LEWISTON – More than 525 people with ties to Bates College signed a letter this week calling on the college president to develop a plan detailing “how you will lead us forward” to combat racism.

Bates College has been quiet since shutting down in-person classes in March due to COVID-19. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

“Our world, and the Bates community, is broken,” the letter said, adding that “black, indigenous, and people of color” have experienced racism in many forms at the highly regarded liberal arts college.

The college president, Clayton Spencer, issued a statement earlier this month in which she condemned “acts of extreme cruelty” such as the murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police “and the long history of racial injustice and violence against black, brown and indigenous people that have made them possible and dangerously routine.”

Her statement, which called racial equity and anti-racism central to the college’s mission, missed the mark with some professors, students and alumni.

The letter said Spencer’s words offered limited acknowledgment of Bates’ students and entirely left out “the racism and oppression at Bates” that many faculty and staff cope with “as part of their daily experience.”

Sean Findlen, the chief communications officer for the college, said in a public statement Thursday that “the work of racial equity and anti-racism is central to Bates’ mission.”


He said that since Spencer arrived at Bates eight years ago,” she has made this a core priority, and substantial progress has been made across many dimensions of the college.”

In that time, Findlen said, “we have recruited the most racially diverse student body in our 165-year history, and we continue to increase the number of first-generation students at Bates.”

In addition, Bates created a vice president of equity and inclusion, has tapped black, indigenous and people of color for 49% of its tenure-track hiring over the past five years and secured grants to transform its curriculum and teaching to better reflect racial diversity, Findlen said.

“While Bates has made measurable progress in a number of areas, President Spencer is very clear that we, like most institutions in this country, have a long way to go in order to disrupt racist structures built over centuries and decades of American life,” he said.

On their Twitter accounts, four professors backed the letter with the hashtag #ShutDownBates.

Carrie Diaz Eaton, a professor at Bates College Theophil Syslo/Bates College

One of them, Carrie Diaz Eaton, an associate professor of digital and computational studies, said Thursday that she believes the Bates community “has excellent intentions, but educational institutions are often slow to change.”


“In the midst of a visible crisis for our black colleagues, friends, family and community, this work seems more urgent than ever,” she said.

Diaz Eaton said everyone needs to do more “all the way to the top, where a clear vision and commitment can be vital to quick action, just like we have seen with our rapid transition to remote learning.”

At Bates, she said, there has been “amazing work” to lay the foundations for greater support for the minority community. To create a lasting and “substantially different future together,” though, will require “well-resourced backbone support,” Diaz Eaton said.

The protest involved more than just a letter. Some held a sit-in outside Lane Hall on Wednesday.

Diaz Eaton called it “a great time to reconnect with the community and reflect on our commitment to change, challenge ourselves with what it could mean, ask ourselves if we are really ready to do this work, and support each other.”

In a separate document laying out rules for the protest, the demonstrators said they would gather to ask the college’s top officials “to look inward and examine our own role in racism and oppression and then articulate a plan for the difficult work ahead.”


Their protest is part of a larger one by academics across the country to push institutions of higher education to do more to address racial problems and issues.

At Bates, though, the letter also touched on a sore point among a number of younger and non-tenured faculty and staff who are worried about pay cuts and potential layoffs as the college struggles to deal with COVID-19.

It pointed out that in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down in-person learning at Bates in mid-March, “the lowest paid and most vulnerable of our community have lost resources,” including pay and benefits, “that we rely on to meet our basic needs and the needs of our loved ones.

“We reject the notion of continuing to give more while having resources taken without discussion or consent. We can’t afford to give more while receiving less,” the letter said.

It said that many of the college’s employees and students were recruited “with promises of a commitment to our mission, to emancipation, to social justice. Instead, many of us are faced with assimilation, depression, fear, and isolation in a community that either refuses to see us or hates us despite the neoliberal cries of ‘equality.’”

“We want to be seen. We want to feel safe. We want what we have been promised,” the letter said.


While the school’s administration remained silent, its women’s Ultimate Frisbee team spoke up quickly.

“Privilege and whiteness continue to be entrenched in the sport of Ultimate Frisbee,” the Cold Front team said in a written statement. “We have failed to create an inclusive space.”

The team vowed to do better.

“We recognize our responsibility to dismantle white supremacy and bring an end to police brutality,” Cold Front said. “We refuse to remain silent. Black Lives Matter.”

The letter from faculty, staff, alumni and students specifically asked for a statement from the college “acknowledging the presidential leadership role and the institution’s role in acts of oppression and harm against” black, indigenous, and people of color.

It sought a statement about “the ways that Bates structures, as well as individual racist acts, impact the college community.”


The letter calls for a plan “for disassembling racist structures” at Bates that includes definite actions immediately, at the one-year mark and within three years.

Clayton Spencer Bates College

The college should also articulate how Spencer “will continue to engage and lead these initiatives, earning the support of our larger community,” the letter said.

Though Spencer has not responded in public to the letter, her statement on racism June 2 said that Bates has “an urgent responsibility to prepare our students to be conscious, informed, and ethical actors in the world. This cannot happen unless we teach them the history and modalities of racism, equip them with the tools to fight against it and motivate them to act for justice as they carry out their lives.”

“The work of racial equity and anti-racism is central to our mission, and it should guide the actions we take every day as an institution and as individual members of this community,” Spencer said.

“We know from our students, faculty, staff, and alumni of color, and others who care deeply about these issues that we have a long way to go to protect members of the Bates community from racist acts,” she said.

“We have an even longer way to go to foster a campus and culture where every student is supported for success across all aspects of their college experience and all students feel the ownership and belonging that are crucial to personal growth and transformation,” Spencer said.


Those protesting said in the letter that the name Bates, founded by abolitionists, “echoes alignment and social activism synonymous with anti-racism.”

It pointed out that there are many people and initiatives at the college “working to unsettle structures of oppression at Bates.”

But, it said, “There will be no institutional realization of these initiatives without a larger institutional plan devised by the top leaders of the institution. Our name will only protect us for so long and now is the time to act.”


Comments are no longer available on this story