Embracing Difference as We Embrace Challenge

Sonya Stephens
Acting President

November 21, 2016

Dear members of the Mount Holyoke College community,

This presidential election has been unusual in terms of both the divisions it has created and the rhetoric that has emboldened physical and verbal acts of a discriminatory and hateful nature. Mount Holyoke College recognizes and respects the right to disagree politically, and embraces diversity in all its forms. And yet, like individuals across the nation, many of our members are finding themselves, their friendships, and their relationships challenged.

Our mission “to draw students from all backgrounds into an exceptionally diverse and inclusive learning community with a highly accomplished, committed, and responsive faculty and staff” is at the heart of that commitment to diversity, equity, and access. That mission comes with special responsibilities. Here on campus, we have prioritized those above all else in this moment of divisive rhetoric and challenge to identities. We embrace difference as we embrace challenge. So it follows that, in response to this climate, we repudiate and denounce all forms of intimidation, hatred, and discrimination, and reassert that racism, classism, nativism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism are anathema to the College’s values.

Last week we called upon all members of the campus community to uphold these values, and instituted an online form to report incidents of bias and discrimination. In line with Mount Holyoke’s commitment, I joined 128 other presidents in signing a letter urging President-elect Donald Trump to “condemn and work to prevent the harassment, hate, and acts of violence that are being perpetrated across our nation, sometimes in [his] name, which is now synonymous with our nation’s highest office.”

I have also joined my fellow Seven Sisters presidents in writing to Stephen Bannon, senior counselor to the president-elect, criticizing his 2011 remarks about our members, and requesting that he be more considered, respectful, and inclusive in speaking as one of our nation’s leaders. We know that our students and alumnae are an exceptional global community, intelligent and educated, who represent the spectrum of race, class, religion, politics, and gender identity. Our students and alumnae are extraordinarily accomplished leaders in all spheres of public and professional life. We will not have anyone speak of our cherished institution with the intent to deride it or its members.

It is in this climate that our faculty, staff, and administration have been engaging with and supporting our students and one another. And it is against this backdrop that over 200 students protested on November 16, presenting me with a petition that makes specific demands to protect those international and undocumented students who may lose legal protections for their immigration status. Many of you have also signed a petition in which you “respectfully recommend that the College declare itself a ‘sanctuary center of higher education.’ ” That petition garnered over 1,500 signatures (63.2 percent alumnae, 27.5 percent students, 9.3 percent faculty/staff).

Please be assured that my colleagues and I share your concerns and have been working through the details, seeking counsel, and doubling down on our commitment to support the most vulnerable members of our community. I will formally respond to the petitions very soon. In the meantime, I want you to know that I also joined college and university presidents across the nation in signing a letter that calls for the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) immigration policy “to be upheld, continued, and expanded.” As that letter states: “DACA beneficiaries on our campuses have been exemplary student scholars and student leaders, working across campus and in the community. With DACA, our students and alumni have been able to pursue opportunities in business, education, high tech, and the nonprofit sector; they have gone to medical school, law school, and graduate schools in numerous disciplines. They are actively contributing to their local communities and economies.”

Most importantly, like each of you, these students are important members of our Mount Holyoke community. In this moment of transition, change, and uncertainty we must listen, strive to understand, and commit to standing in support of one another. Mount Holyoke’s 1971 statement on community, central to how we conduct ourselves, reminds us that “a College does not become a community by so naming itself. Community is a dynamic condition, difficult and necessary to achieve, reached by active synthesis, by the consensus of free wills and free intelligences agreeing to pursue objectives in common, in an atmosphere of general sympathy, forbearance, respect, and trust.” May that statement be the hallmark of our continuing interactions, and motivate each and all of us to support one another, especially those among us who most need our help and protection.


Sonya Stephens
Acting President