Racial tensions are roiling the social work program at Smith College, after someone leaked two letters faculty members wrote to administrators that students say are laced with racist undertones.
In particular, students said the letters seem to dismiss their concerns about racism within the program and question whether students of color are academically qualified.
The e-mailed letters are the latest controversy at the social work school and follow a year of slow-burning unrest at the Northampton women's college, which is known for its commitment to diversity and its proactive stance against racism.
The tension also comes as awareness of racial bias on college campuses reaches an all-time high and amid a presidential election that has focused on inequality and racism.
One of the letters that roused the social work students to action last week was written by social work professor and department chairman Dennis Miehls to the school's dean, Marianne Yoshioka, expressing concern that the administration is giving too much credence to what students "perceive" to be racial bias in classrooms and during internships.
The letter goes on to criticize the administration's effort to diversify the student body. Miehls writes that the school has admitted students who "do not have a reasonable chance of success in our program."
"Why do you, as administrators, continue to offer differential outcomes to students of color, in spite of overwhelming data that demonstrates that many of our students, including white-identified students, cannot offer clients a social work intervention that is based upon competence, skills and ethics?" Miehls wrote. "I am very troubled that we are increasingly, as a school, paying little attention to the gate-keeping function of our profession.''
Miehls did not respond to a request for comment.
Students reacted angrily to the letter, and a similar one by an anonymous group of adjunct faculty. They staged a rally, sit-in, and march last week, and some students held signs at graduation on Friday.
Social work student Brianna Suslovic, who just finished her first semester of classes at the school, said many students came to Smith because they knew of its history of battling racism.
"It's definitely frustrating for students who felt drawn to Smith because of its anti-racism commitment to realize that there's still a lot of work to be done and a lot of racism to be undone," Suslovic said.
In response to the controversy, Yoshioka, the social work dean, posted a note on the school's website last week highlighting steps the school is taking to combat racism.
"Anonymous letters do not represent our school," she wrote. "They do not advance — in fact they undermine — our work as a community."
The Smith social work school set out on a mission to combat racism within its own ranks in 1995.
In 1986, there were three students of color in the school's student body of 286, but that number has significantly increased. In 2011, three times as many students of color enrolled (33) as the number who enrolled in 2009. The school appointed its first African American dean, Carolyn Jacobs, in 2003.
Students said the faculty, however, is still not as diverse as it should be, and the articles they are assigned to read are not written by a diverse group of authors. Students said they often encounter racism in their social work internships, and they said some students have been penalized by the college for speaking out about it.
Another social work student, Courtney Tucker, said she found the second letter, which was signed only as "concerned adjuncts," offensive because it made generalizations about students of color.
The letter said: "What many people are thinking but afraid to say is that when students are admitted who do not have the academic qualifications to do well enough in a rigorous, demanding, stressful program, (as has clearly happened with the current second-year class) these students are being set up for failure."
"That was bothersome knowing that we all fought to be here and we all come from a range of backgrounds," Tucker said. "It just hurt that that regardless of what we do it doesn't seem to be enough."