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OPINION: An open letter to the mostly white, out of touch, capitalist Board of Trustees: We see you

July 21, 2020

As the Board of Trustees, you all have the “fiduciary responsibility for the governance of the College, in particular the health, vibrancy, and ability to satisfy our mission,” according to the Bowdoin website. For those unfamiliar with the term “fiduciary,” it refers to a person or group of persons that have legal ownership of a property or assets. They are ethically bound to act in others’ best interests, and while they are responsible for general well-being, they often manage the finances for a person or group of people. I know the Board’s primary goal is to ensure the economic prosperity and growth of the College, but must that come at the expense of our quality of life on Bowdoin’s campus and beyond?

In a previous Orient article, it was made apparent that not only do students feel distanced from the trustees, but also that many faculty members’ interactions with trustees have decreased significantly over the years. While there are some trustees who make their presence known, a large majority of you all have not interacted with the broader student body, even though your meetings are held right on campus. The topics and decisions spoken about in trustee meetings are not allowed to be shared, even though they directly affect our lives, and student representatives who present to you can’t even vote on the matters presented. While I understand that these meetings are mostly regarding the business and financial interests of the College, it is still your duty to attend to the health and vibrancy of the Bowdoin community. I implore you to adjust the bylaws so relevant information from trustee meetings can be publicized.

The sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen talks about the power and influence trustees from largely corporate backgrounds hold over college campuses; 17 of you are in finance, two are “high profile executives,” and seven of you are in academia. The salaries you decide for upper-level administrators and decisions you make about who is granted tenure are at odds with the very lessons we are learning on this campus about the common good. How can one of the leaders of the Board, President Clayton Rose, who holds a degree in sociology and who has written on the intersections of race in Wall Street, be so ignorant to the realities that the most vulnerable populations are facing at this campus?

Our McKeen Center sends students to Wabanaki lands twice a year, and yet our Native student enrollment is less than one percent; 6.4 percent of the student body identifies as Black or African American, but the 2020 Latin honors list contained no Black students; many buildings are not ADA compliant, with elevators that don’t work or don’t go to the top floor, and some buildings don’t even have wheelchair accessible entrances or elevators at all, such as Hubbard, which you can only get into by wheelchair if you first enter Hawthorne-Longfellow Library, take an elevator to the basement, and get Bowdoin Security to unlock a back door; students who express academic challenges due to mental stress and/or financial strain at home are encouraged to take time off when counseling could be a better alternative; rapists are allowed to roam campus with their survivors; there are white professors who throw around the n-word “academically” during lectures. In addition, how can we forget the omittance of international students from the return to campus plan that you all voted on?

I looked closely at all of your names, and many of those names were familiar. I have had conversations in classes, at dinners and during sports practices with a number of your children. They are in the same sociology classes as me, learning about and acknowledging the corruption of capitalism that no multimillionaire or billionaire is exempt from. They share meals with me, a queer, Black, low-income woman who is always willing to share her experience of racism in this country while they stare in disbelief. They play alongside me during practices and games as we fight for national championship titles in all types of weather, weather that isn’t always great for my natural hair. I don’t want to exist on this campus simply as a way to add a pop of color so your legacy children can say they were in the most diverse place of their lives. I refuse to exist on this campus to provide a free education to your children on matters of race because they haven’t yet discovered the wonders of the internet or thought about a lived experience other than their own. I can no longer exist as a percentage point to ensure your diversity quotas are reached for the upcoming fiscal year.

As the Board of Trustees, you are directly responsible for the tenure of racist professors, for the exorbitant funding and on-campus preferences given to sports teams who do not produce results, for the Judicial Board policies that punish students who fight back when called the n-word, for the negligence in making sure buildings are accessible for all people, for the erasure of the voices that are crying out for you to see us as your equals rather than bodies to profit off of and talk about at your cocktail parties and reunion gatherings.

So instead of making us your talking points and providing you with a sense of well-being because we’ve been allowed to be educated near your white children, show up and do the work that is required to liberate us all from this tyranny. Find time to listen to Black theorists like Sonya Renee Taylor, who has been advocating for the Buy Back Black Debt campaign. Use your generational wealth to revitalize communities of color rather than gentrifying it. The majority of you (if not all of you) are well acquainted with money; that is why you’re a trustee, after all. But if you still can’t understand what is going on in the world right now, throw some money at the problem. President Rose can’t stop talking about how comfortable the College is financially, yet the donation match was funded by two alums. There are people doing the work who will know how to use it and redistribute where needed.

It’s time for you all to wake up to the harm that you and your ancestors have caused, albeit  directly or indirectly. Hold yourself accountable because I cannot self-reflect for you. Lean into radical leftist thought if you want to see a brighter world where your children and I can live in peace.

Safiya Osei is a member of the Class of 2021.

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13 comments:

  1. Class of 16 says:

    Thank you for writing this. These are excellent points, and ones that, as an alum, I wholeheartedly agree with.

  2. C/O2020 says:

    Speaking to truth to power. White supremacy runs throughout the veins of Bowdoin College. The administration has failed failed to act or taken small unsubstantial changes time and time again. BIPOC Bowdoin students deserve better and better they will get.

  3. Class of 2012 says:

    What an interesting argument from someone who is so confident that she knows what is right and just for the entire Bowdoin community
    (because clearly the trustees and their ancestors could not possibly be trusted to maintain the high academic caliber of the College for 200+ years).

    Incidentally, who are on this long roster of racist professors of which you speak?

    I do not presume to speak for others because I am not as enlightened as the author, but this piece is not representative of my time at the College.

    • Class of '22 says:

      I’m curious as to whether you are a BIPOC or a white alumni of Bowdoin, because this experience is pretty representative of the experiences of BIPOC students, which, if you are white, you wouldn’t really be able to speak about.

    • David Shuck '12 says:

      As someone from your class, I can confirm that the climate Safiya describes very much existed during our time at Bowdoin. Even as a cis-het white person, I can recall at least a half dozen professors saying racially problematic things and two with explicitly racist comments.

      I also remember several of our BIPOC classmates mentioning that they too felt like window dressing while they were shuttled through a system that prioritized white voices and white culture and minimized their problems (another form of white supremacy). A white student even tried to stab a visiting Black musician during diversity weekend and the college just made him take classes off campus until graduation!

      You speak to the “high academic caliber” of the school, but by whose definition do we judge such a thing? Should racism, sexual assault, and other injustices be ignored so long as Bowdoin ranks well in US News “Best Colleges”? I would be fine with Bowdoin falling to the bottom of the list so long as it was a just institution.

      I am most proud to be a Bowdoin alum when I read essays like Safiya’s because they give me hope it might one day be a just institution.

    • Also Class of 2012 says:

      To me, this comment is completely dismissive and and seems to exist only to attempt to suppress the message of the original author. And why do you need proof / names of the professors? Surely you’re not implying that it can’t be true without seeing the list with your own eyes? Are you a BIPOC alum? I am. I was in your class and would be open to discussing this with you if so.

    • Class of 2019 says:

      Perhaps things have changed since you left Bowdoin 8 years ago? I would imagine that a current student would have much more insight about the culture of the college now than you do.
      Judging solely on the critical mass of support that this piece has garnered, I would imagine that a lot of students, predominantly those with marginalized experiences, share the sentiments and frustrations expressed by the author. In other words, perhaps this experience is more universal than you might think. I don’t dispute that you had a different experience than the author and many others, but I implore you to consider why your experience may have differed from that of so many others.

    • Class of 2012 also says:

      What an interesting comment from someone who is attempting to misconstrue the entire piece. At no point did Ms. Osei claim to know what is right and just for the entire Bowdoin community, but that’s a nice little straw man argument. Perhaps the trustees and their ancestors could be doing a BETTER job. Is that so crazy to suggest? Why are you asking her to name names? There’s clearly a reason she didn’t and that stinks of an attempt to get her in trouble with the school. This piece IS representative of my time at Bowdoin, for the record. And this person is NOT representative of the class of 2012.

    • Alison '04 says:

      They’ve done an excellent job ensuring it for SOME students but not for all. That’s the point. You need to see past your own experience.

      Every student deserves to thrive, at Bowdoin or at any school.

      While we’re on the topic of trustees pay attention to next week’s unsealing of court documents related to Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell. Polar Bears George Mitchell, Jes Staley and others are connected. The Orient has stayed on top of this and I hope they will continue reporting on whatever develops.

  4. ChonyaJ says:

    Thank you for your insight. I hope the trustees use these concerns as a launch pad to make a positive impactand difference. Ymmv

  5. Anon says:

    Yes! We are with you! Solidarity. They need to change how they do business.

  6. Melville Law says:

    “6.4 percent of the student body identifies as Black or African American, but the 2020 Latin honors list contained no Black students”

    I agree this is a disgrace. I’ve noticed it for years but never seen anyone else point this out. What do you think is the cause? Perhaps you could address this in another column.

  7. Early Aughts says:

    If Bowdoin is indeed a racist institution, can I have my money back? I paid $70,000/year for a “non-racist” diploma. If it is indeed tarnished by the evil of racism I have been defrauded and would like a refund.


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