Departing professor details campus racism

Many Black women, and generally women of color, have felt unsupported by the college. (Consequently) they have quit or their contracts have not been renewed. A worrisome number of them have voluntarily left tenure-track positions. The college mission includes diversity, ‘inclusion’ of every group. In this we have failed. — Professor Gloria Estela Gonzales Zenteno

MIDDLEBURY — Marissel Hernández-Romero, a Black professor from Puerto Rico, began a three-year appointment at Middlebury College in the Department of Luso-Hispanic Studies in 2017.

She arrived with a “positive attitude,” she has said, but at the end of her stint she is leaving campus with the feeling that she has survived a “racist hell.”

The college “pushes racialized people to assimilate and accept their hostile culture, and they are not interested in whether these people grow professionally or (about) their wellbeing,” Hernández-Romero wrote Sunday night in a campus-wide email.

Later in the same email she detailed several on-campus incidents she had endured, some of them involving colleagues, whom she identified by name.

The college’s commitment to “diversity” is belied by the actual climate on campus, she suggested.

“It is not enough to bring more diversity and implement programs such as Black Studies when your black professors are leaving because (the campus does not feel) safe,” Hernández-Romero wrote.

Later in the email she suggested that six of Middlebury College’s 13 Black professors have this year decided to pursue opportunities at other institutions “that may provide a safer environment.”

The Independent reached out to Middlebury College Dean of Faculty Sujata Moorti for more information about faculty departures, but Moorti did not respond in time for this article.

Hernández-Romero’s concerns have been echoed by others in the college community.

“Many Black women, and generally women of color, have felt unsupported by the college,” said Middlebury Professor Gloria Estela Gonzales Zenteno in a phone interview with the Independent. “(Consequently) they have quit or their contracts have not been renewed. A worrisome number of them have voluntarily left tenure-track positions. The college mission includes diversity, ‘inclusion’ of every group. In this we have failed.”

HOSTILE CULTURE

“The College claims to support Black and Brown and PoC (People of Color) faculty, staff, and students, but at the same time, there is a strong contingent of mainly tenured faculty that fight for the continued and uninterrogated comfort of privilege under the guise of ‘free speech,’” Hernández-Romero wrote in her email. “They argue vociferously for members of the Middlebury community to be able to spew problematic, if not unabashedly bigoted, ideas.”

These and other conditions have created an unwelcome environment for Black and Brown faculty and students, she said.

But the racism she has experienced over the past three years has by no means been confined to campus, she said.

In one incident, barely a month after her arrival in 2017, Hernández-Romero went shopping at Kinney Drugs and on her way into the store encountered a white person coming out, who “called me the n-word,” she recalled in an interview with the Independent.

Later in 2017, after returning a ZIP car to a college parking lot, Hernández-Romero found herself being followed by a Middlebury Police Department cruiser as she walked home to her residence on Weybridge Street. (MPD later denied her characterization of the incident, she said.)

While shopping in the Rite Aid (now Walgreens), she said she was followed around the store by an employee.

And earlier this year, while eating lunch with a colleague at Shafer’s on College Street, Hernández-Romero said that a white man approached their table, picked up her salad and threw it in the trash.

“Every time something like that happens it takes me by surprise and I can’t react,” she said. “There’s no way you can react.”

NOT ALONE

Other Black employees of Middlebury College have described similar incidents in town.

Janae Due is assistant director of the Anderson Freeman Resource Center, which works to promote an inclusive and welcoming environment on campus.

Last month, while dining outside in Middlebury, Due and three white friends were accosted by a white man “spewing out All Lives Matter rhetoric,” she wrote in a public post on Facebook.

Due’s friends repeatedly asked the man to leave them alone, but he ignored them. When Due asked him to “please” leave them alone, “he said, looking directly at me, ‘Oh wow, we’re getting violent now, aren’t we?’

“I will never forget the look in his eyes,” she wrote, “like he was just waiting for me to make the wrong move so he would have an excuse to do something bad. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if I was alone or if it was dark.”

Kemi Fuentes-George is an associate professor of political science at the college.

In a June 15 article in the Middlebury Campus newspaper, titled “Being Black in America,” Fuentes-George recalled his first walk to the Sarah Partridge Library in East Middlebury, and how a police car passed by and did a U-turn.

“And sure enough, a few moments after I sat down in the library, after I greeted the charming, elderly librarian, after I picked up whatever graphic novel caught my eye, the cop followed me in. Then came the usual: ‘I need to see your ID sir, we’ve had reports of suspicious behavior,’ and various other rationalizations,” Fuentes-George wrote.

“As usual, I gave the cop my ID,” he continued. “As usual, he called it in. As usual, there was a moment of panic, where I wondered if this was the time there would be a case of mistaken identity, and I would get hauled off to jail...” (see the full article on page 5A of this edition).

COLLEGE RESPONSE

Shortly after Hernández-Romero sent her email Sunday night, Middlebury College deleted it from its servers, which made the email disappear from recipients’ inboxes. The move was widely derided on social media, where the email had already begun to spread, and some accused the college of censorship.

On Monday President Laurie Patton, Chief Diversity Officer Miguel Fernández and Dean of Faculty Sujata Moorti released a statement addressing the email and its removal.

“We understand the impact this had on silencing a colleague who was actively naming the racism she encountered on campus,” they wrote. “We removed the email in order to prevent an influx of reply-all messages from the thousands of recipients and the additional harm that might have been caused if anyone responded in ways that did attempt to dismiss or make light of her experiences.

“We realize that by making this choice, we removed the opportunity for her to be heard. We understand the power and value of being heard.”

Officials also acknowledged that the email served as a reminder that the college still has much work to do.

“(Hernández-Romero’s) email demonstrates the ways that individual incidents of racism and our inability to respond to such incidents in a way that addressed the underlying climate both reflect and reinforce racism at the systemic level,” they wrote. “We understand that racism is entrenched in the culture of our institution, and we acknowledge the ongoing harm it causes to our Black students, staff, and faculty as well as our students, staff, and faculty of color. We must be accountable for responding to incidents as they arise and for addressing the culture that enables such incidents to occur.”

Officials then outlined some of the steps the college will be taking, immediately and in the near future.

“We recognize how embedded racism is in the fabric of our lives and of our institution. We will be accountable for mapping out a path forward that is both intentional and systematic.”

UNHAPPY GOODBYE

Hernández-Romero has accepted a tenure-track position at an institution in New York that she declined to name, according to the Middlebury Campus newspaper.

As of Tuesday afternoon, she had not received any communications from her department or from college administrators regarding the substance of her email or its deletion.

What responses she has received so far have been “from professors and staff expressing their support and messages from students sharing their stories,” she said in a follow-up email to the Independent.

She hopes her email will open the door for real conversation and a plan to start long overdue change, she said.

“I encourage all the (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) students, staff, and faculty to share your stories without fear and hold the institution accountable for their systemic racism,” she wrote Sunday night. “Create a record of all these events, (which) are not rumors but real traumatic experiences. Make noise. Enough of hiding these events. Enough of being off the record.”

Editor’s note: Christopher Ross is married to an employee of Middlebury College.

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