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Surface Tension

Politics in the Claremont Bubble, 2015-17

 

Something isn’t right in Claremont, the city of trees and Ph.D.s located fifty miles east of Los Angeles.

The cluster of elite liberal arts colleges here are overwhelmingly progressive in their politics, forming the so-called "Claremont bubble," a safe space and a naive one.

But in recent years, a string of student activism has returned to campus, echoing Mizzou in 2015 and veering into national politics during the 2016 election. Donald Trump’s victory clarified what the bubble really is — not just a division between in and out, but a surface that distorts each’s view of the other.

For two years as a staff photographer for the campus newspaper, I documented the rise and falls of movements across the five colleges at the Claremont Consortium, on issues ranging from immigration to mental health.

 

 
 Reflected in the window of the  Hub grill at Claremont McKenna College, Dean of Students Mary Spellman, left, takes questions from students as she faces calls to resign over a lack of action against racist incidents on campus.
 

In the fall semester of 2015 at Claremont McKenna College, a student group called CMCers of Color organized a demonstration in reaction to a pattern of inaction on behalf of administrators in reaction to racist incidents on campus.

They focused on Dean of Students Mary Spellman, who wrote in an email that she was making an effort to help students who didn't "fit the CMC mold" — the idea of which caused students to successfully call for her resignation. She resigned the day after this demonstration.

 
 
 Claremont McKenna College Dean of Students Mary Spellman, center, reacts to calls for her resignation at a demonstration on Nov. 11, 2015.

Other than Dean Spellman's resignation, students' demands focused on one thing: a permanent physical space for students of color on campus.

While this demand was quickly spun into debates about "safe spaces," the demand was a simple one, and consistent with a general trend among student activists' demands across the country: for administrators to put their money where their mouth is.

 
 at the Roberts Pavilion dedication at Claremont McKenna College on Friday, Sept. 30.
 

While CMCers of Color were staging their demonstration on the north end of campus, construction workers were finishing the structural steel for CMC's new $60 million athletic facility, Roberts Pavilion.

 
 Behind the scenes at the dedication ceremony for Roberts Pavillion on Sept. 30, 2016.
 at the Roberts Pavilion dedication at Claremont McKenna College on Friday, Sept. 30.

"It definitely is one of the top facilities in the country at the Division III level and probably even for many D-1 schools," said Max Benavidez, associate vice president for public affairs.

 

 

 
 Students watch the CNN Election Night broadcast at Dom's Lounge at Pomona College on Nov. 8, 2016.

Students watch the CNN Election Night broadcast at Dom's Lounge at Pomona College on Nov. 8, 2016.

 

The 2016 election remained under the surface of campus culture for much of its course, but when it hit, it hit hard.