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A College President On Her School's Worst Year Ever

Aug 2, 2017
Originally published on August 10, 2017 12:38 pm

There are some things Harvey Mudd College would like to be known for: being a small, close-knit, gender-balanced, racially and ethnically diverse engineering college; faculty who focus on teaching; graduates who head to companies like Google, Amazon and Microsoft and earn six figures by mid-career.

And here is something it would not like to be known for: The last 12 months.

"We had a horrible year," says Harvey Mudd President Maria Klawe. "Definitely the hardest year I've been through," in her professional career.

The hardships read like a manual of contemporary issues in higher education: teaching and learning; work-life balance; diversity and inclusion; mental health.

Beginning last July, two Harvey Mudd students died in separate incidents, followed by a third death, a suicide, at neighbor Scripps College. Both are members of California's Claremont College Consortium.

Then, a report featuring unvarnished opinions of Harvey Mudd faculty about students, and students' laments about overwork, leaked in the campus newspaper. Sit-ins and protests followed, led by students of color. Klawe canceled two days of spring classes while the college went into "crisis mode," she says.

I reached Klawe weeks before the fall semester begins, as she readies for a new school year and the hard work of recovery.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Let's go back to the beginning. You've worked at the University of British Columbia in Canada and also at IBM. Why did you take the job at Harvey Mudd a decade ago?

For the last 20 years of my life, I've tended to pick day jobs in terms of my passion, which is to increase diversity in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math]. A lot of the culture that affects what happens in science and engineering is set or changed at the undergraduate level. And Harvey Mudd has been committed to educational innovation since it was founded.

And you've made strides on the diversity front?

First in computer science, and then in engineering, and then in physics, three areas where women are least well represented, we've been able to achieve gender balance.

And we've, in the past four years, become one of the racially most diverse colleges in the country. [That is, among small, private, highly selective liberal arts colleges: The student body is currently 44 percent white and the incoming class is 20 percent Hispanic and 10 percent African-American.]

How have you achieved this?

We used to recruit from the top high schools. But we've made a move to say, that's not right. If we recruit from the top 1 or 2 percent of high schools, what about the great students at the other 98 percent of high schools?

Explain to me how this drive toward diversity intersected with attempts to overhaul Harvey Mudd's infamously tough Core Curriculum.

Some of these students are coming in with less preparation; they're equally hardworking, equally bright, but less prepared. They find it hard to keep up, and faculty are unhappy.

We made changes to our Core eight years ago and invested a lot of resources to hire more faculty.

There was so much good work done with the best possible intentions.

We thought it was going to improve things, and it didn't, it just made them worse.

We changed the requirements, changed from four to three semesters, added more electives. And instead of using it to take more relaxing courses, students used it to move ahead in their major, which made it even more stressful for students.

So you commissioned an outside report on teaching, learning and the workload, from researchers at Wabash College. Tell me how that backfired.

Harvey Mudd faculty deliberately arranged to overrepresent the voices of students who were struggling, and faculty who felt challenged.

And as this report was circulating among small groups of faculty and students last spring, Willie Zuniga, a senior, died on campus, and Tatissa Zunguze, a junior at Scripps, committed suicide about a month later.

And then the campus paper leaked the full report.

Students talked about not having time to sleep or shower, let alone maintain friendships or engage in extracurriculars. Some faculty members expressed that the more diverse student body was "weaker" or "less capable" than in former years of meeting the challenge of the curriculum.

Students were horrified, and reacted intensely negatively. The meme was that the Claremont Colleges are so hostile to students of color that they have to commit suicide to get attention.

What did you do?

We went into crisis mode. We had a list of 60 students who other students said were at risk of suicide or a severe mental breakdown. We spent the rest of the semester trying to keep all our students safe.

We brought in additional mental health counselors. We were hearing that students were so depressed that walking four blocks to health services was not on, so we brought them to campus. Our faculty were meeting constantly with students. We canceled classes for two days.

We had lots of different kinds of wellness types of activities, everything we could think of.

Did it help?

It was obviously one of these situations that no matter what you do, someone will think it's not the right thing. There are no easy answers.

We didn't have any [more] deaths, we had some of the best retention numbers we've ever had from spring to this fall. But it was absolutely exhausting. After ... commencement, I had nightmares every single night for a month.

But the one thing I will say is that our community really came together.

And what is going to happen now?

We're working together in very intentional ways to work through this.

Our curriculum committee is doing another review of the Core.

We're also going to have an emphasis on rebuilding. We need to get back to a place where we can have listening instead of yelling through a megaphone, or as well as yelling.

One of the things we heard from some of our more vocal student critics was: You're not engaging us in the dialogue about trying to find solutions. So we're having a number of meetings over dinner and over lunch [to discuss] mental health, work-life balance, and diversity and inclusion.

We want everyone to listen to each other and find out: What are the pain points? What is working, what's not? And what could we be doing better?

We have a lot ahead of us, but I have to warn you, I'm an eternal optimist.

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