Five days after receiving a letter urging Bates College to work harder to stamp out racism on its campus, the college president outlined a call to action to address the problem.

Clayton Spencer Bates College

“The issues of structural racism that Bates partakes of are long-standing and deeply ingrained, and overcoming them will depend on sustained, collective effort across the institution,” college President Clayton Spencer said in a letter to the Bates community.

Her plan calls for, among other things, more training for staff and faculty, more effort to recruit students “from historically marginalized backgrounds,” a more inclusive curriculum, a greater effort to root out bias in hiring faculty and doing more to support black, indigenous and students of color.

More than 700 people, from faculty to alumni, signed a public letter last week calling on Spencer to develop a plan detailing “how you will lead us forward” to combat racism at the elite college.

Whether her answer will satisfy critics, who are not wholly united, is uncertain.

While their letter complained of “racism and oppression” at Bates, it is not clear exactly what changes they’re seeking from a college that has historically been on the forefront of pushing equity and opportunity for all.

Spencer said in her response that in light of the national crisis surrounding police killings of black people and the protests that followed, she “wanted to reach out to affirm my personal commitment and that of the college to our faculty, staff, students and alumni of color and to the work of anti-racism.”

She added, too, that she wanted to share plans “for intensifying our efforts” with those “who have been in touch with me recently to learn what Bates is doing concretely to disrupt structural racism on this campus.”

“I want to acknowledge the deep pain and hurt felt by black, indigenous, and people of color who are members of the Bates community,” Spencer said

“These are heavy times, as we find ourselves in the midst of three interlocking crises: the pandemic, the worst employment economy since the Great Depression, and race-based killings and the devaluation of black lives,” she said.

“Any one of these crises alone would be powerfully disorienting and fear-inducing, but taken together they can feel overwhelming, not least because each of them lays bare the same deep cleavages and profound injustices on which our society, including Bates College, is built,” the college president said.

“We know that black, indigenous, and people of color at Bates are subject to racist acts, and we know that we have not achieved a campus and culture where every student is supported for success across all aspects of their experience, and where faculty and staff from traditionally underrepresented groups are adequately supported in their professional growth and development,” Spencer said.

“These failures go to the essence of our mission, and I regret that we have not made greater progress in closing the gap between mission and reality at Bates, particularly for our students, faculty, staff, and alumni of color,” she said. “I also take it as a call to action.”

The plan outlined by Spencer includes many items, from helping students raise money for charities such as Liberation Farms Somali Bantu Community Association to creating a new director of equity and inclusion education to help make training available to all staff and faculty during the next two years.

“To succeed in these efforts, and particularly to create a body of progress that is greater than the sum of the parts, we need actively to seek to understand the experiences of the black, indigenous, and people of color in the Bates community,” Spencer said. “We need to talk to each other and listen to each other. We need to explore issues of inequity and injustice with the rigor we apply to other subjects.”

“This won’t happen unless we demonstrate that we are, collectively, willing to identify, acknowledge, and address issues, and that we have the commitment and capacity to repair harm and make change,” Spencer said.

Bates has a long history of addressing racial issues, a legacy of its abolitionist roots and willingness to educate women and racial minorities from its earliest days.

Spencer noted “the leadership, intellectual contributions, and efforts of many people who have worked at Bates over decades to create a more just and equitable environment at the college,” including the willingness of faculty and students over the years to challenge tradition to create new areas of study such as Africana, American Studies, and Gender and Sexuality Studies.

She pointed out the college’s decision a couple of years ago to elevate the chief diversity officer to a vice president position for equity and inclusion, a senior staff post at Bates.

Bates has ongoing, grant-funded efforts to transform its curriculum to be more inclusive and supportive of its students, a particular benefit to those who are first-generation or from minority backgrounds.

“This work has always been important to Bates, it is urgent in this moment, and it is the right and human work to do,” she said. “I am grateful, as ever, for your help and solidarity as we carry it forward together.”


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