Over this past Winter Study, all staff members from the Davis Center were abruptly asked to reapply for their positions or leave the College. Few students were initially aware of this seemingly under-the-table directive. By the time the news broke, it was too late: Both Davis Center (DC) staff members had resigned, and the new semester had begun.
In an email sent to the entire student body on Jan. 2, Vice President Leticia Haynes (of the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity, henceforth OIDEI) wrote: “With the departure of the Center’s director and more recently, the associate director, some existing responsibilities are being reassigned and reenvisioned.” Shrouded under ambiguous language of change and progress, the email mentioned no concrete information about what was about to happen to the DC. Shortly thereafter, DC staff members Keara Sternberg and Ceci del Cid suddenly left, under suspicious conditions that we believe have little to do with the official narrative and everything to do with the opaque and repressive terms of the OIDEI’s “reenvisioning” and “reassignment.”
As it turned out, there was in fact no possibility of reassignment, for former DC director Bilal Ansari revealed, in a follow-up question-and-answer session with surprised DC Community Engagement Fellows, that because of unexplained “legal” reasons, Sternberg and del Cid could not have been reassigned different positions. When pressed, Ansari admitted that the termination was motivated by certain administrators’ displeasure with staff members’ supposedly “toxic” behavior.
Toxic, to whom? When? How? Such a charge, laden with personal invectives and the frothy undertones of behind-the-scenes disagreement, is at odds with the official narrative that the OIDEI has put forth. It is no news that up until now, the DC has been a vital resource for scores of student activists, who have worked with Sternberg and del Cid to articulate their concerns about affinity housing, ethnic studies and increased mental health support, among other things. The close relationship between the former DC staff, MinCo and outspoken students makes this recent dismissal all the more alarming. It would not be too great a leap to suspect that, beneath the official narrative of “reenvisioning” and “reassignment,” there were other untoward dimensions at play.
Faced with a set of difficult if not impossible decisions between reapplying (and likely getting rejected) and resigning (and being suddenly without a job), Sternberg and del Cid eventually chose to resign. In the month that has followed, the College has spoken little about their departure, or what grand plans for the Davis Center are in store by the OIDEI. Without any consultation with the Minority Coalition (MinCo), the OIDEI has appointed Professor of History Carmen Whalen to head the Davis Center, promoted Bilal Ansari (the former director) to an Assistant Vice President position under the OIDEI/Leticia Haynes, and gone ahead with a committee-based search to staff a “dialogue facilitator” according to their new vision. But what is this vision? Why were students — the purported recipients of the DC’s structural change — not consulted about the sudden changes implemented by the OIDEI?
We, the board members of the Minority Coalition, are troubled by the “structural changes” the OIDEI has enacted within the Davis Center. As an organization that was founded alongside the Davis Center in 1989, MinCo understands the mission of the DC to be deeply tied to our own. As organizations created by Black-led student activists, both MinCo and the Davis Center are beholden to the original political imagination of the Coalition Against Racist Education (CARE): to service marginalized communities on campus and to foster a spirit of collaboration and collective struggle for structural change in an institution beleaguered by a history of discriminatory practices. That we were neither invited to participate in the drafting of the OIDEI’s new “vision” is a powerful statement of the institution’s neglect of participatory democracy and student power. That there has been no transparency about the true reason for the DC staff’s dismissal evidences the administration’s concerning turn toward increasingly autocratic rule. Since the gutting of the DC, the formerly vibrant Davis Center has been in disarray: no funds approved by the MinCo treasurer have been distributed to student groups who need them, the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center has not been stocked and all MinCo groups have had to acquaint themselves with new advisors, who are themselves still in the process of learning the unique function of the Davis Center. Interim director Carmen Whalen told students that because the “new” staff positions have yet to be fully defined, the OIDEI cannot enter a search process to fully staff the DC. We do not know how long the DC will remain gutted, and we have little confidence that new hires will be allowed to support student advocacy.
We believe that the departure of the DC staff members is part of a larger pattern of the College’s professional hostility to staff and faculty of color, which includes an enlarging alt-right faculty body advocating for predatory speech and an administration intent on centralizing its power. In their letter to the campus, the 2019 CARE Now movement demanded that the OIDEI acknowledge its responsibility to minoritized faculty, staff and students by allocating increased funding to the Davis Center. The directive recognized the “underpaid and overworked” conditions of then-DC staff members, and noted the low retention rate of DC staff in the last four years. “We require,” the statement reads, that the College “[a]ssure that the Davis Center will function with four full-time staff members at all times, including a permanent administrative assistant and senior hire, and that the College will investigate and implement ways to improve retention.”
We, the MinCo steering board, stand with this demand now more than ever. We recognize the Davis Center’s integral service to the entire campus, including its support to minoritized students and activists who have been the engine of change at the College. We stand firmly with the DC community engagement fellows who have resigned in protest, and we demand the full truth about Sternberg and del Cid’s departures. Furthermore, we believe that a democratic institution is upheld by coalitions of the vulnerable — those who champion collective autonomy in the face of predatory policies and unjust practices. We must, in a word, protect each other — and act before it is too late.