Update on Recent Campus Events

Dear Members of the Bates Community,

As this week comes to a close, I write to share an update on the incident that occurred at a dance this past Saturday, May 13, involving a black male student, event staff members, and Bates security officers, and to reflect on the deeper issues about race and campus climate that this event has brought to the fore. I will also outline what the college has been doing to understand and address the serious and ongoing concerns of our students and other members of our community.

Before turning to specifics, I want to thank the students who have worked so hard and courageously this week to make their voices heard and the many others in the college community who have written or spoken to me to express their concern and solidarity.

With respect to the incident itself, it is important to note that from the very beginning there have been conflicting accounts of what happened at the dance in question and what motivated the actions of the various individuals involved. Because of the varying accounts, on the Monday following the event the college engaged two independent investigators with experience in higher education and civil rights to interview participants so that we can develop a clearer understanding of what happened and why.

The investigators arrived on campus on Tuesday and have been conducting interviews throughout this week. They will return to campus next week to make sure that they have the opportunity to talk with students who saw or participated in Saturday night’s events before the academic year concludes. Meanwhile, as is standard practice, two of the security officers involved in the night’s events have been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation.

Whatever the investigation finds about the events on that Saturday night—which resulted in a black male student handcuffed in front of his peers—the experience was deeply distressing for all involved, and it has become a source of serious concern and pain for our community. Additionally, following the incident, students have surfaced issues of race and climate on our campus that are pre-existing and long-term, and focused in particular on matters relating to Security & Campus Safety.

Because of the seriousness and persistence of the issues at stake, a group of Bates students formed a coalition “standing up to contest the abuses of Bates Campus Security officers against students at Bates (especially against students of color).” Students from the coalition traveled to the Boston launch of the Bates fundraising campaign on Tuesday, May 16, to press their cause with the attendees through a peaceful protest and the distribution of information and calls for action on a range of issues. At the launch event, I acknowledged to the audience the importance of the issues raised by these students and their courage in traveling to Boston to make their views known.

On campus, our dean of students, Josh McIntosh, senior diversity officer, Crystal Williams, and others have been meeting with students individually and in groups to understand the nature and scope of their concerns and work with them on a concrete action plan. The next meeting with students is planned for Monday, May 22, during which specific next steps will be discussed. The students have raised legitimate issues, and the entire campus will benefit from solutions developed with student input and ideas.

The developments of this week are distressing to me personally because they underscore the gap that exists between our earnest intentions to create an inclusive community that supports all students for full participation and success and the lived experience of many of our students, especially our students of color. In conversations with me, students of color have vividly described the pain and frustration that accumulate from experiences large and small that make them feel marginalized, underestimated, or undersupported as members of the Bates community. Most liberal arts colleges struggle with these issues, but at Bates this struggle goes to the essence of our identity.

Thus, over the past several years, we have worked hard to shape a more inclusive culture and strengthen programs to support students from underrepresented groups for full participation in the Bates experience.  Under the leadership of Crystal Williams, we have hired a creative and highly engaged staff in the Office of Intercultural Education, and we have worked to extend experiences promoting inclusivity across the entire campus culture through programs like the Bobcat First!, Faculty Dinners, SPARQ!, The Dinner Table, and Lingua Franca.  Beginning last year, we have worked with the Concerned Students of Color to create action teams, consisting of students and senior administrators, to address a variety of practical issues such as student wages, housing and dining over breaks, and the affordability of text books and other course materials. Meanwhile, Dean James Reese continues the work he has carried out tirelessly for 40 years devoting his time, wisdom, and personal generosity to assisting our international students and students of color, in particular, down to the smallest detail that will help them navigate life at the college.

As the events of this week make plain, we still have a very long way to go, not least because Bates is part of a larger social context. But we also have an opportunity for leadership because of the thoughtfulness and commitment of our students and many others in the Bates community. We will continue to work hard on these issues.

Thank you for your considered attention to these critically important matters.


Clayton Spencer