by Nathan Gower, copy editor
The opinions expressed in this article are those of its author, and in no way reflect the opinions of The Echo or Warren Wilson College. The author takes sole responsibility for all claims made.
Student gripes with campus administration are familiar at any institution of higher learning. Despite Warren Wilson College’s distinctly different environment from most other colleges and universities, we are still subject to many of the problems that weaken the greater sense of community between students, staff, and faculty. The recent duress, often aimed at Dean of Students Deb Myers, is not something our quaint Swannanoa college is foreign to.
In the 2003-2004 academic year, then-Dean of Students Louise Solomon came under tremendous pressure stemming from a creative fiction piece written in the then-equivalent of what is now known as The Peal: The Well. The story, titled “Finding,” was written by student James Sutton, also known as Jim. In it, according to an November 8 issue of the Echo, a racial epitapht commonly known as the “n-word” is used. The context of the term’s usage, according to the article written by Danny Beutler, was that while in Bosnia for a summer trip, Sutton witnessed a man utter the word and inclusion of it in his story was to highlight the hatefulness of the man. The word was used, as Sutton put it, to “[depict] an incident of racial discrimination he witnessed against his Muslim friends.” It must be made clear, however, that the original story could not be found. What little knowledge expressed comes from faculty and students at the time who are still involved in the Warren Wilson community, including then-editor of The Well and current Joan Beebe Teaching Fellow Rose McLarney, then-student Tom Wilder, and professors Dongping Han and Sebastian Matthews. Additionally, archived coverage by The Echo has shed some light on the situation.
Sutton’s story, published on October 8, was not well received in itself, but the tale had only been amplified when the International Student’s office had been vandalized the next day. During the raid of the unlocked office, racial slurs were written on the room’s dry-erase board and documents from file cabinets were scattered about the floor. This incident, when paired with the October 8 story in The Well, caused then-President Doug Orr to release a letter he claimed to be written by and on behalf of “all Minority students at Warren Wilson College.” The letter called for a number of provisions, including the instant removal of that particular issue of “The Well,” disciplinary action for Jim Sutton, the resignation of John Bowers, and an emergency meeting with the highest authority figures in the administration.
Nigerian student Uzo Nnabuihe, at this emergency meeting, claimed she had reported two incidents of racism to Solomon prior to the early October incidents, but “the school did nothing.” According to Beutler’s story, an investigation of the claims had been opened by Solomon, but was closed when no culprit could be found. A debate over free speech and issues of race captivated the campus and weeks of intense discussions saw through the duration of the semester. Interviews with involved parties imply the tensions eventually resolved themselves, but Solomon would leave over the summer after a lawsuit was raised on the issue of racial discrimination to an expelled student on sexual harassment charges. Interviews with the aforesaid parties suggest the claims of sexual harassment were valid, but specific reasons for Solomon’s departure were difficult to come by.
While the current state of affairs on campus is far less touchy considering the lack of racial tension, it still correlates strongly with the past grievances outlined above. We see the detriment to the community when the administration does not respond to student concerns, and conversely, what happens when the actions of students outside the proper forums belittle the efforts of reformist strategists within Student Caucus, advisory committees of various sorts, and traditional behind-closed-doors meetings with this authority figures. While, understandably, there are legitimate concerns on both sides of the Student Life debates, a tangible failure to recognize and respect both parties’ viewpoints has propelled action without consultation from each group.
On one hand, we’ve heard allegations that the administration has moved forward on policies without consulting the consensus voice of students. On the other, student acts of vandalism like the keying of Myers car, a spray-painted message aimed at Myers, and a slanderous flier with absurd allegations of Myers’ family life have ruptured the relationship between the administration and student body.
While both parties do have legitimacy to their frustration, the methods by which they have been carried out has caused a community response from concerned peoples. Student Max Hunt’s letter calls for a reversion to the community “I KNOW EXISTS, not the current, cut-throat version that has blossomed this semester.” An open letter by President Sandy Pfeiffer suggests we do “not let our college be defined by the inappropriate actions of a very few,” and encourages “a civil, constructive, and collaborative” discussion on campus. A brief discussion was held by all members of the Warren Wilson community at 2:00pm on Friday April 29.
Tom Wilder, a student at the time of the unrest who remains a member of the Wilson community as head of Residence Hall Maintenance suggested a simple resolution that seems to have been lost in the ruckus surrounding recent woes: communication. He acknowledged that no matter who it is, “the Dean of Students is going to get harassed for one reason or another.” Wilder did not believe the recent responses were justified, but rather that criticism is “just part of the job.” He doubts students will just “bury the hatchet,” but notes that part of Myers job is to keep an open channel for communication with the students. “For students to have someone that will really listen to them, that is how we avoid this in the future.” Wilder understands the busy nature of Myers position, and hopes proposed new Student Life positions, like the now-scrapped Dean of Student Support will help the community-building process.