids who are being offended about how to stand up for themselves … The point of a liberal arts college is to teach students to think for themselves, but they’re going to be offended a lot when they get out into the ‘real world.’ I think part of learning should be learning to deal with that.”
But Lora said, “This has been happening our whole lives. For people to be saying we should let it roll off our backs and let it happen, that we shouldn’t feel this way and we should allow them to continue to attack everything we hold sacred … we’re just not going to do that.”
Making diversity matter
Professor Olufemi Vaughan, Bowdoin’s Geoffrey Canada Professor of Africana Studies, on Wednesday dismissed criticism that the students are overreacting or that the college is “overly politically correct” and not preparing students for “the real world.”
“The fact of the matter is … we live and work in a diverse environment,” Vaughan said. “It is a requirement in the real world to respect ethnic, racial, gender and sexual differences in the workplace and in civil society.”
Diversity, while relatively new in Bowdoin’s 222-year history, is necessary for the college to continue its tradition of intellectual and academic excellence, Vaughan said, and for diverse students to continue to select Bowdoin among their other options, they must feel welcome and respected.
Current and former students said that Bowdoin wasn’t equipped to handle the influx of different races, nationalities, religions and ethnicities it has seen since former president Barry Mills began aggressively recruiting a more diverse student body about 10 years ago. (About 30 percent of the class of 2019 identifies as people of color, versus about 20 percent of the class of 2009.)
“The problem is a lot of colleges expected students of color to just come and it would automatically be a different environment,” said Caroline Martinez, a senior. “What’s happening now is they’ve brought us here but don’t know what to do with us. They didn’t realize they’d actually have to change the way the school runs in order to have us here. We’re not the typical white, male, affluent, elitist … that this college was made for.”
“Bowdoin was built for students who look like me — white, male and from New England,” alumnus Matthew Miles Goodrich agreed. “President Mills did a really wonderful job making it more diverse, but that doesn’t translate to a more welcoming, less segregated place.
“It’s very important to put aside what I consider to be irrelevant and predictable issues and to see this as a very simple question — one of decency, civility and collegiality in an increasingly diverse college community,” Vaughan said. “We need to be mindful that these are young people who, in the context of our society and history are racial and ethnic minority students in a dominant white majority environment … they’re in a world where they tend to be isolated and alienated. It is not being permissive to listen to their concern and ensure they live in an environment where they feel respected and welcomed. We need to let them know that we take their concern very seriously.”
Since he arrived on campus in July 2015, new president Rose made it clear he would address racism. Days after his convocation, in which he mentioned the challenge of understanding each other’s racial identity, Rose welcomed students back to campus with a letter alerting them that “racial invectives of the worst kind” had been shouted at students, staff and faculty near campus and in town. Rose then met with town and community leaders, who convened a task force to investigate the reports.
“He sent an email saying that ethnic stereotyping goes against the honor code — that’s not something that’s ever been said before,” Martinez said of yet another email Rose sent to the college community. “He’ s being much more specific, bringing in a group of consultants to find out the racial structure of the campus. I feel like they’re really trying, where before it felt like if there were a strong student reaction they would mostly try to appease us.”
Goodrich said the discipline resulting from the latest party is unprecedented, and Martinez said the backlash followed the realization by students and alumni that Rose is serious about bettering the Bowdoin experience for multicultural students.
“The outrage from alums or the mainstream media, and from students on campus, reflects a legacy of Bowdoin students grappling with their troubling racist history,” Goodrich said. “Students of color on campus are asking for basic decency, for other students not to stereotype them. It seems that there are other students — the folks who hosted the tequila party — who can’t even afford them that ounce of respect.”
Students hope Rose will continue to encourage dialogue about race and ethnicity even in the face of pressure from “a wealthy, white alumni base” that has reportedly been calling with threats to withdraw their donations over the college’s response.
Lora hopes the publicity will prompt those who don’t understand why students are offended to listen and learn when they return to campus in April. But Vaughan said the furor may make discussion difficult at first.
“Unfortunately, the so-called backlash has undermined the possibility for meaningful dialogue, at least in the short term,” he said. “I would rather keep working on dialogue. It’s time to lower the temperature and engage in honest dialogue about diversity on our campus.”