The resignation of MIIS’s Chief Diversity Officer is not as black-and-white as it may first appear.
Mary Duan here, revisiting my Local Spin column this week after hearing from more people who have weighed in on a high-profile and polarizing resignation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
Those who know Pushpa Iyer well have some things to say. They describe the MIIS professor and director of the school’s Center for Conflict Studies as intellectually rigorous, whose work focuses on identity-based conflicts and peacebuilding in societies emerging out of war and violence.
They also describe her as an island set adrift by the same MIIS administration that appointed her as the institute’s Chief Diversity Officer and then did nothing to support her in the role.
It’s ironic that a woman whose life’s work has centered on identity-based conflicts now finds herself in the middle of one. But as one colleague put it, “[MIIS] has a convoluted (and less than admirable) history when it comes to education and race that Pushpa has been almost single-handedly fighting to change for a long time.”
Here’s the background: After Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, and after nationwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations, MIIS sought to start a discussion about systemic racism, including a conversation series and a mandatory anti-racism class. One Black student says Iyer wanted to hold a webinar for Black students to talk about their experience about being Black at MIIS and in America; that, the student says, put the burden on Black students to teach non-Black students about racism and put them in the position of adapting their language and feelings to avoid making non-Black students uncomfortable.
After some back and forth, Iyer sent an email to a second Black student that read, in part, “I’m at my wits end with the black students I meet at MIIS.” The two students filed a complaint, and a restorative justice process was supposed to occur, but it’s not clear that it happened.
Among the students’ demands: That Iyer apologize to them and the school apologize to all Black students at MIIS, and that Iyer resign as CDO.
After the Weekly ran a story about Iyer’s resignation, and attributed that resignation to the students’ demand, a group of MIIS alumni—Black, brown and white—reached out to say the story was more complicated. Iyer hadn’t resigned because of the email she sent, some of these students say; she resigned because the school’s administration left her hanging out to dry.
One alum, Francesca Aka, says she’s discouraged by Iyer’s resignation. “For an institute such as MIIS that teaches and advocates for social justice, it did great injustice to one of its international faculty members by undermining her work and not publicly recognizing her value.”
Alum Gina Pham describes Iyer as the boldest and most effective professional in diversity work she’s ever met. “Pushpa managed to advance race conversations past the level of superficiality and white fragility they too often get stuck at, and she taught the MIIS community how to practice allyship in their daily lives,” Pham writes, despite “lack of support from administration and facing constant racism herself.”
This week’s Letters to the Editor section contains a few letters from students who say MIIS should have forgiven Iyer, that her email should have been treated as a mistake. It’s hard to know exactly what transpired here; neither MIIS administrators nor Iyer have responded to the Weekly’s requests for an interview. But in the pursuit of racial equity, there are blunders along the way.
-Mary Duan, managing editor, firstname.lastname@example.org
Friends, this isn’t the time to be complacent. If you are ready to fight for the soul of this nation, you can start by donating to elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris by clicking the button below.
Thank you so much for supporting Joe Biden’s Presidential campaign.