Editor’s Note: Over one month after an incident described as racist occurred in the Associated Students of Lewis & Clark (ASLC) office, involved parties and the campus at large continue learning from and addressing a situation that affected community members. In its reporting, The Pioneer Log has listened to a variety of perspectives, piecing together this story and attempting to represent all sides without bias. This article aims to answer questions for our readers, taking into account injury to students, sensitive legal concerns and the healing process. For ethical reasons, private individuals were granted anonymity and public individuals, who hold elected or appointed office, are named. If you have questions or comments about this story, please contact The Pioneer Log at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PART ONE: THE INCIDENT
On the afternoon of Sept. 23, four ASLC Cabinet members and another student, unaffiliated with ASLC, participated in or witnessed a conversation deemed racist by numerous campus organizations. The non-ASLC student and Elsa Spaulding ’22, the former chief of staff, engaged in the conversation, while Chief Justice Allison Behrens ’21, Student Organizations Coordinator Nick Gothard ’21 and Director of Elections Mary-Claire Spurgin ’21 were bystanders.
Community Service & Relations Coordinator Mikah Bertelmann ’21 was also in the office when the conversation occurred, but was not a participant or witness. Bertelmann was working on the ASLC textbook subsidy in a separate area of the office, joined by a member of Gente Latina Unida (GLU).
The involved non-ASLC student declined to comment on this story. Behrens, Gothard, Spaulding and Spurgin accepted an interview request. Behrens, Gothard and Spurgin emphasized that their responses are personal and do not represent the opinions of ASLC.
When the conversation took place, Gothard was holding office hours and Behrens was preparing for the first ASLC Senate meeting of the semester. Due to the absence of an elected vice president, as chief justice, Behrens was tasked with chairing the Senate meeting, which was due to convene on Sept. 26. Spurgin was in the office eating lunch while Spaulding was writing an essay. The non-ASLC student entered the ASLC office with the intent of asking Spurgin a question about an exam.
At one point, Behrens asked those in the room if anyone knew the identity of the Black Student Union (BSU) representative on the ASLC Senate, as she was creating placards with names, positions and preferred pronouns for all Senate members. Behrens had not yet confirmed representatives from the BSU or GLU. This question prompted the non-ASLC student to express discontent with BSU in her capacity as a former employee of the Conferences and Events office.
According to Behrens, Gothard and Spurgin, the non-ASLC student made four specific comments about the BSU. The following depiction of events is based on retelling of the incident from these sources.
First, the student said that the BSU does not communicate well, stating that its members do not respond to emails and are difficult to work with. Second, commenting on its use of event space, the student said that the BSU is dirty, does not clean up after itself and does not respect individuals who host their events.
Third, the student described a past incident when she provided an event space to the Feminist Student Union (FSU) over the BSU. Allegedly, this was done because the FSU submitted its request for the space approximately one hour before the BSU sent its request. According to the student, the BSU communicated with her in response to this decision, which included an accusation of being racist. Conflict between the student and the BSU apparently escalated until college administrators were asked to get involved to resolve it. This earlier incident was not confirmed by the BSU, FSU or Conferences and Events.
Fourth, the student provided a hypothetical situation where the BSU was given an event space over the FSU. The student claimed that, unlike the BSU, the FSU would have responded cordially, as opposed to accusing them of sexism, racism or classism.
In her part, Spaulding allegedly said that “ASLC does not contribute to the BSU’s oppression.” Multiple sources confirmed this comment, although the context is unknown. In an email statement, Spaulding said that she “(does) not have a clear recollection of what happened in the office that day” but that it is her “understanding that other people present have said that I briefly engaged in conversation with (the non-ASLC) person, and that my tone felt hurtful or dismissive.”
After the incident, the present member of GLU who had been working with Bertelmann contacted an uninvolved student about the conversation she overheard. On Sept. 24, this student relayed this information to Immanuel Harice ’22, co-president of the BSU and its representative to the ASLC Senate. This was when Harice first heard about the incident.
At the ASLC Cabinet meeting on Sept. 26, the GLU member and the student who told Harice of the incident spoke to ASLC attendees. Later that evening, after the ASLC Senate convened, Gothard began drafting an apology letter, which parties affected by the incident had requested. This apology was later sent by email to the LC student body on Oct. 14, after numerous drafts were produced.
Behrens, Spaulding and Spurgin assisted Gothard in writing the apology. The non-ASLC student who initiated the conversation declined an opportunity to help compose this letter.
According to Harice, the BSU began drafting a statement before knowing that the ASLC Cabinet intended to send a mass email apology. At the BSU’s request, their statement was published in The Pioneer Log as a letter to the editor on Oct. 18. That morning, the statement was also sent to the student body through Hitz’s ASLC email address.
In an interview, Harice stated that the BSU’s statement was purposefully made public after ASLC’s apology.
“The issue was, honestly, just waiting for (ASLC) to put out their statement since we didn’t want to put out our statement before theirs,” Harice said. “We didn’t want people creating (assumptions) of what we were trying to do by saying we were trying to out ASLC or undercut them.”
Since the incident, Harice said that the BSU has primarily been in contact with Gillingham, in her capacity as EIJC chair, as opposed to the ASLC Cabinet as a whole.
The ASLC Senate meeting on Oct. 17 was the first time that Senate and Cabinet gathered together since the apology email was sent to the student body. The second part of this article examines activities that occurred during and after this meeting.
PART TWO: THE AFTERMATH
Within ASLC, two primary bodies serve separate purposes in creating and enforcing legislation. The Senate, composed of 12 elected senators and seven appointed representatives from student unions and organizations, writes and adopts legislation. The Cabinet, which includes 11 members, is the executive branch of ASLC, tasked with implementing legislation and carrying out other governmental duties. Together, Senate and Cabinet comprise Lewis & Clark’s student government.
The Oct. 14 apology email sent to the student body was only signed by the ASLC Cabinet. Senators were not asked to assist in writing the apology, nor were they, as a body, briefed on the incident that occurred. For most senators and representatives, the Oct. 14 email was the first time they became aware that a conversation described as racist took place in the ASLC office. This included Senator Madeleine Newton ’21.
“(On Oct. 14), as soon as I woke up, I got the email with the rest of the school, and that’s when I found out,” Newton said. “I didn’t know anything about it before that.”
The apology email included a plan to “(convene) a Special Committee on Systematic Barriers comprised of Cabinet, Senate, members of affinity groups and the greater student body.” According to Senator Cas Mulford ’23, the Senate was not informed of this intention before the email was sent.
“Literally none of the senators had any idea what was happening with a plan to create an ad hoc committee,” Mulford said.
In an email statement, the Equity, Inclusion & Justice Committee explained why the Senate was not consulted when writing the apology.
“The Senators were not part of the email writing process because the student(s) who reported the incident to Cabinet specifically requested that the Cabinet members who were in the room be solely responsible for producing the letter to the student body,” the EIJC said. “When the email-writing process began, the Senate had not yet even convened for its first meeting, nor had they been trained in their Senate roles.”
In an interview, Hitz, the ASLC president, acknowledged that the decision not to brief Senate was an error, though she explained there were greater priorities at the time.
“(The decision) was definitely an oversight on (Cabinet’s) part to not inform senators, but it also was not the biggest aspect of the situation,” Hitz said. “There was greater harm caused in other places, and we were trying to address that. So, definitely a misstep and something we would do differently.”
On the evening of Oct. 17, the Senate and Cabinet convened in a public meeting for the first time since the apology email was sent across campus. After Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Bruce Suttmeier delivered an unrelated statement and took questions, Harice, the BSU representative, stood at the front of the room and spoke about the incident.
“When the statement came out, I read it, and I went about my day,” Harice said. “I got a text from a friend who said that they had overheard someone say that they didn’t think that ASLC should make a statement apologizing to BSU. That showed that what had happened in the ASLC office was not an isolated incident. We are dealing with an institutional matter, because if it happens in the ASLC office, it will happen in the lower levels (inaudible). I need everyone to understand that.”
For nearly two and a half hours, individuals in the room had an emotional and contentious discussion of the incident. After several attendees pressed Behrens, Gothard, Spaulding and Spurgin to publicly detail the incident, the Senate employed a little-known constitutional provision to call all four to the floor for questioning. In interviews and at subsequent meetings, many senators and representatives referred to this constitutional right as “subpoenaing,” though Behrens, the chief justice, disputed this word use.
During the course of the evening, present individuals disclosed sensitive personal information. For legal and ethical reasons, The Pioneer Log has chosen not to report further on the Oct. 17 Senate meeting.
On Oct. 19, the ASLC Senate held an emergency session to continue deliberating about the incident. Aside from ASLC Vice President Jacob Muscarella ’21, a Pioneer Log editor and the Senate chair, no other Cabinet members were invited to attend. Though many items were discussed, a major topic of conversation was whether to institute consequences against Behrens, Gothard, Spaulding and Spurgin.
The Senate recognized that it had limited constitutional ability to sanction the four. By the end of the meeting, however, senators and representatives agreed that they would begin drafting a letter requesting Spaulding’s resignation for her alleged participation in the conversation. At the time of writing, no formal action has been taken against Behrens, Gothard or Spurgin, though the Senate did discuss removing certain privileges, including access to the ASLC office.
After a recess, individuals in the room were asked to recount the details of the conversation that occurred on Sept. 23. Harice, the BSU representative, shared his knowledge of the incident and stated that the non-ASLC member who initiated the offensive conversation has a history of defaming the BSU.
“The person who began to speak (ill) of BSU had repeatedly already attacked the presidents of our union, making false statements, disparaging (the presidents’) reputation, and then they come and say more negative things about BSU,” Harice said. “Not only were they not stopped, they were supported in it.”
When a member of the public said that he did not “understand how any of the comments were racist,” Harice explained that people of color comprise the identity of the BSU.
“When you say that BSU isn’t hard working, it’s almost like you say black people aren’t hard working,” Harice said. “When you say that BSU doesn’t clean up, it sounds like black people never clean up. If I know anything about the people of color … on this campus, it’s that they’re the most hard working people on this campus.”
Before the emergency session closed, the Senate began to consider forming an ad hoc committee on systemic barriers. A committee was later created on Oct. 24, as detailed below.
Spaulding resigned from her position as ASLC chief of staff on Oct. 20, the day after the emergency session and without any prompting from Senate. In her statement, Spaulding said that her resignation was unrelated to the conversation described as racist.
“My resignation as chief of staff actually has nothing to do with this incident,” Spaulding said. “I’ve been considering resigning for awhile now; I wanted more time to focus on my own wellness.”
At the Oct. 24 Senate meeting, after passing legislation, senators and representatives spent the remainder of the evening creating an ad hoc committee in response to the incident. Generated by a unanimous vote, the Committee on Systemic Barriers aims to implement equity training, an investigation of governing documents and outreach. During debate over the goal of outreach, Gillingham, the EIJC chair, reminded senators of their responsibility to engage with those that elected them.
“I’d like to encourage you all to … consider going into a community and be willing to participate in that community,” Gillingham said. “We’re talking about your constituents, so you all should already be going to talk to them.”
In interviews, Behrens, Gothard, Spaulding and Spurgin each expressed a desire to use this incident as an opportunity to enact change. Gothard spoke specifically about progress within ASLC.
“This incident was a clear indication that it’s more important now than ever that ASLC makes steps forward to be as safe, inclusive and representative as possible,” Gothard said.
Spurgin, in her capacity as director of elections, discussed the actions being taken in ASLC elections.
“I’m leading ongoing conversations and planning in the Elections Committee, which I chair, about how we can better implement equity, inclusion and justice in the elections process,” Spurgin said. “Equity within our committees is something that all Cabinet members committed to at the beginning of the year, and its significance has very much been underscored by everything that’s happened in the last month.”
Harice, the BSU representative, believes that work must be done to construct a welcoming community.
“I’ve heard the best of reactions and I’ve heard the worst of reactions,” Harice said. “This incident has called for a realization between faculty and students that we are still making an effort to create a more inclusive and equitable campus.”
Due to The Pioneer Log’s print cycle, reporting on this story ended on Oct. 29. Therefore, events that occurred at the Oct. 31 ASLC Senate meeting were not considered in this article.
Additional reporting by Hanna Merzbach