Smith College and its President Kathleen McCartney are under fire for its treatment of employees after a student, Oumou Kanoute, accused the school of racism in an incident with a security officer and a lunch worker. The incident was disproven but McCartney and the college (as well as the media) treated the allegation as manifestly true — resulting in destruction of the reputations of a number of employees who were labeled as racists or examples of white privilege. To this day, McCartney remains unapologetic for her failure to guarantee due process and fairness for these employees, even after an investigation of the incident in a recent New York Times piece.
Smith has long been a symbol of the elite with tuition costs exceeding $75,000. It is also an institution known for its liberal politics. The school was thrown into a frenzy in 2018 when Ms. Kanoute tweeted out that she was the victim of a racist encounter with a campus security officer. “All I did was be black. It’s outrageous that some people questioned my being at Smith College and my existence overall as a woman of color.” ABC’s “Good Morning America” ran an account that notably did not seriously question the underlying facts. On the program, Kanoute stated:
KANOUTE: I see the cop walk in with a Smith employee, whom I’ve never seen before, and the man asked me, ‘We were wondering why you’re here.’ … It just still upsets me to just talk about it, because I don’t even feel safe on my own campus and I’m away from home. I’m the first in my family to go to college.
Various media outlets also ran stories about the shocking and abusive encounter with the security officer who allegedly confronted Ms. Kanoute without any justification. In reality, Kanoute was in a house that was closed to students. Only children attending a summer camp were allowed to use the building’s cafeteria. There are various reasons, including legal reasons, why schools close access to areas used by younger children in such programs. The encounter with the security officer however was taped and (despite the clam of his being armed and abusive) the officer was unarmed and polite. Here is the entire exchange;
MAN: How you doing?
KANOUTE: Good, how are you?
MAN: We were wondering why you were here.
KANOUTE: Oh, I was eating lunch. I’m working the summer program, so I was just relaxing on my couch …
MAN: Oh, just taking a break. So you’re with one of the summer programs?
KANOUTE: Yeah, I’m actually a TA …
MAN: So that’s what it was …
KANOUTE: Yeah, I mean, it’s OK. It’s just, like, kind of, stuff like this happens way too often where people just feel, like, threatened.
Nevertheless, the school ordered immediate action on the assumption that this was a serious racial incident. The ACLU (which apparently did little investigation) agreed with Kanoute that this was an incident of a student being abused for “eating while black.” McCartney suspended the janitor who called campus security. She also ordered campus wide training sessions and seminars to deal with racism on campus.
Kanoute publicly demanded the release of the name of an employee in the incident for public condemnation and she was supported by many like Charles Song:
Kanoute reportedly published the picture and name of at least one of the employee and accused a cafeteria worker, Jackie Blair, of being a racist despite later findings that Blair played no role in the incident. According to the reports, “[Blair] discovered that Kanoute had posted her photograph, name and email on Facebook, along with that of another janitor, Mark Patenaude, a 21-year veteran of Smith College, who was not even on site at the time of the July 31 incident.”
The custodian, the security officer, the cafeteria worker, and others found themselves the targets of threats and public denunciations.
Even after the intensive investigation found that there was no racial bias incident, McCartney and others refused to apologize and most of the media did not report on the fact that the original allegation was disproven. McCartney simply declared “I suspect many of you will conclude, as did I, it is impossible to rule out the potential role of implicit racial bias.”
The ACLU was even more dismissive of the abusive treatment of these workers who earned less in salaries than the annual tuition at the school. Keep in mind that the report exonerated these employees who spent years being called racists and left the school. Rahsaan Hall, racial justice director for the A.C.L.U. of Massachusetts and Ms. Kanoute’s lawyer, simply said “It’s troubling that people are more offended by being called racist than by the actual racism in our society. Allegations of being racist, even getting direct mailers in their mailbox, is not on par with the consequences of actual racism.”
Most recently, another employee went public with a resignation and her own story. Jodi Shaw is graduate of Smith College and worked at the college as a librarian. She objected to the racial training seminars ordered by the school in response to the Kanoute incident. While she loved Smith College, she finally left after what she saw as indoctrination and humiliation. She published the following letter which has been posted publicly. In the letter to McCartney, Shaw states in part:
In spite of an independent investigation into the incident that found no evidence of racial bias, the college ramped up its initiatives aimed at dismantling the supposed racism that pervades the campus. This only served to support the now prevailing narrative that the incident had been racially motivated and that Smith staff are racist.
As it turned out, my experience in the library was just the beginning. In my new position, I was told on multiple occasions that discussing my personal thoughts and feelings about my skin color is a requirement of my job. I endured racially hostile comments, and was expected to participate in racially prejudicial behavior as a continued condition of my employment. I endured meetings in which another staff member violently banged his fist on the table, chanting, “Rich, white women! Rich, white women!” in reference to Smith alumnae.
Although I have spoken to many staff and faculty at the college who are deeply troubled by all of this, they are too terrified to speak out about it. This illustrates the deeply hostile and fearful culture that pervades Smith College.
The last straw came in January 2020, when I attended a mandatory Residence Life staff retreat focused on racial issues. The hired facilitators asked each member of the department to respond to various personal questions about race and racial identity. When it was my turn to respond, I said, “I don’t feel comfortable talking about that.” I was the only person in the room to abstain.
Later, the facilitators told everyone present that a white person’s discomfort at discussing their race is a symptom of “white fragility.” They said that the white person may seem like they are in distress, but that it is actually a “power play.” In other words, because I am white, my genuine discomfort was framed as an act of aggression. I was shamed and humiliated in front of all of my colleagues.
This was an extremely difficult decision for me and comes at a deep personal cost. I make $45,000 a year; less than a year’s tuition for a Smith student. I was offered a settlement in exchange for my silence, but I turned it down. My need to tell the truth — and to be the kind of woman Smith taught me to be — makes it impossible for me to accept financial security at the expense of remaining silent about something I know is wrong. My children’s future, and indeed, our collective future as a free nation, depends on people having the courage to stand up to this dangerous and divisive ideology, no matter the cost.
McCartney rejected the allegations in the Shaw letter and said lashed out at Shaw. In a letter from McCartney the College maintained that it “flatly denies” Shaw’s “baseless” claims and stated that her letter “contains a number of misstatements about the college’s equity and inclusion initiatives.” McCartney also attacked Shaw for saying that she was offered a large settlement in exchange for a confidentiality agreement:
“The employee suggests that Smith tried to buy her silence. But it was the employee herself who demanded payment of an exceptionally large sum in exchange for dropping a threatened legal claim and agreeing to standard confidentiality provisions. Further, while the employee aims her complaint at Smith, her public communications make clear that her grievances about equity and inclusion training run more broadly…”
It is clearly true that Shaw was objecting to the training programs. I also do not fault McCartney in ordering campus reviews in light of the allegation. The allegation was made national news by ABC and other outlets. As a community, it is important to discuss such issues and look at any concerns, particularly among faculty and students of color. I cannot speak to the need for “training seminars” or their content since we only have opposing accounts. However, when such allegations are raised, it is important for the college to initiate discussions among faculty and students. Clearly McCartney did more than that in the use of these training sessions, but it is important for schools to move quickly to allow for a community dialogue on such disturbing allegations.
Where I (and many) are most critical is in the treatment of employees accused by Ms. Kanoute and others. There was no semblance of due process for these workers. Moreover, there was no acknowledgment of the disproving of the allegations and the pain that it caused these workers. The College and others immediately appeared to accept that the incident was true and proceeded from that basis even though it turns out that innocent workers (including one not even involved) were mistreated.
In her letter McCartney defends her racial training seminars as “grounded in evidence.” That could be true, but the treatment of the College of these workers was not. It was based on assumptions and merely followed the public narrative created in the media to the deprivation of workers at the college. These workers have little power or money to contest such actions by the college. Yet, McCartney’s empathy clearly does not extend that far.
None of this was necessary. Smith College had a video of the incident. It could have declared that the matter would be thoroughly investigated but reaffirm that both the student and these workers are entitled to an opportunity to be heard on the matter. It could have held sessions to discuss claims of systemic racism and privilege at the college for anyone to attend. Likewise, the media could have done a modicum of investigation and even presented both sides of this story as a contested account of racism. The costs of those failures were placed on these workers. Indeed, most media (and certainly McCartney) did not admit to the failures or the unfair treatment of these workers. Even after the investigation disproving the Kanoute allegation, it is simply too risky for many to be seen as critical of the original narrative.
The Smith College incident should be a learning experience for all universities but the lesson has not taken in the past. Schools like Duke University have engaged in the same presumptions of guilt in incidents that later were proven false but destroyed the lives of students or staff. As with Smith, the rush to judgment was led by the Duke President who seemed to dismiss any obligations to the accused students who were labeled as gang rapists. What is most striking is how such failures to guarantee fairness ultimately undermine not just the institutions but the cause itself. There are serious problems with racism in our society, including in our educational institutions. These false allegations undermine those efforts and these schools magnify those costs by failing to exercise a modicum of judgment and fairness in their responses.