BY MADELINE FITZGERALD ’21
Any mention of the name Sonya Stephens is sure to stir up a heated conversation. In student Facebook groups, memes and jokes criticizing her presidency abound. And in real life, she had a sparsely attended inauguration, where the few audience members were predominantly guests from other colleges. While Stephens’ personal conduct plays a major role in this controversy, the College and indeed the nation at large is experiencing a cultural upheaval. Mount Holyoke has become a microcosm for major debates involving the diversity of race, politics and gender.
Criticisms of Stephens range from dissatisfaction regarding the College’s response to sexual violence, allegations of hiring discrimination, a sense that she is aloof and — perhaps most significantly — her use of the n-word at last year’s Posse Plus retreat.
The Posse Plus retreat is an annual event for Posse Scholars at Mount Holyoke. According to the Posse Foundation website, the retreat is “attended by members of the larger student body, faculty and administration, with the goal of discussing an important campus issue identified by Posse Scholars.”
While at the retreat, Stephens was part of a small group discussion regarding the difference between race and ethnicity, and in doing so she invoked the title of a book. The book title used the n-word, which Stephens said out loud. “This was a mistake in a context that was also from my point of view, it was an error of judgment,” Stephens said. “It was an error in that conversation to think I was in a classroom setting where a degree of trust had been established. Part of the Posse Plus retreat is — you’re not sure what role you’re in. You adopt the role you’re most comfortable with. And for me that’s probably the faculty role where you’re talking from a position of knowledge,” she said.
“I was shocked, being that the Posse Plus retreat is supposed to be a safe space and she said a slur. I was just horrified,” said Briyana Joseph ’18, a student present at the retreat. “You could tell she knew she did something wrong because she started justifying her actions to all of the faculty and staff that were there.”
“I would never use [the n-word] again. I will never use it again,” said Stephens. “Even in the same circumstances, I wouldn’t do the same thing. Yes, I was tripped up by the challenge of academic convention over basic humanity. And I’ll live with that for the rest of my life. You make one mistake like that and your sincerity and your other commitments are questioned — particularly if you have an accent like mine. I am very sorry and I did apologize in the moment.”
Stephens also acknowledged her use of the word in an op-ed entitled “Doing the work and the power of personal reflection” published in the Mount Holyoke News last April. Many students still doubt her sincerity in apologizing and her commitment to inclusion.
Faustina Ejiofor ’22 said that while she felt that Stephens’ use of the word could be forgivable, her response lacked sincerity and remorse and sounded “like her assistant wrote it.” In Ejiofor’s opinion, that perceived lack of sincerity made the College’s choice of Stephens as president worse.
Joseph agreed. “Choosing [Stephens] shows me that Mount Holyoke is willing to sweep a lot under the rug,” she said. “Choosing [Stephens] without requiring her to apologize to students publicly, proves that Mount Holyoke isn’t committed to making sure we feel safe.” She added, “[Stephens] said the n-word with a hard ‘er’, at a retreat where students allowed themselves to be vulnerable.”
Stephens said that, “I think there was a perception that it was swept under the carpet and nobody knew about it and that nobody cared. Nothing could be further from the truth. I was very honest about owning it not only with the people at the Posse Plus conference but with [the Mount Holyoke community].”
Stephens said her delay in responding to the incident was partly due to the fact that the Board of Trustees was still in the process of choosing the president: “I didn’t want to seem to be influencing the process — I was a candidate. But I did own it with others and in particular with the Board.”
Ejiofor and Joseph both felt that Stephens’ actions were more reflective of her own flaws than flaws within the Mount Holyoke community. “I don’t think [Stephens] is a good representation of Mount Holyoke students and alums or our ideals,” said Joseph. Ejiofor said that she felt that Mount Holyoke as a whole was an inclusive environment where most faculty and staff care about students.
Across the country there are debates raging about the role of free speech on college campuses. This is especially true at schools like Mount Holyoke, which are known for having left-leaning politics. Stephens said, “I don’t subscribe to this notion of the snowflake. That’s not my experience with Mount Holyoke students and it’s not my experience with my own children.”
She said that Mount Holyoke students are very comfortable liberal speakers and thinks that students regularly confront issues of national importance. However, she said that she is, “a little concerned with the level at which students are anxious with other people’s views being accepted.”
“On the one hand we see a broad acceptance of the liberal and [on the other hand] concern where less liberal views tip into intolerance, discrimination, hate speech. What gives me cause for concern is that so much of what we get is already filtered,” she said. She described the politics on campus as having a broad array of liberal ideologies and a few extreme right-wing beliefs. In an effort to address polarization she has been speaking with colleagues, alumnae and the Board about modeling effective disagreement. She wants to bring speakers to campus who are effective at civil disagreement. “We have an obligation as an educational institution to try and bridge that divide and to give you all the skills to [disagree].”
Stephens also spoke about what is arguably one of the most contentious issues on campus: Mount Holyoke’s status as a women’s college. Currently, Mount Holyoke has the most transgender-inclusive admissions policy of the Seven Sisters. “I have no issue discussing Mount Holyoke as a women’s college,” said Stephens. “I think about it in the most inclusive way. We are not going to in any way change the [current admission] policy.” She emphasized the importance of making sure the culture on campus matched that policy and that all students should feel welcome on campus.
“I think it’s entirely consistent with the notion of a women’s college that we can provide a place where every student can explore their identity,” said Stephens. “The only students we don’t take are cis men and that seems fine to me.” It is important to Stephens that Mount Holyoke can be a place where transgender and gender-non-conforming students are able to explore their identities.
In response to concerns often raised by students and alumnae that Mount Holyoke shuns its identity as a women’s college in order to be inclusive, Stephens said, “We’ve been having a conversation with faculty and with others — in an effort to be inclusive we try to not talk about being a women’s college.”
“We can say, ‘Yes we’re a women’s college and we advocate for women and we serve women and that does not prevent us from advocating for others on the basis of their gender,” she said. “We should not silence the conversations on what it means to be women in this moment. I think we need to understand the complexity of what it means to be gendered in this moment.”
In response to the debate about what the community should specifically call Mount Holyoke, she said, “I resist the notion that we are historically a women’s college. There are issues with using that term that we should avoid.”
Stephens emphasized her commitment to both women’s issues and gender inclusivity. “Whether you are a woman or nonbinary or a trans student — it does not matter — we are in this conversation about gender together and we all have things to learn from each other,” she said.
Stephens’ voice became noticeably sadder when speaking about the widespread perception of her aloofness in the student body. “It’s really hard to do the job that I do and be out on the road as much as I am and to be seen as [involved with the community] and with you. That students would find me aloof is a little bit sad to me because that’s not who I am. I am a social animal.” She said that she thinks “it’s partly a function of the job. It’s a function of being president that people find you aloof or lacking transparency because there are things you can’t talk about.”
Stephens says that part of the problem is how little students know about her but also that “one of the things you have to accept in this role is that people pin [their] hopes and aspirations for the future on the person who is leading the institution. And that’s completely normal.”
Her final words to the Mount Holyoke News were emphatic and passionate. “I care about students. That’s why I’m doing that job. It’s personally challenging when you don’t feel your commitments and your energies and who you are is seen, but instead what is seen is this projection of other people’s disappointments, hopes, dreams onto a presidency, which is you.”
To learn more about Stephens’ childhood and education, read Part One of this series in the Oct. 4 issue of the Mount Holyoke News or online at mountholyokenews.com