Smith School for Social Work leaders try to calm protests over alleged racism

  • KEVIN GUTTINGAbout 250 people attended a rally outside Seelye Hall at Smith College on Tuesday to protest alleged racist rhetoric and attitudes experienced by students in the School of Social Work Masters in Social Work program.

Published: 8/17/2016 4:30:21 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Smith College School for Social Work officials say they will work to address concerns raised by students about institutional racism, a day after a campus protest over controversial letters written by faculty.

School spokeswoman Myrna Flynn confirmed Wednesday that faculty member Dennis Miehls was the author of one letter criticized by students. The other letter was sent anonymously by adjunct faculty.

Adjunct Faculty Letter by GazetteNET on Scribd

Dean Marianne Yoshioka addressed the letters in a statement issued after the protest, saying they “make various assertions about admissions, diversity and equity at the school.”

But she said the documents do not represent the school’s policies. “They do not advance — in fact they undermine — our work as a community.”

In the letter Miehls sent to administrators, he called into question their management of student concerns about racism. He said the administration has allowed students to “take authority over the decision-making.”

Miehls could not be reached for comment Tuesday or Wednesday.

During the protest, students hoisted signs that highlighted words used by Miehls in his letter, including a reference to a “tainted” admissions process, possible exaggeration of student narratives by persons of color and a “gate-keeping” responsibility within the profession.

“Who are you trying to keep out?” one of the signs asked.

Students have been signing a letter saying they would no longer attend courses taught by Miehls. Protesters said Tuesday that his remarks, which they called “micro-aggressive coded language,” suggest a larger problem within the program.

“We finally have something concrete to address,” student Jackie Cosse said of the letters.

Dennis Miehls Letter by GazetteNET on Scribd

Dean Yoshioka said in her statement that she has been meeting with students to discuss their concerns about racism, some of them for the past year. She called these conversations “productive and collaborative work to continually evolve as an anti-racism organization.”

President Kathleen McCartney and school administrators also offered meetings Wednesday to talk with students.

Christopher Watkins, a concerned student, confirmed that some of Tuesday’s protesters waited outside a faculty meeting Wednesday, hoping for action. One of them held a sign that asked, “what’s your answer?” according to Watkins. He said the students have worn black clothing in solidarity all week.

Speaking on behalf of the school’s faculty and administration, Yoshioka committed the campus community to “moving forward together.”

“This is work that takes time, resolve, honest communication and mutual respect,” Yoshioka said in her statement. “Even in the context of urgency, it requires a commitment to deliberative due process.”

The school said Yoshioka was not available for an interview Wednesday.

In her statement, she cited the courage and determination of students to resolve issues of alleged racism. “The accountability they have demanded will challenge us to fulfill our commitment alongside the next generation of social workers,” Yoshioka said.

First-year student Brianna Suslovic, speaking of Yoshioka, said students of color in the program know they have a dean eager to hear their voices. But, she said, they also recognize the constraints of her position.

Speaking for her fellow students, Suslovic said they’d like to see a broader action from all of the administration, “allowing for a deeper measure of accountability.”

An apology from those associated with the letter directly would be a good start, she said.

Third-year student Maki Camacho said she and others will not stop pushing until they see real change.

The school operates on a different school calendar than the rest of the college, with 10 weeks of on-campus study beginning in June, followed by eight months of field placements starting in September.

The school’s commencement ceremony is scheduled to take place at 4 p.m. Friday at John M. Greene Hall.

Sarah Crosby can be reached at

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