Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Spring 2015 (March 25, 2015)

Sustaining a Real, If Difficult, Dialogue

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March 5, 2015
By Scott Bierman


Before you read my letter, please read this

I write this letter on a Monday morning in February. In a couple of hours I will be joining about a dozen faculty and staff colleagues in a weekly conversation in which we will try very hard to have a candid and authentic conversation about how we experience and manage the intersections of race, power, and privilege differently. This conversation is part of a larger initiative we have adopted at Beloit called Sustained Dialogue. Our group comes together on Mondays to learn, reflect, and develop as members of the same community. Other groups of students, faculty, and staff meet at other times during the week.

I am pretty comfortable learning, reflecting, and developing in most circumstances, but these Monday conversations are really hard and deeply uncomfortable. There is little that we talk about that does not make me cringe in one way or another. And, I believe that when I cringe (and I don’t think I am good about hiding this) I am pretty sure that my cringing makes other people in our group cringe. And, their cringing at my cringing makes me cringe again. To add to my discomfort, I interpret nearly everything anyone in our group says as, “So why haven’t you fixed that yet, Scott? What are you doing with your presidency anyway?”

I think it is pretty rare (if ever) that anyone means to convey that, but I know I become defensive in a heartbeat. And, I worry, how are my friends and colleagues interpreting the things I say? No doubt, they are parsing my words very carefully. What are the chances that what I meant is what was heard?

Hold on to this thought for a moment.

The campus was buffeted a few weeks ago when a picture of Angela Davis—a black, female political activist—was anonymously defaced. We don’t know who did it, nor, despite aggressive efforts, are we likely to find out. Appalling. Intolerable. Unworthy of your college. A violation of college policy. All true. But it happened. Here.

It is easy for me to be angry about this. But, it is also easy for me to go about my day pretty normally while still being angry. That is not the case if you are black, or black and female, or identify yourself with any group in which being threatened has real meaning because those threats, too often, are real. How you traverse the campus, how you look at other students or faculty or staff when they pass you on the sidewalk, how you interact in classes and the library and on athletic teams, is different and diminished, and often harder.

A lot harder. And, lest you think the Angela Davis incident is a rare event, nearly any non-majority student can tell you story after story of how they experience small, less visible, deface-Angela-Davis-like wounds on an agonizingly regular basis. Beloit is a lot harder for some than for others. (And this, I admit, is just a local example. Think of how national incidents—like Trayvon Martin’s death—might also affect members of this community.)

Back to the college’s emphasis on Sustained Dialogue.

So far, I have avoided using the word “diversity” in this letter. I have done so because the word, at this point in higher education, has become so vastly overused that it is now barely heard; barely read. Diversity and programming that celebrates it can be (or at least can be seen as) façade or stagecraft—a distraction from deeper understanding and dialogue. It is easy to dismiss programs like Sustained Dialogue in the same way that we dismiss sentences with the word “diversity.”

But, at Beloit College, we are newly recommitted to making ours a school where programs like Sustained Dialogue are at the center of what it means to be liberally educated. It does not sit alone. For example, we have recast the First-Year Initiatives courses to feature the essential qualities of social identity in navigating the world toward a life of purposeful consequence.

First-year student or facilities staff member, professor or president: All are beginning to be engaged in this important—if sometimes uncomfortable—dialogue. If we are to fulfill our mission, if we are to improve our college, our community, and our country, if we are to fully deliver on the promise of a Beloit education (and higher education in general), we must do this. Hard as it may be.

From here at Chapin’s desk, on the cusp of even greater days to be a Beloiter,

-President Scott Bierman


  • March 26 2015 at 11:59 am
    Charles (Chip) Schmelzer

    I graduated in 1967 from Beloit College.  At that time, there were only a few black people enrolled at Beloit.  It is my recollection that none of the members of fraternities and sororities included any blacks, with maybe 1 or 2 exceptions.  My question is how many blacks and how many whites are now enrolled at Beloit, what is the number for the total amount of blacks that are now members of campus fraternities and sororities and which of the fraternities and sororities have accepted black students as members?  Thank you. Chip Schmelzer

  • March 26 2015 at 12:23 pm
    David J. Maurer '57

    I cannot recall one racist action in my years at Beloit.  No one ever made a disparaging remark about black Americans and everyone I knew wanted black Americans to be fully accepted by all and were dismayed by reports of racism whether in the North or the South.

  • March 30 2015 at 3:34 pm
    Steven Maier '69

    During the time of the Beloit Plan, I spent the Fall semester of 1966 working at the Beloit Tutoring Center in Cleveland, Mississippi. The schools had just been integrated, and Beloit students worked at that Beloit College center tutoring the black children who were attending formerly segregated white elementary schools. We drove an old Jewel Metro delivery truck in which the driver's side door window had a head-level hole caused by a large caliber round. That truck was used to deliver those kids to school and then take them straight to the tutoring center after school.

    With that in mind, Angela Davis was no angel. While later acquitted of conspiracy charges, the sawed-off shotgun used to kill a California judge had been purchased by Davis two days prior to his murder. It's incomprehensible to me why a poster of her would be placed anywhere on the college campus. In the decades that have passed, she, like so many other 'activists' of the time, such as William Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, Kathy Boudin and their bomb-maker, Ronald Fliegelman, and others, have been well-received and coddled in the American educational establishment as part of the Gramscian "long march through the institutions".

    While, there is no excuse for racial harassment nor is there a place for it at Beloit, Davis is not someone to be honored or celebrated. And not to be overlooked is the extensive history of fake instances on campuses where someone has fabricated an incident in order to create just the kind of breathless response that is so typical of college administrators in these cases (as examples, Kerri Dunn at Claremont McKenna and that Columbia professor with the noose). Both my kids at Claremont's Pomona College endured many days of hysteria, cancelled classes and teach-ins before the hoax was discovered.

    Beloit is a fine school with fine students and faculty. Don't get so wound up when someone does something stupid because, at that age, stupid would get us all expelled at one time or the other.

    - Steve Maier '69


  • April 2 2015 at 1:41 pm
    Susan Kasten, Editor
    This post responds to the questions posed by Chip Schmelzer about the race/ethnicity of current Beloit College students. As of the fall 2014 semester, our institutional research office reports that 70 percent of Beloit College students are white; approximately 5 percent are black; almost 10 percent are Hispanic, and almost 10 percent are international. While the college does not track the number of black students in fraternities and sororities, it does estimate that approximately 50 students of color (non-white students) are members of the college's six Greek organizations. All of Beloit's Greek organizations have accepted black students as members for a long time.

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