FEATURE: Pomona Campus Climate Survey Reveals Sharp Divisions

Accusations of racism; “nonwhites virtually guaranteed tenure, no matter what;” students and faculty called “fascists” for expressing centrist political views—the results of the recent Campus Climate survey conducted by Pomona College with Rankin & Associates speak to the underlying tensions among students, faculty, and staff that have come to define life on campus. In the shadow of the most contentious election since 2000, the survey has shown that Pomona is far from immune to the racial, political, and philosophical tensions currently gripping the nation. Students, faculty, and staff have reported numerous instances of “exclusionary conduct” for reasons of race, identity, and political views that have left them isolated, excluded, and bullied by members of the Pomona community. On the administrative side, faculty have reported a “constant pressure” on the part of the administration “to hire people of color for both faculty and staff positions,” and on the flip side, accusations that non-white staff had higher standards for promotion. Perhaps as a result of this divisive atmosphere, and concerns about salary for staff and faculty, over 50% of faculty and staff, as well as around 30% of students, have “seriously considered” leaving Pomona in the last year. Riddled with these internal problems, Pomona should consider the unfavorable results of the survey as motivation to change if it wishes to create a more positive and unified campus climate.

In 2020, even before the survey’s results were released, it was clear Pomona’s on campus tendency towards fear and mistrust had gone from bad to worse. Last year, Abby Martin, a pro-Palestine speaker invited to campus by the college, baselessly attacked a Jewish student journalist for his alleged ties to “white nationalists” when he asked her a question about Hamas’ activities against Israeli civilians. The transition to online schooling in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only made the latent hostility within the student body more apparent. In April, while the debate over how to grade students for the spring 2020 semester raged on, students were targeted publicly by their peers for advocating for a normal grading scheme. Even students who expressed no opinion on the grading issue were denounced as “fascists” for asking their classmates to deal civilly with one another. Little wonder, then, that one student stated in the Campus Climate survey that “[t]he absence or self-censorship of conservative or even moderate voices in public and private debates here leads to an atmosphere where ignorance and hatred of our fellow citizens are ubiquitous. The lack of empathy for conservatives and moderates,” the student went on, “is chilling.”

It’s no secret that the prevailing orthodoxy at colleges nationwide has fostered serious divisions within student and faculty populations. The trend has been especially striking at Pomona College; in 2018, the results of a campus-wide Gallup poll revealed that only 61% of students felt comfortable expressing their political views with other Pomona students, while 62% said they were comfortable expressing their views to their professors. The same poll found that only 16% of students and 14% of faculty identified as politically moderate, while only 3% of students and 4% of faculty identified as politically conservative. When asked if Pomona’s campus climate stifles some forms of speech for fear of offending others, the vast majority of students, including 95% of conservatives and moderates and 80% of very liberal students, agreed with the statement. Since then, the disparities have become even greater. In 2020, only 2% of students identify as conservative and 12% as moderates, while 10% of faculty identified as moderates and none as conservatives. Even in 2018, a pervasive sense of mistrust, particularly towards those of alternative political persuasions, contributed to the climate of fear that has led to a number of serious on campus controversies, including blacklists and threats directed at individuals or groups. With already limited representation of alternative political views decreasing even further, the problem has likely only gotten worse.

The sentiment is nothing new. In 2018 when the first Gallup poll was released, one student told the Independent on the condition of anonymity that “[m]ore than being afraid of saying things that others could find offensive, I think a lot of people on campus, including myself, feel like if they say anything that goes against the surface level campus culture dogma, they could be socially shunned.” The student cited his fear of ostracization as his reason for requesting anonymity. Two years later, that aspect of campus life hasn’t changed; 26.4% of students reported having personally experienced instances of exclusionary conduct on campus, and 28.3% of reporting students claimed racial identity as the basis for the conduct, while a whopping 58.5% claimed political, socio-economic, or philosophical views as the basis for it. The survey also makes it clear that instances of exclusionary conduct don’t simply stop; only 21.7% of responding students claimed they had experienced such conduct only once, while 24.7% stated that they had been the target of bullying for these reasons five or more times.

And students aren’t the only ones cognizant of exclusionary behavior on campus; 32.4% of faculty and staff claim to have observed instances of such conduct. According to them, students were the targets of such behavior around 60% of the time, and the originators of it 51.4% of time, with faculty and instructional staff accounting for another 26.9% of cases. Moreover, while only 15.8% of faculty and staff reported seeing exclusionary behavior only once, 38.1% claimed to have seen it on campus five or more times. Faculty and staff claimed that political views accounted for 39% of cases—a plurality—and philosophical views for another 18.9%, while racial identity accounted for 34.1% of instances. As with students, faculty and staff members claimed that intimidation, bullying, and exclusion was generally the result of this behavior.

It’s little wonder that so many members of the Pomona community reported observing or being subjected to this sort of behavior. Despite the administration’s occasional posturing against exclusionary behavior, the fact remains that a strong culture of suspicion pervades all member institutions of the Claremont Consortium, Pomona far from excepted. Student governments across the Consortium have repeatedly engaged in the same sort of exclusionary conduct as is cited in the survey results, as when the Pitzer student senate banned members of journalistic organizations, apart from The Student Life, from attending its meeting on whether its exchange program with the University of Haifa in Israel should be canceled. What’s more surprising is the survey’s other major finding: that Pomona, according to many faculty members, focuses too much on identity rather than qualifications in its hiring process.

According to the survey results, there is a significant divide in terms of the perceived advantages accorded to different identity groups in the faculty and staff hiring and promotion process. One staff member claimed that “[w]hite staff get promoted. Staff of color don’t get promoted or rewarded the same way…White staff get higher raises while staff of color get the standard one percent.” A faculty member stated that “[s]ometimes there are higher standards for faculty of color to achieve tenure/promotion to full professor,” while another claimed that “white men do far less service and have less expectations of service.”

On the opposite side, though, white faculty have their own impressions of flaws in Pomona’s hiring process. Some tenured and tenure-track professors wrote that there are “lower and more lenient standards for faculty of color in promotion decisions” and that there is “easier tenure criteria for Blacks and Hispanics.” One went so far as to state that “[n]onwhites [are] guaranteed tenure, no matter what,” and another claimed that this tendency on the part of the administration sometimes means incompetent individuals receive tenure “at the risk of the school being accused of being racist.” Professors aren’t necessarily opposed to Pomona’s aiming for diversity; one professor said that “Pomona tends to favor diversity over qualifications in making hire. This is fine, except in cases where qualifications are significantly mis-matched with the job description.”

The issue of tenure is particularly important for Pomona’s efforts at faculty retention and talent development. There’s a reason 55% of faculty have given serious thought to leaving Pomona in the past year; according to one respondent, salaries “are not really competitive.” One non-tenure-track faculty member stated that “[a]t Harvey Mudd, people with my exact position make 10k more per year than I do.” Others argue that “[Pomona’s] adjunct professors deserve better pay. We could do that.” The split in faculty and staff perspectives mirrors and reinforces the divide within the student body; the more people point fingers and shout accusations, the worse these divisions will become. 

What Pomona’s survey makes clear is that the current atmosphere among students, faculty, and staff alike, is not conducive to a united campus community. There is a deep mistrust along racial, ethnic, political and philosophical lines that the administration, despite the surveys it’s conducted in the past, has done little to address. It’s a serious problem, particularly for students, faculty, and staff on the receiving end of the exclusionary conduct that’s becoming more and more common of late, and the administration must take serious steps to address it if it is to prevent these sorts of negative experiences from becoming even more common. The survey’s results should serve as an impetus for the administration to do so, even if it’s only out of self-interest. An aggressive and exclusionary student body reflects poorly on any school; by taking measures to protect students of marginalized backgrounds or political views, it could strengthen its standing as an institution of higher education. Promoting the exchange of ideas would likewise introduce students to perspectives they may have otherwise never encountered, making them more well-suited to dealing with a world in which people don’t adhere to a liberal arts colleges’ campus orthodoxy. And retaining qualified faculty and staff members should always be a top priority, even if it means raising salaries and giving more consideration to an individuals’ qualifications than to their identity. These are simple changes that could have very beneficial impacts for the college, and Pomona has the data now to incentivize it to implement them. Whether or not it chooses to do so will be telling of the college’s priorities.

 

Correction: The article previously conflated non-tenured and non-tenure-track faculty and has been updated accordingly.

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