Had I not once spent a semester living adjacent to the Smith College campus in Massachusetts years ago, I’d probably never have read Michael Powell’s extraordinary New York Times account of a tragi-comic racial debacle there.
Ho-hum. Isn’t this what they do at these fancy private colleges now: turn themselves inside out in furious arguments about race and sexuality?
Back then, I was teaching at a nearby state university. Our home in the woods had burned down, and a colleague on sabbatical generously offered his Northampton house rent-free.
I don’t believe I ever set foot on the Smith campus, although our beagle, Joan, cleverly turned herself into a campus dog and gained several pounds. It took months to work her back into shape after we moved back to the country.
Nevertheless, what happened at Smith College in 2018 caught my eye partly because I’d had an experience somewhat like it, albeit on a purely personal scale. At Smith, a young Black student was approached by a (white) campus security officer who asked why she was eating all by herself in a dormitory closed for the summer, and was she OK.
Definitely not. The student took to Facebook to complain that the experience had left her near “meltdown.” “All I did was be Black,” Oumou Kanoute wrote. “It’s outrageous that some people question my being at Smith College, and my existence overall as a woman of color.” She mentioned the security guard’s “lethal weapon.”
She accused several college employees of bigotry, publishing their photos and email addresses.
The campus erupted into an episode of moral panic like those that have periodically swept New England since the 17th century. Smith president Kathleen McCartney offered a fulsome, some would say groveling, apology and suspended several employees. The Washington Post, New York Times and CNN reported the outrage at face value. Militant students made denunciations and threats against the suspended employees.
”Racist” was the least of it.
Smith College announced “anti-bias” training for staff and faculty, complete with intrusive psychological queries. The ACLU demanded separate dormitories for “students of color” (a practice formerly known as “racial segregation,” but who’s keeping score?).
Eventually, the college got around to investigating the offended student’s complaints, hiring a law firm experienced in such probes. Uh-oh. Pretty much none of her allegations checked out. The security guard, like all campus cops, was unarmed. The employees she pilloried had been off duty that day.
One falsely accused janitor quit his job. “I don’t know if I believe in white privilege,” he told a reporter. “I believe in money privilege.”
Tuition and fees at Smith College come to $78,000 a year.
The college released the report exonerating its employees, but they got no apologies. They were pretty much all laid off due to COVID anyway. Kanoute seems no longer available for comment, probably best for all concerned.
My own experience at the large state university up the road was comparatively benign, although it could easily have wrecked my academic career. It definitely helped me decide I didn’t want one.
As a graduate of a Southern university (University of Virginia), it took me a while to understand that I’d arrived on campus under suspicion. Granted, I’d met people in Charlottesville who hadn’t gotten over the Civil War, but they were regarded as cranks. And true, certain Massachusetts colleagues openly patronized the person described as my “pretty little wife” due to her Arkansas accent, but ordinary New Englanders asked her questions just to hear her talk. No harm, no foul.
Then I assigned a failing grade to a Black student, basically to be sure she was alive. Mildred had done poorly on the midterm, and then vanished. She submitted no term paper and was a no-show for the final. I figured an “F” would smoke her out if she hadn’t left school. Indeed, she did turn up with a preposterous alibi about cutting her foot on a discarded light bulb.
I agreed to let her make up the work. The paper she turned in was derisory. Her exam revealed no familiarity with the course work. I gave her a minimal passing grade and figured we were done.
The good news is that the subsequent formal investigation was conducted by a senior faculty member not associated with my department’s “radical” faction. After conducting interviews and scrutinizing Mildred’s written work — what little there was of it — he ruled that I’d treated her as strictly as I treated all my students, finding no evidence of racial bias.
That was a joke. I was a pushover.
Mildred, however, was a pioneer. In basketball, it’s called “working the refs.” In academia, it’s known as “critical race theory.”
A few days after my exoneration, a colleague commiserated that an “aristocratic Southerner” like me must find State U’s diverse student population challenging. Ethnically, I am an Irish Catholic from Elizabeth, New Jersey.
I figured I needed to quit before I got fired.
Gene Lyons is a columnist for the Arkansas Times.
Send letters to email@example.com.