Students call for improvement of on-campus diversity after racist, discriminatory interactions with faculty

First-year Carolina Penagos and sophomore Maxine Bell are pictured. via Facebook

Tufts University, by its own account, is racially and ethnically diverse. On its website, the Admissions Office says, “The energy of the Tufts community is due in no small part to the mix of people. Jumbos come from a range of backgrounds and bring diverse talents, opinions, interests, and experience to the table.” It becomes a matter of campus-wide importance when incidents antithetical to this position come to light. An international undergraduate student and current sophomore shares stories of racism and discrimination on the Tufts campus. 

From the very beginning, first-year Carolina Penagos was made to feel like she was different.

“At first, I thought it was because I was an international student. I began to receive comments like ‘Your way of doing [X] is stupid.’ I’d receive comments from my professors saying ‘Carolina, you have another question. Does anyone other than Carolina have a question?'” Penagos said. 

Initially, these remarks seemed disconcerting but still remained somewhat innocuous, according to Penagos. During a visit to her professor’s office hours this fall in the School of Engineering, however, Penagos was confronted with another prejudiced interaction between herself and her professor. 

“During office hours,  I asked … one of my professors … a question, and instead of answering, they plugged the answer … into Google Translate in English and showed it to me in Spanish,” Penagos said, noting that this was not the only alienating experience that she has had on Tufts campus.

“Recently, one of my peers sitting down with me working on a project for the same class said ‘no offense, why are you here?’” Penagos said.

Penagos was clear in saying that these interactions left her feeling deeply troubled and, at times, unsafe on the Medford/Somerville campus.

“The discomfort in that class was at such a point that I was afraid of asking questions since I didn’t want to look like the stupid Latina that didn’t deserve to be in the Engineering School,” Penagos said.

Penagos added that she did not feel confident in disclosing this information and these experiences with her peers either.

“I got to a point where I couldn’t speak to my peers … I couldn’t speak to anyone in that class, and to this day I haven’t yet,” she said, adding that, “I don’t feel safe calling my parents in public spaces, just because I get weird looks because I speak Spanish.”

Still, Penagos says she is comfortable speaking to Tufts administrators about her feelings towards these incidents.

“The first person I talked to was the Catholic chaplain [at Tufts],” she said.

As an institution that positions itself as being highly diverse, according to Tufts’ official mission statement, the university often advertises a multicultural spirit and promotes safe spaces and inclusivity as being the norm. Yet, by the university’s own admission, racism and racial discrimination remain a problem on the Tufts campus. A December 2013 report commissioned by the Office of the President found that “students from historically marginalized groups disproportionately experience marginalization in and outside of the classroom and also experience incidents of bias on our campus.”

The report, which totals 79 pages on the state of diversity and race across the broad range of Tufts’ undergraduate, graduate, and professional arms, also goes on to prescribe recommendations for future university action and suggests the continued appointment of a Chief Diversity Officer, whose primary responsibilities include facilitating the implementation of the report’s recommendations.

Serving in this role since JuneAssociate Provost and Chief Diversity Officer Robert Mack explained that Tufts’ attitude towards race is generally reflective of today’s broader sociopolitical climate, arguing that there is a historic truth in elite institutions of higher education being based on white supremacist ideals.

“These institutions were built very specifically for whites, particularly people who are wealthy, and Tufts is no different from that,” Mack said. “I think institutionally we are still ingrained with a practice and have policies that support less equality and a less equal experience for our students.”  

Maxine Bell, a Japanese-American sophomore in the BFA + BA/BS combined degree program, is no stranger to the practices that Mack describes. Bell recounted an incident in her SMFA review board which was composed of only white individuals.

When asked to describe her identity-focused artwork, Bell was asked by a senior professor what color she could use to represent Asians.

“Do you want me to say yellow?” Bell said.

By Bell’s recollection, the professor responded in the affirmative.

The Daily contacted Jianmin Qu, dean of the School of Engineering, and Nancy Bauer, dean of the SMFA, as well as the Tufts Office for Equal Opportunity in a request for comment on Penagos and Bell’s incidents.

“We cannot comment on individual claims due to concerns for privacy and fairness. We’re committed to fostering an inclusive culture in which all members of our community are treated with dignity and respect,” Executive Director of Public Relations Patrick Collins said in an email. “Discrimination has no place at Tufts and offends the University’s core values, which include a commitment to equal opportunity and inclusion. Any member of the University community has the right to raise concerns or make a complaint regarding discrimination without fear of retaliation with the Office of Equal Opportunity under the university’s non-discrimination policy.  All reports will be investigated thoroughly.”

But even aside from these incidents, the broader campus attitude toward issues of race merits analysis; conversations on race can be of issue. For Bell, there may even be a competitive overabundance of discussion on race.

“I feel like some people feel the pressure to be … the most ‘woke’ [person] ever. I feel like the problem with ‘wokeness’ is that it becomes a competition, and if people don’t understand certain concepts, [they are] looked down on … [they are] not seen as as smart or as understanding,” Bell said. “I feel like [most of us] were also once at a place where [we] didn’t know these things and I don’t think it’s right to be hard on people who just don’t have the same vocabulary.”

And while the problem for Bell may be that discussions on race are too saturated with a competitive desire to display ‘wokeness,’ Mack is one of the first to admit that discussions on race are a more comprehensive challenge.

“Frankly, race always seems to be the hardest for [most] people to talk about. I think that’s certainly true at Tufts,” Mack said.

But Mack also remained optimistic about the university’s prospects for future change. While he cited a previous history of high turnover in his position prior to his appointment as one of the reasons for the sluggish pace of campus change, Mack remained grateful for the support his office is receiving from senior members of the Tufts administration, including Provost ad interim Deborah Kochevar and University President Anthony Monaco.

“The provost has been … absolutely amazing with prioritizing this area in her work … So to have that kind of support to lead us to a place that we can make change is fundamental and I feel like we’re getting that … and I believe that we have the support of the President of this process. And so having that leadership support to me is really important,” Mack said. 

It is important to note that Penagos and Bell are not the only students who have conceivably been discriminated against at Tufts. The fight against discrimination and racism is ongoing, and there is room for improvement.

“I think what happens is that you have to incorporate diversity inclusion into your daily life. You have to also examine your own privilege on a daily basis,” Mack said.

Mark Choi contributed reporting to this article.