Is Oxy's President Next?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Occidental College is the latest campus to join the domino effect of students calling for the firing of top administrators. One of the activists occupying the office of the vice president since Monday is Olivia Davis, who outlines here the demands of Oxy United for Black Liberation, which include “Hir[ing] much needed physicians of color at Emmons Wellness Center to treat physical and emotional trauma associated with issues of identity” and the immediate removal of President Jonathan Veitch:

As a white, cis, affluent, heterosexual man he has the privilege to not have to consider the violence I face everyday. … [T]his movement is a manifestation of the daily microaggressions, discrimination, and other facets of marginalization we come to know as our college experience. It looks like a white student cussing me out my freshman year, calling me stupid when I told him that he couldn’t essentialize the existence of Black people to struggling through crime and poverty in “the hood.” It also looks like the time that I heard an entire room of white students say n***a at a party my first year. It’s the time that my professor refused to speak up in class when a white student referred to black men as “threatening and violent.” And again the time that I watched womxn -- black womxn -- around me encounter gross amounts of misogynoir when reporting their sexual assaults. It is everyday that I have to walk through this institution internalizing all of the psychic violence enacted on black students and students of color that makes me believe that I do not belong here.

As students, we are willing to let our academic performance suffer in order to ensure our survival. This is why creating safe spaces and protecting marginalized students should be the responsibility of the administration.

In the op-ed, Davis doesn’t cite anything that Veitch did to trigger the calls for his ouster, not even something as small a poorly worded email that forced out Claremont McKenna’s dean, an impolitic remark that precipitated the removal of Mizzou’s president, or an email about Halloween costumes that threatened the jobs of two faculty members at Yale. The most tangible thing Davis cites: “Veitch has been given over 49 demands from three different groups of students; only 3 of those demands have been met.” (The full list isn’t provided.) And she completely dismisses the defense of Veitch by the chair of the Board of Trustees:

Veitch was extolled for his supposed accomplishments. One of which being his “tireless[ness] in hiring a diverse faculty and staff.” In 2013 the college had 7% black faculty, 10% Latinx faculty, and 12% API faculty. A school where over two thirds of tenured faculty is white can ever be commended for hiring diverse faculty and staff.

Two-thirds of Americans nationwide—64 percent—are White. “7% black faculty, 10% Latinx faculty” are indeed lower than the nationwide numbers of 12 percent Black and 16 percent Hispanic, but Occidental’s “12% API ” is far outpacing the 5 percent of Americans who are Asian or Pacific Islander (API). Should White faculty be fired to fill precise racial quotas? Should the API percentage also be lowered?

The percentage of students at Occidental this year who are African American is 4.5 percent, so “7% black faculty” is in fact overly representative. It would be wonderful if both numbers were higher, but should a president lose his job over it, a president whose institution ranks 13 among hundreds of liberal arts colleges in terms of ethnic diversity?

Occidental College is also notable for having one of its former students go on to become the first African American to be elected and reelected President of the United States. He didn’t appear to need a safe space:

“It’s a wonderful, small liberal arts college,” President Obama says of Oxy. “The professors were diverse and inspiring. I ended up making some lifelong friendships there, and those first two years really helped me grow up.” … Oxy was the place where the future president made his first political speech on Feb. 18, 1981 as part of a movement to persuade the Occidental Board of Trustees to divest the College of its investments in South Africa. “I found myself drawn into a larger role [in the divestment movement] … I noticed that people had begun to listen to my opinions,” Obama recalled.

Many young Millennials may not know that South Africa in 1981 was governed under something called apartheid, a brutal system of racial segregation and physical violence.

In September, Obama joined the debate over the new campus politics by saying, in part, “I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.” Will a reporter ask him about his old college? Update: I missed Obama’s interview with Stephanopoulos this week:

OBAMA: [...] The civil-rights movement happened because there was civil disobedience, because people were willing to get to go to jail, because there were events like Bloody Sunday. But it was also because the leadership of the movement consistently stayed open to the possibility of reconciliation and sought to understand the views, even views that were appalling to them of the other side.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Because there does seem to be a strain on some of these campuses of a kind of militant political correctness where you shut down the other side.

OBAMA: And I disagree with that. And, it's interesting. You know, I've now got, you know, daughters who — one is about to go to college — the other one's — you know, going to be on her way in a few years. And then we talk about this at the dinner table.

And I say to them, "Listen, if you hear somebody using a racial epithet, if you hear somebody who's anti-Semitic, if you see an injustice, I want you to speak out. And I want you to be firm and clear and I want you to protect people who may not have voices themselves. I want you to be somebody who's strong and sees themselves as somebody who's looking out for the vulnerable."

But I tell 'em — "I want you also to be able to listen. I don't want you to think that a display of your strength is simply shutting other people up. And that part of your ability to bring about change is going to be by engagement and understanding the viewpoints and the arguments of the other side." And so when I hear, for example, you know, folks on college campuses saying, "We're not going to allow somebody to speak on our campus because we disagree with their ideas or we feel threatened by their ideas —" you know, I think that's a recipe for dogmatism. And I think you're not going to be as effective. And so, but I want to be clear here 'cause, and it's a tough issue because, you know, there are two values that I care about.

I care about civil rights and I care about kids not being discriminated against or having swastikas painted on their doors or nooses hung — thinking it's a joke. I think it's entirely appropriate for — any institution, including universities, to say, "Don't walk around in blackface. It offends people. Don't wear a headdress and beat your chest if Native American students have said, you know, 'This hurts us. This bothers us." There's nothing wrong with that.

But we also have these values of free speech. And it's not free speech in the abstract. The purpose of that kind of free speech is to make sure that we are forced to use argument and reason and words in making our democracy work. And you know, then you don't have to be fearful of somebody spouting bad ideas. Just out-argue 'em, beat 'em.

Make the case as to why they're wrong. Win over adherents. That's how — that's how things work in — in a democracy. And I do worry if young people start getting trained to think that if somebody says something I don't like, if somebody says something that hurts my feelings that my only recourse is to shut them up, avoid them, push them away, call on a higher power to protect me from that. You know, and yes, does that put more of a burden on minority students or gay students or Jewish students or others in a majority that may be blind to history and blind to their hurt? It may put a slightly higher burden on them.

But you're not going to make the kinds of deep changes in society — that those students want, without taking it on, in a full and clear and courageous way. And you know, I tell you I trust Malia in an argument. If a knucklehead on a college campus starts talking about her, I guarantee you she will give as good as she gets.

So pitch perfect.