History class' admission questioned on racial grounds

Professor, students in class deny white student's claim of a race-based enrollment policy

Zac Farber and Amy Lieberman

Friday, October 19, 2007

Provost Diane Michelfelder said Wednesday that she is "planning on following up" on a complaint saying that white students are prohibited from enrolling in the 300-level history course, "Advanced Studies: Historians and Critical Race Theory."The professor, Peter Rachleff, and students currently enrolled in the class denied in interviews that white students are prohibited from the course, saying that all students can enroll based on a palate of qualifications, including a background in racial studies.


When The Mac Weekly began to look into the complaint, which a student voiced in September, students enrolled in the class voiced concerns with a Mac Weekly editor. The students said that publishing an article detailing the white student's complaint could threaten the future of the class, which Rachleff initially created as a two-credit seminar for Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship recipients.


With this article's publication pending, Rachleff wrote an e-mail Wednesday morning to colleagues, attaching a statement explaining the course and laying out its mission.


See Statement, page 15.


"The Provost is unwilling to give me support until she looks into it further [because she says] my screening 'appears to be on a racial basis,'" Rachleff wrote in the e-mail.


History department chair Peter Weisensel said that the student's complaint about Rachleff's guidelines for admission was the first he has seen in the course's three-year existence.


The student, a senior, said she did not want to be identified in this article because "at a small school like Macalester I don't want to be the only dissenting voice on a sensitive issue."


The student said that after she sat in on one early session of Rachleff's course, Rachleff did not hand her a syllabus or other course materials and asked her to meet with him after class.


"[Rachleff] said that in the past, and I guess in the present, the class had been formed as a safe place for students of color," the student said.


Rachleff told her that he could sponsor her in an independent project, or, if other white students were interested, he could facilitate a separate tutorial to explore students' "whiteness," she said.


When asked in an interview if the course is limited to students of color, Rachleff said, "It's not.


"Anyone can enter who meets the requirements, who has the prior experience doing racial analysis and who is able to demonstrate to me in a conversation that they would be a constructive presence in the classroom. It is meant to be a safe space for students of color, but not necessarily a segregated space."


While no white students have ever taken the two-credit course, Rachleff said, three white students have participated in the summer seminar, which does not offer credit.


The course was created, Rachleff said, as a way to further the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship, a national fellowship whose mission is to mentor students of color and encourage them to seek Ph.D.s and join college faculties.


Macalester has partnered with the fellowship since 2000, providing five students per class the opportunity to pursue individual projects.


"I felt the need to create the seminar for pedagogical reasons," said Rachleff, the Macalester faculty coordinator of the MMUF. "As I became more involved in the program, both running it here and attending national conferences . I learned that at many of the other schools some sort of seminar was also part of the intellectual community and helping students prepare for graduate school."


Rachleff said he encouraged non-Mellon fellows to join the course, in hopes that those whose Mellon proposals were denied would stay involved in the program.


Of the 26 sophomores, juniors and seniors enrolled in the course this semester, 10 of the juniors and seniors are Mellon fellows.


The course's description in the course catalog includes the note, "signature of instructor required," which History department chair Peter Weisensel said is an unusual requirement for history department courses. But Weisensel maintained that within Rachleff's own academic freedom he has the "power to design the course and to decide who is in it."


Rachleff said that his rationale for interviewing prospective students is not grounded in racial concerns, but academic ones. He said that the students in the course had typically taken several classes with him, or with other colleagues who focus on critical race theory. Rachleff also said he tried to look "outside the academe experience," and for "involvement in community organizations that address issues of racism and racial representations."


The student who voiced the complaint said that a five-minute interview with Rachleff was insufficient and she was upset Rachleff did not inquire about her academic background.


"Here's a class where you are supposed to discuss race, race culture and race history, and it goes against the inherent meaning of the class for that to be shut off from a group of students purely based on race," she said.

Rachleff declined to comment on the record about this student's admission into the class, but said that when considering white students, he "looks for a student who is self-conscious of his or her own position of privilege and situation in the context of racial formation . and a familiarity with the theories and frameworks."


In a joint interview with The Mac Weekly on Tuesday, four students in the seminar-who agreed to speak only in a group setting-agreed with Rachleff, saying that the course is not racially exclusive.


"Because any person, regardless of their race, who meets the prerequisite can participate in the course, it's not an issue of race or someone's ethnicity . it's about whether or not they have the background necessary to engage academically," Tsione Wolde-Michael '08, a Mellon fellow, said.


The students noted that Rachleff's course is different in nature from other critical race theory courses at Macalester, as it is an interdisciplinary course and its participants have majors in a wide variety of disciplines, ranging from American to Environmental Studies.


It also, they said, provides a "safe space" for students of color, which they have not always seen in other race theory courses.


"I can feel safe in a particular area discussing this [race theory] with people I know have a commitment talking about these kinds of issues," Tinbete Ermyas '08, another Mellon fellow, said. "Here I know it is people who are committed not only to discussing these issues here at Macalester, but are going to live their lives begging the same questions and coming up with the same answers we would come up with here," he said. "And it's not just to fulfill some requirement."


Wolde-Michael echoed Ermyas' sentiment, saying that a safe space is not necessarily dictated by a student's race or ethnicity.


"A safe space doesn't revolve around having people of a certain ethnic group of color in that space," she said. "It's people that have that same level of commitment, prior knowledge [and] prior experience of dealing with issues of race and engage them academically."


Brittni Chicuata '08, who is not a Mellon fellow but is enrolled in the course, pointed out that half of the students in her American Studies senior seminar are white, but that she still considers the seminar comparable to Rachleff's course as a safe space.


"I consider [the American Studies seminar] very safe, as far as the people in that class are a very diverse group of people," she said. "People in that class [are] committed to critically looking at the world from an analytical perspective. But it is also an upper level course . these people have been trained for the past four years."


Wolde-Michael said that the prerequisite of the instructor's signature ensures this level of commitment and makes "sure that all the students have that same base knowledge."


But while the students maintained that the presence of white students who had a sufficient background in critical race theory would not alter the course's ability to provide a safe space for students of color, Rachleff said that white students in the seminar could create "a different kind of space."


"It's a less safe space," he said. "It's not a bad space. A lot of learning goes on and the learning goes on the behalf of both white students and students of color. It's a different space."


In the spring of 2006, Erik Forman '08 decided to take Rachleff's separate tutorial that Rachleff said is "mainly for white students."


Forman, who has a background in cultural studies and had previously taken Rachleff courses, said the course's eight or nine students were all white.


"We talked about setting up a tutorial," he said. "He said that I could [take the seminar] but that we could set up a tutorial for students who didn't have as much grounding, whether academic or cultural."


Forman also said that the tutorial was a "good way" to accommodate some people who might not have the proper background in critical race theory, but in the end, he found the tutorial disappointing.


"Our discussions were really lousy. The students didn't take it very seriously and weren't very engaged," he said. "We really need a lower race theory course . a lot did come down to not having a grounding in critical race theory, but a lot also came down to not having the life experience to understand where the students were coming from."


Rachleff said the class has addressed the concept of whiteness and, specifically, his own white, Jewish identity.


"I'm very aware that I can not be a role model for the students and that I have not had to wrestle with some of the same issues that they have. And there are some things where we have had overlap. We are very explicit in discussing these things," he said.


For Wolde-Michael, Rachleff's identity has not compromised his ability to lead the course.


"For me personally, it's an issue of people demonstrating their commitment to critically engaging race academically and outside, in their daily lives," she said. "And that is something Peter has obviously done."


Rachleff added that during the course's summer session, he uses Mellon resources to bring in at least one scholar of color as a faculty resident, and that during the year he tries to incorporate "knowledge producers who are themselves people of color" in discussion and activities.


Dean for the Study of Race and Ethnicity Jane Rhodes said that when she arrived at Macalester in 2005, it seemed "self evident" that the course was an outgrowth of the Mellon program, and that it was a "specialized program for a special population."


Still, she said that it is not the course's content, but rather its structure, that gears the course toward students of color.


Rhodes, who is also the American Studies chair, said that the majority of her American Studies classes are primarily composed of white students, and that Rachleff's course is an important opportunity for "students of color [to] not feel isolated or objectified."


"What's unique about the seminar is that it's the only place on campus where there are predominantly students of color. It's important to preserve that to the extent that we can," she said.


Rhodes said that requiring a professor's signature is a common practice in high-level courses and that she has employed the prerequisite in the past when she has "wanted to determine whether students have an adequate background."


"Each faculty member looks for different characteristics of preparedness and fit for the class," she said.


Weisensel agreed.


"It is within his [Rachleff's] own power to design the course and decide who is in it," he said. "He sets the grounds and I will back him up."

Michelfelder, the Provost, said the final decision on who gets into a class is "part of a professor's academic freedom" and that she does not feel she has enough information to evaluate Rachleff's admissions practice.


"Whatever the admission criteria is for a class," she said, "for it to be fair, it has to be the same for everybody.