Free Verse (copy)

In 2017, MIIS' Chief Diversity Officers Pushpa Iyer told the Weekly: “Being an ally is not a title. It’s about working on ourselves to be more sensitive. It’s a process.”

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.

Marielle Argueza is a staff writer and calendar editor for the Weekly. She covers education, immigration and culture. Additionally, she covers the areas of Marina and South County. She occasionally writes about food and runs the internship program.

Recommended for you

(17) comments

GG MIIS alum

"Yes, our organizers recognized her work.

Yes, our organizers recognized that the CDO office had limited resources.

Yes, our organizers recognized that she is a woman of color who is subjected to institutional racism.

But, our organizers realized that racial justice is about harm-reduction and people of color can be harmful, so if we are to heal and create transformative justice, we must remove those who practices disregard."

I completely agree people of color can be harmful, and that we should try to reduce harm in racial justice work. But removing a CDO of color who we all agree made so much impact and progress on race despite limited resources and having to battle racism coming from the very campus she was supporting...that's not reducing harm. This is multiplying the pain clearly on both sides, and reversing progress on DEI work. In this case, the administration should have handled this more justly and listened to all voices because these actions affect the entire campus. At the end of the day we are supposed to share the same goal of working towards a more just world. The handling has been counter-productive.

Kate Smith

Anyone who has ever sat in on a DEI training knows that the first thing said is, the space inhabited during this time is a safe space. The second thing noted is that what makes the space safe, is that someone in the group may make a mistake and say the wrong thing, but that we must allow them the opportunity to explain what they meant and work through it. Sure, it’s not often the leader of the group that makes the mistake, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t human and don’t ever err. It’s clear to me that Dr. Iyer recognizes how her statement, borne out of years of frustration with trying to get involvement from the Black students at MIIS, affected those involved.

As another reader noted, there are faculty at MIIS who have made such blunders. I witnessed one from someone in a very senior administrative position. As soon as I corrected her, she explained and apologized and it was forgiven by everyone in the class. At least I assume so since it was never brought up again. No one asked for her resignation. No one wrote letters to the editors of newspapers. Everyone gave this woman the chance to apologize rather than to wake up one day to a ruinous and unfair title such as the one in this article.

The country is experiencing such division and everyone is on edge these days. Might we not take some time to forgive and try to heal the wounds rather than continue cleaving at what little remains of the work everyone committed to anti-racism has done? Those like Dr. Iyer, who has dedicated the last 13 years of her life to this often unacknowledged, until someone makes a mistake, work.

Seth Gray

Why are comments that address the toxic ideology that Dr. Iyer and other "Diversity Officers" are pushing being deleted? This website is attempting to make a conversation one-sided.

Current MIIS Student

Preface: I am a current Black student at MIIS and was directly involved with this matter. Also, I disagree with Cancel culture as many of you do, but we have to debate the nuances here.

I am disappointed by the ill-informed comments made here in this chat. First, I think it’s worth acknowledging that we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now if it was a white person who was in this position.

The fact that Dr. Iyer is a woman of color somehow exempts her from causing harm towards others, especially people of color. This is a false narrative. BIPOC folks can be just as harmful as white people.

This incident has been an ongoing investigation and Dr. Iyer still has not issued an apology to Student 1 or Student 2, publicly or privately. She has been silence on the matter, declined invitations to take part in DEI work or conversations, and shared inappropriate information with students in her classroom or in private conversations about faculty, students, and her personal life (documented accounts). She has not considered the implications of her actions, which causes first and second-hand trauma to people. And the administration has done nothing to protect the student(s) involved.

Instead of putting her ego aside, she invited polarization by calling private emergency meetings with white allies and other BIPOC students to urge them to write support letters of her work as an attempt to derail our efforts and/or encouraged them to challenge people of color who questioned her practice. If you support someone who champions racial justice while simultaneously causing harm towards other people without being held accountable, then what does that say about us?

She made a private comment about Black students to another student of color. Would she had made that same comment in a public forum? No.

What other comment(s) did she make about Black students or students of color in private or to white allies?

Granted, she has created robust programming and started conversations about racial inequity that wouldn’t have happened without her. Dr. Iyer’s work did not go unnoticed and was a part of the daily conversations that took place when deciding how we should move forward with this information. At the end, she was negligent, inappropriate, and divisive. This is not an isolated event, but a pattern unchecked; so it was important for the organizers to remove her from office, all things considered.

Yes, our organizers recognized her work.

Yes, our organizers recognized that the CDO office had limited resources.

Yes, our organizers recognized that she is a woman of color who is subjected to institutional racism.

But, our organizers realized that racial justice is about harm-reduction and people of color can be harmful, so if we are to heal and create transformative justice, we must remove those who practices disregard.

Now, the antiracism course was fast-tracked and lacked nuance. They designed it for white students, not students of color. It created a schism, not a community.

Also, Dr. Iyer received a grant to expand her work in DEI, but instead of collaborating with students and other faculty, she approached this work from a top-down perspective, which not only exploited the lives of BIPOC students, she didn’t think to include them in the conversation(s). What does this tell us about the CDO?

Dr. Iyer failed the community she was trying to protect and often talked about. Her failure results from hostility towards Black students and other students of color she encountered, inappropriate workplace behavior, and lack of support for other racial justice initiatives that other professors were trying to start.

So, I disagree with your premise and urge you to approach this critically.

Thank you,

Fellow Black student at MIIS.

Madame Adabi

Agreed, it is not okay to blanketly dismiss a group of students and the sting is especially harsh when it is towards a minoritized group from a leader in the role of protecting their voices. That is understandably painful and hard to get over. As a Black MIIS alum, who has worked with Dr. Iyer over the summer, I can attest that she knows what went wrong in that moment, apolgized for the hurt it caused and tried to make amends. Ultimately, this was unable to happen. I appeal to the students who were most offended or felt unsafe with her in the role as CDO to examine this cancel culture, look at her body of work and the overwhelming impact she has made on past students, an awareness building and learning that drives the work MIIS alum perfom in their daily work each day. I also ask us to be a bit honest. It has been a historic challenge to get Black students at MIIS involved. This is not a new phenomenon. I'm so encouraged that there is apparently a cadre of Black students at MIIS who are ready for action and engagement. It is unfortunate that a mediation between these students and Dr. Iyer was not facilitated by higher adminstration. I believe with mutual understanding powerful work could have been accomplished between them.

GG MIIS alum

Being a (recent) MIIS alum of color, it was devastating to hear of Dr. Iyer's resignation. I've never met anyone who so tirelessly works for the goals of DEI and anti-racism, especially on a white campus where the administration so poorly supported her efforts. This is a huge loss to the school and future MIIS students. When I was a student, I witnessed countless ways that the administration did not live up to the values MIIS claims in trying to create a more just world. Dr. Iyer was one of the few people at the institute who actively advanced anti-racism work, supporting many students of color including myself when we dealt with constant micro aggressions and inequity from people on campus. Because of her, I graduated from MIIS stronger, more resilient to face an unjust world, and more equipped to make a difference in it, which I know many students of color need both during and after their time at MIIS. So now to learn that she is no longer CDO, I really worry for the current and future students at MIIS.

Though I still have contact with current students at MIIS and know there are current students of color who strongly support Dr. Iyer (student council absolutely does not represent all student voices), I will not comment so much on the incident with the 2 students. Though I will say I have read and been told a lot of context that is missing from the story. But even beyond that, the most disappointing part in this is the lack of support and poor handling of this situation on the part of administration and VP Dayton-Johnson. Where was the opportunity Dr. Iyer deserved to share her side in this matter? The only public information I've seen on this matter has been completely one-sided and incomplete. Or where was the opportunity to work towards a real solution? I'm not surprised of the lack of support shown to a faculty and CDO of color, but I'm devastated this had to be the outcome. Diversity was definitely subpar at MIIS, and I'm sad it's getting worse rather than better.

If we share the goals of advancing DEI and anti-racism, MIIS is going backwards by losing Dr. Iyer as CDO and giving into a few students' demands to refuse taking anti-racism courses. VP Dayton-Johnson and the MIIS administration need to realize this is deplorable, and they need to do better. Things were already bad when there was no CDO office. Then when Dr. Iyer pushed for the office and more prioritization of DEI efforts, it remained an office of one poorly supported by the administration. In Dr. Iyer, I saw someone who could actually improve things at MIIS with her knowledge and boldness. I fear who will take her role and further perpetuate whiteness at the institute, and for all the repercussions that follow from that.

Dee F.

What is the context that makes "I am my wits end with the black students I meet at MIIS." ok?

Seth Gray

Better question: How is it not ok?

GG MIIS alum

Dee F., please see other comments here to find the answer to your question. And if you missed the entire point of my comment, I am not speaking to the incident I was not a part of but rather addressing the systemic issue I have serious concerns about.

Seth Gray

Why are comments being deleted?

Seth Gray

"You live by the sword, you die by the sword."

Dr. Iyer is part of an unfortunate trend that has slowly been deteriorating the quality of education across America. Race-based and other "social justice" mandated courses and materials that are injected into any curriculum are neither needed or academically based. None of the ideas that stem from Critical Theory, or its spin-off, "Critical Race Theory" (which is where the vast majority of Dr. Iyer's material stems from) hold up to any sort of academic scrutiny. They are solely based off of post-modernist interpretations and low-resolution understandings of how societies work. They basically boil everything down to power, as if that is the sole currency that human interaction operates on. And worst of all, they mandate everyone adopt a conceptual framework dictating that immutable characteristics are more important than the individual. There is nothing more anti-liberal than the "racial sensitivity" teachings that force people to value phenotype over merit. Dr. Iyer and all of the "Diversity Officers" across America are pushing a secular religion on students and it has done nothing but create social division through its obsession with race, sexual preference, and ethnicity among other characteristics. The most devastating product from this indoctrination is the lasting programming it leaves on young susceptible minds (as you have saliently demonstrated for us).

And for the record, MIIS has a very large minority and foreign national community that comprise its students and faculty, year after year. There simply is no diversity problem. Well, thats not true. The true diversity problem is the lack of critical thinking and variation of thoughts, outlooks and opinions. As an alumn, I'm displeased with a school known for its diversity creating a completely unnecessary position such as Dr. Iyer's. But, MIIS is a business and they cater to their consumers which so happen to be influenced by a small minority of people who have been radicalized into thinking that racism blankets everything and everyone.

Anyone who operates in the realm of "diversity" should know full-well that they are pushing a toxic narrative that at any point, can be weaponized against them. The simple expression that Dr. Iyer conveyed was neither racist or rude. It was an observation. But, should she be surprised that the diversity monster she helped create would bite her? The truth is, we are actually living in a post-race America but regressive ideologies such as the one you celebrate are attempting to interpret reality into something akin to the pre-Civil Rights era.

Ideologies in general, are very low-resolution frameworks for understanding the world, phenomena, and yourself. The framework you and the the rest of the "anti-racist" crew are pushing is notoriously low-resolution. Instead of looking at Dr. Iyer's resignation as a product of some magical totalitarian system operated by white males to oppress and ridicule minorities (a belief many people continue to have despite zero evidence), perhaps a different approach would benefit yours understanding. Simply put, Dr. Iyer was forced to resign because she forgot one of the golden rules of her ideology: "Thal shall not criticize anyone of color." Its obvious to anyone who doesn't subscribe to this leftist mantra what has happened here. Bu, between you and me, I believe it will take many years for you to adopt more comprehensive conceptual tools to see past this mental fog.

Staff sad with MIIS

I was devastated to hear of Pushpa Iyer’s resignation from her Chief Diversity Officer position on the Middlebury campus in Monterey. From the information I was able to piece together it seemed like we only heard one side of the story and never had an opportunity to hear Dr. Iyer’s side. Pushpa has been in this field for 13+ years, paving the way for people everywhere to begin having difficult conversations around race, privilege, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Her incredibly challenging and taxing work has created a way to foster anti-racism on our campus in student, staff, and faculty groups. She has been working tirelessly in this field for our benefit as an institution since before she was even appointed this role. Her success is all of our success at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and losing her as Chief Diversity Officer feels like all of our loss. Over the summer I joined the talk series, “What can I do?” after the heinous murders of black people across the US. Pushpa worked endlessly on creating that curriculum for staff, faculty, and students to begin unpacking racism in the institute, the world and how we are complicit to it. While I think about what was shared about Pushpa’s words in a private email, I have to also think about where she was when she said them and if she felt supported in her role, because at the end of the day, we are all only human. Pushpa expressed frustration, a valid emotion and to say that is not allowed is an act of tone policing. It is my understanding Pushpa apologized for expressing her frustration and now it feels as though she is to be punished as well by her removal from a position when we need her most in said position. I would like to know how the institute is supporting Pushpa during this challenging time in addition to supporting students? I am distraught to see the one person resign from a position who was actually creating lasting change and supporting students.

JD Frustrated at MIIS

The title of this article willfully misconstrues these allegations against Dr. Iyer as facts, when the statements cited are completely devoid of context. Whatever the goal of "Student 1" and "Student 2" is, I would caution that they willfully leave out the number of steps Dr. Iyer has taken (including an apology that is not mentioned here) to talk with these students and discuss constructive steps forward. This article also doesn't mention the microaggression and disrespect committed against Dr. Iyer by "Student 1", who told that she should step away from her decades of work combatting racism to "educate herself". And now, with her resignation, all the work that she has accomplished (without the support of the Institute) to combat racism both at the Middlebury Institute and in the broader Monterey community is for naught. How disappointing and shameful for the MIIS Administration - particularly VP Dayton-Johnson - dropping her without providing Dr. Iyer an opportunity to share her perspective nor make any effort toward a constructive solution. Instead, the Institute has capitulated to the whims of two students and has gone back on its promise of a more inclusive future. If this is how the school continues to address faculty and staff of color (and the only person of color on the Academic Leadership at that!) then looks like MIIS will remain the predominately white (and whiteness-perpetuating) institute it always has been!

A J Heaton

Hi JD, it seems to me the goal of Students 1 and 2 was to raise their voice when confronted with comments from the former Chief Diversity Officer expressing frustration about an entire racial group of students— an already-marginalized group that she is meant to support. The context doesn’t make it much better: according to emails made public to the student body, the CDO said she “wasn’t looking to get educated right now” when given feedback and resources. She then called these feedback suggestions “very offensive” and wrote, “I am at my wits end with the black students I meet at MIIS.” While Dr. Iyer is a woman of color, that does not preclude her from harboring racist views. I think you and I both agree that the diversity at MIIS is woefully subpar, but the solution is not retaining faculty in roles when their beliefs run counter to the mission of that role.

MIIS Alum

A J - This past spring and summer, tensions were high in this country. Difficult but important conversations about racism between students and administrators took place at many institutions across the country, and were often challenged further by the nature of virtual or written communications. Parts of this particular conversation went viral after offenses had been committed by multiple parties. Racism can go both ways between Brown and Black people and did at levels that are considered microaggressions. Dr. Iyer apologized to the students, and the situation came to a short-lived resolution. It is also a microaggression to assume that a woman of color and DEI professional would need a list of resources sent to her in order to become educated and aware of issues that she has studied for decades and still does on daily basis. It is a macroagression to express frustration with an entire group. If faculty and admin aren't allowed to make mistakes or share what offends them or explain themselves, but students are, I think institutions lose their status as safe spaces for all members. I think MIIS should hold safe spaces where all parties can speak to their understanding and side of the story as well as their pain. Dr. Iyer apologized to both students. Dr. Iyer was also not given opportunities to share her point of view with the student body or her colleagues who came to uninformed conclusions that differed from resolution found in private conversations that Dr. Iyer had with individuals that came to know the full context. One source says that students won't stop until she is removed from MIIS completely. She is one of the few professionals of color at MIIS, and has brought about important and necessary initiatives for diversity and inclusion over thirteen years, including the first development of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) office at MIIS, which faced resistance from other administrators. Do you know for a fact that Dr. Iyer harbors racist views and that her beliefs run counter the mission of her role? Many students and alumni who have interacted with her over the years haven't provided me with any evidence for that. Saying that you are frustrated in the heat of the moment with a group of people based on words, actions or inaction has a different intent than saying, "I am frustrated with you because you are Black." Dr. Iyer's words stung, but she was also stung in the moment. I don't believe that racism drives the work of Dr. Iyer as someone who has been at times a sole voice in the push for DEI at MIIS. However, I don't want to take away from the hurt caused by what Dr. Iyer said in her email. If the way Dr. Iyer has been treated applied to all members of the MIIS community, then there are a number of international/white faculty who should have been pressured to resign from their positions long ago for saying racial slurs and for sharing hurtful opinions on current events which reach a deeper level of offense and pain. Students have withdrawn from these types of situations and not spoken up, which is their choice, but to continually attack Dr. Iyer to the point of jeopardizing her life's work and the future of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at MIIS is a completely different response.

Seth Gray

Racism does not exist at MIIS despite. I know that probably doesn't work with your belief but at some point you will have to accept reality.

Seth Gray

"Whiteness perpetuating" lol.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.