Rhonda Brown resigns as Chief Diversity Officer

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Rhonda Brown at Occidental College. Francisco Esquer/The Occidental

President Jonathan Veitch sent an email to the student body April 8 announcing the resignation of Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) and Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Rhonda Brown effective July 1. Brown was hired as the college’s first CDO and VP for equity and inclusion in January 2016, two months after the AGC Occupation. According to Director of Communications Jim Tranquada, the college began the process of creating the CDO position in Fall 2014. To meet one of the demands issued by student protestors, the college added the title of vice president for equity and inclusion to the CDO role in November 2015. In his email, Veitch said Brown strengthened the Multicultural Summer Institute (MSI), improved the Intercultural Community Center (ICC) and implemented programs aimed at improving diversity, equity and inclusion at Occidental.

“Rhonda arrived at Occidental in early 2016 in the midst of a challenging period in Oxy’s history, timing that would have been arduous for anyone arriving to launch a new senior administrative position,” Veitch said in the email. “Since then, she has demonstrated how important the chief diversity officer position is and the great potential of the position to have a major impact on our community.”

Veitch said Brown will leave the college July 1 and focus the remainder of her time on broadening opportunities for underserved students and women in STEM, economics and computer science.

According to Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) President Jacques Lesure (senior), Brown’s departure does not surprise him, particularly in light of recent campus events. In March, a 1984 yearbook photo was uncovered showing former board of trustees member Jennifer Townsend-Crosthwaite ’84 in blackface among alumnae. In a second yearbook photograph, donor Barry Crosthwaite ’80 and alumni Bill Davis ’80, Jon Love ’80, Tom Leighton ’83 and Dick Ringer ’81 were pictured alongside the caption “The Aryan Alliance.”

“She struck me as having an intentional low profile in her lack of investment and voice in regards to recent events,” Lesure said via email. “It was characteristic of someone who is leaving.”

ASOC Senate Vice President of External Affairs Jordan Walker (sophomore) said he personally was disappointed when he heard Brown would be resigning. According to Walker, the role of the CDO has been misunderstood as the position entails more than just campus programming, the ICC, the Center for Gender Equity and MSI. Walker said the CDO must also take on institutional issues.

According to Occidental’s website, the CDO focuses on the realization of the college’s commitment to diversity, excellence and equity; advocates for necessary cultural and institutional change; and works directly with students, faculty and staff on these issues. Lesure said he did not feel Brown fulfilled this role.

“I do not believe that Rhonda Brown fulfilled the goals of the position,” Lesure said via email. “In my various capacities as a student leader and programmer, I have experience first-hand and been called to mobilize around a host of issues that just should not exist.”

Walker said the frustrations of students should be directed at the structuring of the CDO position. Although the CDO was elevated to a vice president position in 2016, Walker said the position wasn’t integrated into the administration effectively.

“I think any CDO at Oxy is going to have problems happen and have their abilities limited,” Walker said. “And diversity is always going to be on the back burner. No one is going to care, it’s simply an afterthought, simply because it’s not built in at a senior level.”

Sociology professor Richard Mora said Brown’s departure presents an opportunity to reimagine the CDO’s role.

“Going forward, I would prefer a faculty member serve as CDO to ensure that on our small liberal arts college diversity is embedded within the academic program and student experience regardless of administrative changes or turnover,” Mora said via email.

Veitch announced he will be leaving his role as college president when his contract expires in 2020. Walker said the announcement of Brown’s resignation was unclear about the future of the position, and he is concerned a new CDO will not be appointed until after a new president comes to Occidental.

According to Veitch, plans for a new CDO and information on MSI leadership will be announced before the end of the semester. Lesure said a new CDO should have an understanding of how students want the role of CDO to work in theory and practice.

“Selecting someone whose experience and capacity neglects these elements — be it due to an inability or unwillingness, is dangerous,” Lesure said via email. “Luckily, we have campus-specific examples to cite now that can inform the search for the next CDO.”

Brown was intended to direct MSI 2019 alongside Wendy Sternberg, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college. According to Sternberg, professor Kerry Thompson previously directed the program alongside Brown and Sternberg, but his appointment as MSI co-director ended in February 2019. Sternberg said associate deans will serve as academic co-directors at this summer’s program and that although plans have not yet been made regarding the CDO’s role in directing MSI, she is confident it will be a successful program.

“We have a terrific team of faculty, and the associate deans are working with me and with the faculty that are going to be teaching in the program the summer and it will be an excellent program,” Sternberg said. “I’m very excited about the team of faculty that we’ve got assembled. They’ve been working very hard to try to put together the program.”

Walker believes institutional issues have led to black faculty departures and non-tenure track faculty being treated as second-class faculty. Professor Courtney Baker, co-founder of the black studies program, announced she was resigning via open letter April 1, citing limited resources and a lack of structure in the black studies program.

“I think certainly there’s an issue with how blackness is dealt with at Oxy, and it’s concerning that you’ll see students talking about advocating [on] anti-black issues, and students who attend those [are the] same students who are tearing down the only senior-level black woman on this campus,” Walker said.