In the wake of the killing of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests, Middlebury Institute for International studies in Monterey sought to bring about change and discussion about systemic racism to their campus. There was a conversation series and a mandatory anti-racism class.
A lot of these events and classes were coordinated by MIIS professor and Chief Diversity Officer Puspha Iyer.
In her position as Chief Diversity Officer, Iyer created Allies at MIIS, a group that helps build allies for racial equity, and Race 'n' Rhymes, a panel and open mic event that allowed participants to express themselves in the context of race, gender and sexuality.
So the irony is not lost on many students and faculty that Iyer resigned from her post most likely due to a racist comment that she wrote by email to a Black student: "I am my wits end with the black students I meet at MIIS."
MIIS Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Institute Jeff Dayton-Johnson wrote in an email sent Thursday, Nov. 11, to students and faculty that Iyer had resigned as chief diversity officer. His letter to the campus community did not explain her reason for leaving.
An open letter from the MIIS Student Council on Nov. 6, though, may give a big hint. The email details the experience of two Black students, known only as Student One and Student Two, with Iyer. After attending several events in the series, Student One offered feedback to Iyer.
Student One, in an interview with the Weekly, says Iyer was instigating conversations about race and racism in a counterproductive way with the conversation series. "She wanted Black students to basically talk about their experience about being black at MIIS and in America—which is what every DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) professional will tell you not to do," says Student One.
The student says such conversations put the burden of teaching non-Black people about anti-Black racism and forces Black people to adapt their language and feelings to avoid making non-Black people feel uncomfortable or guilty. They instead suggested to Iyer that she instead should facilitate an event solely for Black students, a closed gathering, to talk freely about solutions and feelings, then bring those solutions to a decision making body.
But Student One alleges, those thoughts fell on deaf ears. After multiple email exchanges, Iyer then in a separate email to Student Two, wrote her racist comment: "I'm at my wits end with the black students I meet at MIIS."
"A younger me would have written it off," says Student One. "They say brush it off. Take the high road—but I'm older now. No student, staff or faculty should ever have to experience that."
Student One and Student Two filed a complaint with Dayton-Johnson's office. The students proposed a list of demands to reconcile the matter: that Iyer provide a written apology to the two students, the school write an apology to black students at MIIS for the conduct and that Iyer resign from her position as Chief Diversity Officer.
"I won't write off her experience being a woman of color. She has of course, experienced racism teaching at a predominately white institution. And I am not writing off her work as a Chief Diversity Officer. But that office is a one-person office. She's doing the work of five people," says Student One.
Before Iyer's resignation from the Chief Diversity Officer position, MIIS gave into one demand: apologizing to Black MIIS students. Iyer has not resigned from her position as an associate professor or Director for the Center for Conflict Studies at MIIS.
In the open letter from the Student Council, the council expands the demands on behalf of the aggrieved students including removing academic holds and barring access to spring registration for students (like Student One) "who are uncomfortable taking the (mandatory) anti-racism course," and increasing the capacity of Office of Chief Diversity Officer.
The letter continues on to read, "It is time for us to take ownership of the responsibility to fix these problems, confront our own failings, and not leave the burden to BIPOC students."
In Dayton-Johnson's letter, he wrote that Iyer's position will be filled for the rest of the academic year by professor Miguel Fernández. Dayton-Johnson and Iyer did not immediately respond to the Weekly's request for comment.
Editor's note: The headline of this story has been updated.