BRUNSWICK — A Mexican-themed party held last month at a Bowdoin College residence hall has led to talk of impeachment for two members of student government and reignited a fierce debate about racism and cultural inclusiveness at the school.
Articles of impeachment have been introduced against two members of student government, Duncan Cannon and Clare McInerney, both members of the class of 2018, for violating a nondiscrimination policy when they attended a “tequila party” last month. The news of the party was first reported by The Bowdoin Orient, the student newspaper.
According to an email invitation, the theme of the Feb. 20 party was, “tequila, so do with that what you may. We’re not saying it’s a fiesta, but we’re also not not saying that (smiley face).” The party involved students drinking tequila, and some students wore sombreros.
Colleges and universities around the country are grappling with race relations and complaints of racism on campus, triggered in part by massive protests on the campus of the University of Missouri last fall that led to the resignation of university President Tim Wolfe.
Student government members at Bowdoin had been scheduled to meet Saturday to vote on whether to move forward with impeachment proceedings against Cannon and McInerney. However, McInerney said she was told Friday that the proceedings were postponed until after spring break.
She declined to comment further. Cannon didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
If the students are impeached, they will be removed from their positions in student government but it won’t affect their enrollment at Bowdoin.
Michelle Kruk, a senior and vice president of student government, said the issue is much bigger than the possible impeachment of two student government members.
“It’s not about tequila or sombreros,” she said Friday at a coffee shop in Brunswick. “It’s about casual racial and ethnic stereotyping and cultural insensitivity at a school that has seen far too many examples of both.”
Kruk, who is from Chicago and is Latina, said she sees little acts of casual racism every day and has been the target of a racial epithet on campus. She also knows of a Latino student who had bottles thrown at him.
Last fall the school’s sailing team hosted a “gangster” party where attendees were encouraged to wear stereotypical black clothing and accessories. The team quickly apologized, but that event drew protests.
In the fall of 2014, Bowdoin’s lacrosse team held what was billed as a “Cracksgiving” party that featured students wearing Native American garb. Several students were disciplined after that incident because they had been warned in prior years about hosting such a party.
Kruk said the incidents have collectively cast Bowdoin, a private liberal arts college of about 1,800 students, in a negative light.
“Blacks and Latinos have been dropping out at a much higher rate here, and now people are telling others not to come here,” she said.
After some students expressed concerns that the tequila party was racially insensitive, others said the response was an overreaction. Some contacted news blogs and the story spread quickly on social media.
An opinion writer with the Washington Post cited the recent events at Bowdoin in a column Thursday as an example of political correctness gone too far. The writer, Catherine Rampell, said she doesn’t believe Latino students should be offended by sombreros.
“Go to Chili’s, Chevys or other Mexican and Tex-Mex restaurants, and you’ll likely find similar decor and garb,” she wrote. “If your litmus test for the suitability of a party theme is something like, ‘Could this plausibly be a national chain restaurant?’, then a ‘tequila party’ probably seems safe.”
Social media reaction has been overwhelmingly negative toward the impeachment effort.
But Clayton Rose, Bowdoin’s president, said in an interview late Friday, in his first public comments on the issue, that those who dismiss the issue as just political correctness run amok are “wrong-headed.”
“This has to do with our social code and the context of other issues we’ve been dealing with as a college,” he said. “It also has to do with the facts and circumstances of this situation, which I can’t speak to for privacy reasons. I understand people want to leap to the conclusion that people don’t have thick enough skin, but our core mission is to have a deep and full intellectual discourse among all students.”
Rose also sent a message to all students addressing the issue from his perspective.
Rose would not comment directly on the party or any possible disciplinary action, including whether the college had conducted its own investigation of the party.
Students at Bowdoin on Friday were reluctant to talk about the controversy, with most refusing to talk to a reporter and others refusing to give their names.
One student said the whole campus was talking about the party and the fallout, but opinions were divided, with some students offended and others saying those offended are too sensitive.
“It’s not like the people who hosted the party were celebrating Mexican heritage,” she said.
Kruk said the problem is widespread.
“For people to say that this is about feelings getting hurt, it’s really much broader than that,” she said. “It’s a systemic issue. Bowdoin may be a more diverse school, and that’s great, but it has to be about more than just numbers. These students need to feel welcome.”