This image is one of many used by the college’s admissions office. 

LEWISTON — Vvdaul Holloway, who served as assistant dean for intercultural education at Bates until March, attended Little Rock High School in Arkansas, where in 1957 it took a thousand troops from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to protect nine brave Black students who shattered segregation.

Holloway, an African-American, has since lived in the nation’s capital, New Mexico, Oregon, Germany and Cambodia.

The place where he witnessed the worst racism and bias, he said, was at Bates College in Lewiston.

The elite liberal college, founded by abolitionists before the Civil War, is perhaps an unlikely flash point along the racial divide in modern-day America, but its struggles to deal with the issue have left many deeply unsatisfied, despite assurances from administrators that Bates is trying to do the right thing.

Though nearly a third of Bates’ incoming class consists of students of color, and almost half of new hires for tenure-track positions during the past five years are also people of color, critics said both the administration and the college’s atmosphere don’t reflect a changing world.

“It’s a white place,” said its former national championship-winning squash coach, Pat Cosquer, an African-American who left last summer rather than put up any longer with what he viewed as a hostile environment.

Many African-Americans at the college said they wondered if the only thing Bates wanted from them was to show up in a steady stream of pictures meant to highlight its diversity to prospective students and donors.

“Racial injustice and inequity are ever-present within the community, whether it be faculty, staff, alumni or students,” said Lebanos Mengistu, co-president of the student body.

In the coming year, Mengistu said, he and Perla Figuereo, his presidential partner, “are putting an emphasis on creating a more equitable Bates,” especially for Black, Indigenous and other people of color and those who come from marginalized communities.

“We hope to amplify voices that have historically and traditionally been silenced,” he said. “By doing so, we hope to support the institution in becoming the college it says it strives to be: one that ‘engages the transformative power of our differences, cultivating intellectual discovery and informed civic action.’”

The college recognizes the need to do better.

“This work has always been important at Bates, it is urgent in this moment, and it is the right and human work to do,” President Clayton Spencer said.

The issue has turned red hot at Bates in the wake of a recent letter demanding action that more than 700 faculty, staff, students and alumni signed, a move turbocharged online in recent days by anonymous personal commentaries on Instagram on accounts such as DearPWI and BlackatBates.

Bates has long sought to bring racial issues to the forefront and to push for racial justice, both in its academic studies and its administrative oversight. But as the national conversation has shifted, with the idea of anti-racism spurring new approaches, some see Bates faltering badly.

Cosquer, who’s been heavily involved with Bates for 25 years, said he used to view Bates as “a place that practiced what it preached” on race.

Something changed in recent years, he said.

Cosquer said many African-Americans at the college felt like they were sought only as numbers or as symbols, but that administrators did not want to hear, let alone heed, their advice on racial matters. He said the atmosphere grew ever more toxic before his departure.

“You get the feeling that you’re a quota, that you’re a number,” Cosquer said.

The real picture, Cosquer and other critics said, is nowhere near as cheery as the college advertises.

Squash coach Pat Cosquer giving a player advice in 2014. Bates College

COMING TO LOVE BATES

When Cosquer came to Bates from New Jersey in 1993, he said he found it a welcoming, warm and fuzzy place. He said his four years as a student were amazing.

One of the school’s selling points was its long history of promoting racial progress, including educating Benjamin Mays, who graduated in 1920 and went on to become a mentor for a number of civil rights legends, including Martin Luther King Jr.

Mays remained close to Bates his entire life, serving as a trustee and helping to develop ties between Bates and Morehouse College, where he served as president for 27 years.

In his autobiography, Mays credited the Lewiston college for his success.

“Bates College did not ’emancipate’ me; it did the far greater service of making it possible for me to emancipate myself, to accept with dignity my own worth as a free man. Small wonder that I love Bates College!” Mays wrote.

Cosquer caught that spirit as well.

During his undergraduate years, he was a standout in squash, a sport played with rackets and a small, hollow, rubber ball in a large, high, rectangular room. Players take turns smacking the ball off all four walls in a fast-paced, grueling competition.

Cosquer loved the sport and loved the college.

So he was thrilled a decade later to be named the coach of its squash teams.

He said he recruited players from unlikely spots, in urban centers and overseas, rounding up great athletes from as far as Egypt and Zimbabwe, many of them people of color.

Cosquer, a three-time coach of the year for the New England Small College Athletic Conference, led Bates’ men’s squash squad to a national championship in 2016 and guided the women’s team to national championships in 2018 and 2019.

“Bates has given us confidence and jobs and knowledge and experience,” Cosquer said, and both he and his students appreciated all of it.

For years, he said, Spencer, who has been president of Bates for eight years this July, seemed to listen to his ideas on many topics, including racial ones.

“I had her ear for a while,’ Cosquer said. “I knew what it felt like to be valued.”

Then, suddenly, he wasn’t.

Pat Cosquer, former Bates squash coach. Bates College

A COACH SQUASHED?

In a complaint filed this month with the Maine Human Rights Commission, Cosquer laid out why he felt the need to quit last summer.

Cosquer said that things started going sour in 2017 when the college hired a new athletic director.

Last year, Bates sought to change his three-year contract to an at-will one and to deny him a pay raise. He said he believes race played a major role in the decision.

Cosquer said he approached the human resources office of the college to lodge a formal complaint against Bates and his immediate boss, but was told Bates had no process for him to file a racial discrimination grievance.

Then, he said, the human resources director, an African-American woman, “informed me that she was experiencing racial discrimination as well,” Cosquer’s human rights complaint stated.

The former personnel director could not be reached. Bates declined as a matter of policy to comment on any particulars cited by any of its former employees.

Cosquer said that as he contemplated what had gone on, he realized he could not allow himself to be steamrolled. He quit in August to become the squash coach at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate New York.

He filed a human rights complaint with the state, he said, because he wants Bates to take action to live up to its history.

“I don’t want to sue my alma mater,” Cosquer said, because the place is so much a part of him.

But, he said, he had no choice because the college had allowed a toxic work environment to flourish, not just in the athletic department but across the campus.

“It wore me down,” Cosquer said. “They make the day-to-day untenable.”

He said many of his friends and colleagues have similar concerns that the institution is losing its way, becoming ever more top down, partly because the college is focused on improving its finances more than anything else.

He compared Spencer’s role at Bates to President Donald Trump in that she no longer listens to those who work for the college, not even the most senior faculty, people once revered at Bates. She shares Trump’s lack of empathy, Cosquer said.

Bates, he said, is “doubling down on the administration” instead of recognizing that its strength lies in its students, faculty and staff and the diversity they bring to the table.

“We don’t work at Bates College to be in a corporation,” Cosquer said.

He said the root of most of the school’s troubles these days, including racial issues, is the discontent that is seeping through its ranks.

“It’s not going to end well,” Cosquer said.

For minorities at Bates, Cosquer said, it feels ever more like they are just tokens or numbers. They’re not allowed any real power, he said.

“There’s not a ton of representation on that trustees board and in the administration,” Cosquer said. “Bates needs some sweeping change.”

Vvdaul Holloway, coordinator of African American Student Services for Portland State University in Oregon, the job he took this spring after leaving Bates College in Lewiston. Portland State University photo

A DEJECTED DEAN

Holloway, who grew up in Arkansas, came to Bates a year ago from New Mexico State to serve as assistant director of its Office of Intercultural Education.

“I knew Bates was in a white place,” he said. “I mean, it’s Maine.”

He also knew racial tensions existed in Lewiston due its large immigrant population.

But Bates did “a great job of invoking the name of Benjamin Mays in order to coalesce the image of racial justice and equity,” Holloway said.

During the hiring process, he said, white colleagues he met almost pleaded with him to come and help them work on racial and social justice issues at the college.

He said he thought he was coming to lead programming for a men of color initiative, to serve as an informal adviser for students and to be part of the effort for social and racial justice on campus.

Instead, Holloway said, he found himself “brought into white spaces” to serve as a largely ignored voice for diversity, blocked from pushing the men’s initiative because a superior didn’t like it, and often reduced to “making marketing materials.”

Within a month of taking the job last summer, he said he was already complaining to colleagues about “the incompetence and anti-blackness I had experienced” under the leadership of one superior, who called another employee her “Black guru” and alluded to him as an “angry Black man.”

Six months into the job, Bates promoted Holloway to serve as assistant dean for intercultural education.

But Holloway found himself constantly frustrated.

He said the vice president who oversaw his office, who should be looking out for students, faculty and staff of color, instead sought to be an ally with “white supremacy and systemic racism.”

“My expectation was that I would join the staff of an elite, white institution to do the work of building better futures for students of color,” he said. “The reality is that they wanted to keep it as elitist and white as possible.”

“My whole time as assistant dean was a sham,” Holloway said, marred by a bullying boss and a sense that he was doing nothing helpful.

He said he opted to leave “so that my professional name was not tarnished by the toxic nature of Bates.”

“Given the social climate, Bates must be held accountable for the role it plays in destruction of black lives,” he said, “the same black lives they claim matter each time they dare evoke the memory of Benjamin Mays.”

“Black employees cycle through Bates like a revolving door and I am no longer willing to be silent about my experience,” he said, citing repeated wholesale turnovers in the office where he worked.

STUDENTS WANT CHANGE

Cosquer said Bates can be “a very isolating place” for some minority students, a place “where there isn’t a ton of support.”

Holloway said that while he worked at Bates, he often heard from students about inequitable treatment, especially by campus security.

Mengistu, one of the two student body presidents, said the racial atmosphere at Bates “is one that has consistently challenged our” Black, Indigenous and people of color community.

“I myself have experienced these injustices and inequities,” he said, including times when campus security asked to see his student identification “along with a consistent need for verification of my status as a Bates student.”

“I’ve also experienced students saying racial slurs, micro-aggressive statements made in the classroom, and no accountability or recourse from administrators to stop the behavior,” he said.

Mengistu said Bates “does a great job of trying to create spaces to talk about marginalized communities and their experiences, but fails to bring the very people that need to be in those spaces in to learn.”

“In addition, Bates as an institution needs to do a better job of holding students, faculty, and staff accountable when anyone is racist, especially campus security, as some members of the team are consistent offenders,” he said.

Moreover, he said, “Bates needs to do a better job of amplifying the voices of those who are marginalized within our community.”

“These won’t fix every issue, but at least it will get the ball rolling to begin the facilitation of solutions to a hostile environment that must be addressed and changed,” Mengistu said.

ONLINE CRITICS

This month, two accounts on Instagram have run a number of anonymous accounts of racism at Bates.

One story from a minority student told about attending a club meeting where the other 30 or 40 people were white.

“I have never felt more isolated, ignored and ‘othered’ than I did during that meeting,” the writer said despite the way Bates students “love bragging about their inclusive nature and broad-mindedness.”

In another post, a student mentioned that when he left the athletics office, he heard people giggling and mentioning him. When he returned, he asked what they had talked about.

“They said it wasn’t a big deal and that they had been discussing how I was really smart ‘for a football player’ and that I must be ‘the smartest black athlete on campus,” the post said.

A different writer, who’s a senior this year, said that on a trip to Walmart with fellow students to buy supplies for orientation, a store employee “singled me out and stopped me to demand I show her my receipt.”

Fellow students not only failed “to stand up for me,” the post said, “they walked away, pretended they didn’t know me and went to sit in the van.”

In another incident detailed on social media, a student complained about a threat by administrators to expel the author over graffiti. They said it would be no problem because “there are so many kids just like you” to take the open spot.

After months of fear, the college learned someone else was responsible for the graffiti on Lane Hall, where the administration’s offices are.

A different student said that security accused him of “being drunk at a party,” hardly unusual at any college, and “proceeded to handcuff me and keep me on the ground while white students, some of whom were both drunk and underage, “walked by and taunted me with slurs and statements like ‘lock him up’ and ‘put him in a cage where he belongs.'”

“The hate and discrimination I experienced at Bates, from all levels of administration down to classmates, “will stay with me for the rest of my life,” he added.

Bates responded to these and a number of other stories from its own Instagram account Thursday.

“We want to take a moment to acknowledge that we are following, we are watching, and we are truly listening,” the college said.

“The stories shared by ‘dearpwi’ and ‘blackatbates’ are deeply upsetting and we want to assure you that your stories are impactful and they are informing our anti-racism, equity and inclusion work,” Bates said.

BATES VOWS TO DO BETTER

Sean Findlen, the college’s spokesman, said Bates cannot respond to the particulars raised by past employees.

But, he said, Bates is listening.

“Given the current national discourse with respect to the destructive reach of racism in every corner of our country, I am saddened, but not surprised, to hear of experiences where Bates has not lived up to its institutional mission or ideals with respect to our faculty, staff, students, and alumni of color,” he said.

“Listening to and learning from individuals’ experiences as well as honestly acknowledging the deep pain caused by racism is a necessary step in order to advance a culture of inclusion and racial equity at Bates,” Findlen said.

He said that like many colleges and universities, Bates is “confronting the structural and pervasive problem of racism, and some are advancing the hard work of anti-racism with structural solutions.”

Bates, he said, “has a long history of addressing these difficult problems, and the college has issued a renewed call to action designed to concretely disrupt structural racism on our campus and in the lives of our faculty, staff, and students.”

“This work is important and underway,” Findlen said.

“Precisely because racism is a structural problem embedded in most institutions in American society,” Spencer issued her June 15 message about what the college plans to do to combat it.

Findlen said the college did not want to offer alternate views to counter anything said about racial issues at Bates.

“The work of racial equity depends on acknowledging the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and people of color at Bates,” he said. “To do otherwise would be counterproductive to our community’s collective effort to move a 165-year-old institution into a true and durable culture of anti-racism.”

Like many Bates officials who have spoken in recent weeks, Findlen expressed hope that renewed attention and hard work will allow the college to make progress, as it has in the past.

“I am confident that as a community, we will move it forward,” Findlen said.


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