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Under cover of summer break, in the wake of a five-college protest last April, Claremont McKenna College quietly ushered 12 of its student protesters through its disciplinary process. The outcome was made public two weeks ago: Seven students were deemed “responsible” for violating school policy, to different degrees, and punishments were doled out accordingly.

Claremont McKenna College

In addition to requiring an educational component, CMC placed two students on probation, suspended two others for one semester, and three more for a year. Students with a year suspension were deemed most culpable because they took a leadership role in the protest.

Per the administration, the students violated school policy by “intentionally blocking or restricting access” to a campus talk by Heather Mac Donald, a pro-police and anti-Black Lives Matter advocate. But inflicting real material harm on its students with suspensions, especially for a first time offense, is chilling.

Per the administration, the students violated school policy by “intentionally blocking or restricting access” to a campus talk by Heather Mac Donald, a pro-police and anti-Black Lives Matter advocate. But inflicting real material harm on its students with suspensions, especially for a first time offense, is chilling.

Bear in mind that the protest was non-violent; no one was hurt and no property was damaged. Mac Donald’s speech was live streamed (the college planned for this contingency) so that anyone who wanted to hear her could, and it’s still archived on the school’s website. Neither the CMC administration, Campus Security or the Claremont Police ever issued a dispersal order giving students the chance to leave before incurring consequences.

The students protested out of moral outrage. Heather Mac Donald is a dangerous fraud and provocateur. She’s a free-market ideologue masquerading as an expert without any social science or research credentials. She consistently ignores facts and circumstances that don’t fit her worldview and peddles personal impressions and polemics where there’s no supportive data. Despite making a name for herself and touring the circuit, her work on policing is pseudo-science in service of police killings and the harassment of Black Americans.

Mac Donald would be a lightening rod for protesters on almost any L.A. area campus Her inflammatory language guarantees it. The night before, in fact, students disrupted her speech at UCLA. For Black students in Los Angeles, the city with more police killings than any other in the country, where victims are disproportionately Black, and where Black parents in South L.A. warn their children against coming home from college for fear of the police, her argument just doesn’t fly. Worse, it’s a kick in the stomach and a slap in the face to their lived reality.

In its public statement CMC admitted the school was ill prepared for the severity of the demonstration. Indeed, they should have started sooner by doing their homework on Ms. Mac Donald. If they still wanted to invite her, they would have been smarter and wiser to pair her with a political debate partner, or a researcher with a real analysis of inner city crime.

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CMC also contended the degree of coordination, planning, and direct intention to block access to a building was unprecedented. This isn’t true; what may be unprecedented is the extent of CMC student involvement. During the late 60’s and early 70’s there were several disruptive anti-war protests at the ROTC headquarters on CMC’s campus. Pomona College students took the lead and were in the majority. But Pomona respected its students enough, and itself as an educational institution, not to punish the protesters..

Student activism may be on the rise again, and it’s more than nascent at CMC. At the end of 2015, The Atlantic published a list of 80 colleges and universities with organized student groups protesting racism on their campuses. CMC made the list as one of the nine that received national attention.

But CMC’s notoriety did not end there. Just days after the protest in April Heather Mac Donald, a frequent commentator on Fox News, lashed out on several of their programs. For two days running she and her hosts shamed and berated CMC for allowing the protest. First they maligned the students, then they turned on faculty and administration.

Bill O’Reilly concluded his segment by saying, “Very embarrassing for Claremont McKenna, no question about it.” But Mac Donald’s remarks upped the ante. “To his credit,” she said, “President Chodosh promised to discipline the involved students who blocked entrances. We hope he follows through. We have a consumerist ethos on college campuses that says ‘you can’t punish these student darlings,’ so we’ll see what happens. There has to be consequences.”

That CMC succumbed to this bullying, sold its students down the river and its soul to Fox News is reprehensible. No doubt the media attack made the school’s job harder, and no telling how many wealthy donors and trustees exerted influence. But it’s always been the college president’s job to balance needs across a wide swath of interests. In the scheme of things suspending students for their non-violent protest was an unprecedented overreaction and an abuse of power. Further penalizing its student leaders, when the school places value on leadership, was nothing short of retaliatory.

In 1970 Pomona’s President David Alexander defended the school’s decision not to punish protesters as follows: “Perhaps the main reason we have not 'cracked down’ on students is that we regard them in our better moments as related to us in a familial way. They are neither our clients nor our customers. They are our younger associates in a quest for truth."

karen hilfman

The CMC protesters deserve credit for their better moral compass and greater bravery than the school’s administration was able to muster.

Karen Hilfman