Students demand diversity in history department

 Photo by Lindsey McGinnis  Students covered the bulletin board in the entryway of Skinner Hall with informational flyers on diversity.

Photo by Lindsey McGinnis

Students covered the bulletin board in the entryway of Skinner Hall with informational flyers on diversity.

BY AVA BLUM-CARR ’21

On the morning of Feb. 12, students and faculty were met with an unfamiliar sight in Skinner Hall. The building’s bulletin boards had been covered up with a series of posters, all calling for greater diversity within Mount Holyoke’s history department. 

“10 professors in the history department. None are black. Where’s the diversity? #Let’sTalk,” read one. Another poster displayed a pie chart of diversity among Mount Holyoke’s faculty, showing that just over 80% of the college’s professors are white. “How does the administration decide who teaches our history?” asked a third poster. 

For Tumi Moloto ’20, one of the six students who coordinated the postering, this question is crucial.

“History is such an important topic, and if it’s taught well or not-so-well it can make all the difference,” said Moloto. “I’m South African, and having someone who is African teaching African history is important to me, because they understand where you’re coming from — it’s not an outsider’s perspective looking in.” 

Emily Roles Fotso ’21, another student organizer, expressed similar feelings. “In my experiences as a student, it can be alienating when your classes are already predominantly white and your teachers are also predominantly white,” said Roles Fotso. “It’s nice to have mentors of color there for you, who understand your experiences and who can teach with that in mind.” 

The decision to make a public statement in the form of posters was not associated with any student organization, but rather was an independent action by Moloto and Roles Fotso, as well as Nohelya Zambrano ’21, Anpa’o Locke ’21 and two other students who wish to remain anonymous. 

According to Moloto, the posters were inspired by a conversation at the recent Posse Plus Retreat, which focused on the issue of race in the United States. “We had brought up the issue of diversity here at Mount Holyoke, and essentially they had said the only way you can fix it is by becoming the black professors that you want to see, which is a really long-term plan,” said Moloto. “We wanted to do something to raise awareness.” 

The history department responded to this student movement by putting up posters of their own, which read, “We hear you. Let’s talk.” The organizers met with Mary Renda, chair of the history department, last Friday. 

“It was a very productive discussion,” said Moloto. “The history department has an external committee that comes in every 10 years to review the department and their progress and give recommendations. They’ve set up a meeting between us and the external committee to talk about the issue of diversity.” 

“History department faculty are very pleased that a group of students has taken up the task of calling for greater faculty diversity, including in the history department,” said Renda in a statement about the meeting. “I was glad to hear their concerns right away and begin the conversations we will need to have.”

Moloto and the other student organizers hope that the external committee will include in their report an official recommendation to the department to hire more faculty of color. “That’s something we can push for because it will be written and tangible,” said Moloto. “We really do want to see more professors of color in the history department, and sooner rather than later.” 

The history department is currently in the midst of an external review process, which makes the student action especially well-timed, according to Renda. “We look forward to hearing more about students’ concerns and perspectives,” said Renda. “Going forward, department faculty are eager to meet with any students who wish to speak with us directly, in whatever configuration seems most helpful. The invitation is open.”

Moloto and Roles Fotso emphasized the importance of expanding this movement beyond just the history department. “If people are interested in raising awareness with regards to where they study, we would be more than willing to help and collaborate and get the conversation going within their respective departments,” said Moloto.

“We’re hoping to get more than just our experiences out there. I think the more people that talk about it, the more traction we can get,” added Roles Fotso. “[This action] has been framed as a protest, but we don’t see it like that. For us, it’s a call to action, and a raising of awareness.” 

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