Mary Spellman, the dean of students at Claremont McKenna College (CMC), a highly selective liberal arts college with a student body of 1,300, resigned late last week after committing an unforgivable microaggression. Her sin? When Lisette Espinosa complained in an op-ed that she felt discomfort as a poor Latina student at Claremont, Spellman emailed, offering to speak with Espinosa on how to “better serve students, especially those that don’t fit our CMC mold.”
Spellman’s email triggered a protest and a two-student hunger strike. Within days, Spellman apologized for an hour to a jeering, swearing mob of students in an agonizing display of self-flagellation eerily reminiscent of China’s Cultural Revolution, with its stilted public apologies before mobs of unsmiling Maoist student radicals.
The mob even turned on itself. While the student-led struggle session played itself out, an Asian female was overheard recounting her own struggle with racism as she told of an African-American who admonished her to “go back to your home.” She commented, “We should not distinguish people on their race. Black people can be racist.” The mob quickly purged her for her insolent crime against “people of color.”
Spellman never had a chance. As Claremont lurched to the left, she was one of the few remaining Other—a Republican who had given $2,000 to President Bush’s 2004 campaign and followed that up with $250 to John McCain in 2007. How did this happen?
Claremont McKenna’s Origins
Claremont Men’s College was founded in 1946 to serve demobilized officers and soldiers coming back from World War II, some of whom interrupted college to go war while others received battlefield commissions. The school emphasized leadership in the context of a well-rounded and rigorous liberal arts education. The college began admitting women in 1976, and it changed its name to Claremont McKenna College a few years later.
For decades, U.S. News & World Report’s annual college rankings placed Claremont in the nation’s top 20 colleges. This year, it ranks ninth among liberal arts colleges. A significant portion of alumni have gone on to create or helm corporations or work at high levels in government. The school’s veteran heritage bestowed it with a strong ROTC program and a right-of-center faculty and student body at a time when most campuses hewed Left.
The first step in the long march to discard Claremont’s niche distinction as a no-nonsense, practical college was taken when the trustees selected Pamela Gann to be the college’s president in 1999. Gann, a former dean at Duke University, was a liberal, with a robust history of contributing to Democratic politicians. She wasted no time in shaping Claremont into a bland liberal conformity, complete with reeducation sessions for innocent students deemed guilty of thought crimes.
The Descent Begins
Spellman’s demise can be traced to two seemingly unrelated incidents, both tied to Gann’s leftward tilt. In March 2004, a visiting professor of psychology, Kerri Dunn, spoke at a campus forum on racism, announcing that that very day, her car was vandalized, its windows smashed and tires slashed. Spray-painted slurs festooned her car: “Kike Whore” (Dunn, a Catholic, was publically converting to Judaism), “Bitch,” “Shut Up” and “N—– Lover,” rounded out by a mangled swastika.
The campus was agog. College leaders condemned the hate crime and called in the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate a possible civil rights violation. A $10,000 reward was offered. Immediately, Gann ordered classes shut down for a day of mandatory introspection into sensitivity and racism. In contrast, after 9/11, less than three years earlier, classes stoically went forward.
That evening, the Claremont hate attack was all over the news. My wife saw the report and immediately said, “It’s obvious she did it to her own car.” I was surprised at Mrs. DeVore’s firm conviction. Perhaps it was the “visiting psych professor” bit that aroused her suspicion.
Nevertheless, five months later, it was Dunn who was convicted of attempted insurance fraud and filing a false police report. Evidence was presented at trial that Dunn had been arrested in Nebraska for shoplifting four years prior. After that arrest, Dunn claimed that the police roughed her up, but a witness contradicted her claim, saying she saw Dunn bruise her own arm and tear buttons from her shirt.
In addition, prosecutors told the judge that Dunn also had a previous petty theft conviction and had once impersonated a nurse while calling a pharmacy to get prescription meds. Clearly, Dunn wasn’t the sort of top-notch professor Claremont was known for. Dunn now teaches psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
The Second Major Scandal
Gann continued to remake Claremont into a reflection of an American higher education, diversifying faculty, building up academic departments that played second fiddle to Claremont’s conservative government and economics departments and working to recruit a more diverse student body.
This last effort soon collided with Claremont’s reputation for academic excellence and selectivity. In 2012, Claremont found itself embroiled in an SAT cheating scandal, forcing Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Richard “Dick” Vos to resign. It was revealed that Claremont had been inflating its average SAT statistics since 2005, a few years after Gann had assumed the college’s helm. The New York Times, Washington Post, Time magazine, CNN, and other national outlets took notice of the embarrassment. Some college ranking publications punished Claremont by dropping the school from their listings.
Gann lawyered up, hiring high-powered firm O’Melveny & Myers to investigate. Claremont’s internal investigation showed a dean of admissions who was eager to keep Gann happy, with Vos telling the college’s hired investigators that Gann wanted to see SAT averages rise. Gann also wanted a more diverse campus.
Curiously, none of the major news outlets dug deeper into the scandal, connecting the dots between Gann’s oft-stated desire to see more minorities on the campus while maintaining Claremont’s extremely rigorous academic standards. The fact is, Vos’ SAT cheating began at the same time that Claremont launched its racial admissions preferences. Something had to give as Vos was pressured into admitting under-qualified minorities: either he would report lower SAT scores and incur Gann’s wrath, or he would cheat and hope he wouldn’t get caught.
Months later, Gann would tender her resignation, effective the following year.
Bringing Us to the Current Self-Flagellation
Of the recent campus angst, Claremont’s current president, Hiram Chodosh, said, “I’m saddened by it. I am hopeful that our college and university community can work through the conflicts in a transformative way to both provide that sense of home and support and reinforce the educational and societal value of free inquiry and expression.” Chodosh followed up by offering to create a separate but equal safe place to “demonstrate an institutional dedication to support marginalized students.”
Not to be outdone in the self-criticism, the Associated Students of Claremont McKenna College intoned, “Too often we fail to serve marginalized communities on our campus, and in many cases we have actively contributed to their pain. For that, we are deeply sorry.” And, “It is our foremost priority this year to become a conscious, supportive, inclusive and diverse student government that values and serves all the members of our community, not just those who have historically been advantaged, privileged, and well-served.”
In other news, the real world said it doesn’t care, and notes that life is unfair.
Once, Universities Were about Academic Excellence
Before American university campuses became universally accessible to those with marginal grades and a chest full of borrowed federal Monopoly money, they were frequently competitive places—even meritocratic.
As for the “historically” “advantaged, privileged, and well-served” whose presence on campus might “discomfort” a poor student, I well remember my first week on campus at Claremont in 1984. I was a transfer from Cal State Fullerton on a full Army ROTC scholarship. I recall maneuvering my beater Ford Grenada, with its fraying vinyl roof, into a parking lot full of shiny Mercedes, BMWs, and even more costly cars. I vowed to myself right then that I’d be damned if I let a bunch of trust fund babies outdo me academically.
A month-and-a-half later I found myself in Leon Hollerman’s international economics class with my fellow students uncharacteristically quiet; their heads buried in textbooks. I asked someone what was going on. “There’s a pop quiz today,” was the reply. I had missed class the previous Thursday because I was sick, and was wholly unprepared for the quiz.
I failed my first test at Claremont. Within a week, my parents received two letters in the mail. One, from the college, said that if I didn’t improve my grades, I would be ejected from the college. The other, from the Army, said that I didn’t improve my grades, I would lose my scholarship. Clearly, I wasn’t at Cal State Fullerton anymore. But I didn’t complain (I didn’t know to whom complaining would do any good anyway), and I didn’t protest. What I did do was study harder.
I ended up getting an “A” in Hollerman’s class. (Hollerman, by the way, was a WWII Army veteran. He was a quintessential Claremont Ancien Régime academic who worked for General Douglas MacArthur in Japan as a civilian economist during the post-war occupation to help rebuild the Japanese economy with the aim of preventing a desperate Japanese people from turning to communism.) I graduated in 1985 cum laude, missing magna cum laude by the barest of fractions, all the while working as a campus security guard at night as well as performing both ROTC and Army Reserve duty to pay the bills (the Army scholarship didn’t pay for room and board).
Prove You Belong In College, Kids
One of my colleagues at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, John Davidson, tells a similarly illustrative story regarding his first days at Hillsdale College. When John met with the student aid counselor at Hillsdale, she told him they would not consider him for a scholarship because his transfer transcript didn’t merit one.
He protested that he was transferring with a 4.0 GPA! Hillsdale’s woman responded matter-of-factly that a 4.0 from the University of Alaska didn’t carry much weight at Hillsdale. Then she said, “Look, Hillsdale just isn’t for everyone.” John considered that response neither an insult nor a microagression, but rather, a motivation to “Prove that I belonged there,” noting that he went on to earn a full scholarship for the rest of his time at Hillsdale.
Had an official at Claremont said “Look, CMC just isn’t for everyone” in the past month, it would have likely led to several pants-wettings and a hospitalization or two. The resignation of the offending college employee would have followed shortly.
In response, some Claremont students are calling for Claremont’s president to grow a spine while imploring their fellow students to act like adults and “be mature enough to take ownership of and responsibility for our feelings, rather than demanding that those around us cater to our individual needs.” Further, they called out the protestors for “The hypocrisy of advocating for ‘safe spaces’ while creating an incredibly unsafe space for President Chodosh, former Dean Spellman, the student who was ‘derailing,’ and the news media representatives who were verbally abused unfortunately seemed to soar over many of your heads.”
Much of the ongoing spate of hard feelings on campuses across America can be chalked up to academic mismatch, a phenomenon explained by economist Walter Williams with a rhetorical question:
Which serves the interests of the black community better: a black student admitted to a top-tier law school, such as Harvard, Stanford or Yale, and winds up in the bottom 10 percent of his class, flunks out, or cannot pass the bar examination, or a black student admitted to a far less prestigious law school, performs just as well as his white peers, graduates and passes the bar? I, and hopefully any other American, would say that doing well and graduating from a less prestigious law school is preferable to doing poorly and flunking out of a prestigious one.
Of course some students at Claremont feel intimidated, afraid, and out of place because they aren’t academically prepared for an elite college.
Perhaps this observation lends itself to sympathy for the current crop of protestors. I’d be mad and frustrated as well, were I recruited to attend a college only to find it beyond my academic reach, all while racking up student debt. The bottom line is simple: colleges do no favors by admitting unqualified students in the quest for politically correct demographic balance.
Chuck DeVore is vice president of policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and served in the California State Assembly from 2004 to 2010.