Those who know Pushpa Iyer well have some things to say.
They describe the Middlebury Institute of International Studies professor and director of the school’s Center for Conflict Studies as intellectually rigorous, a woman who has fought for everything she earned – a labor law degree in India, an MBA in London and then a PhD at George Mason University – and whose work focuses on identity-based conflicts and peacebuilding in societies emerging out of war and violence. From her MIIS official bio: “Her efforts to bring peace between the divided Hindu and Muslim communities in Gujarat (India) laid the foundation for her passion in social justice.”
They also describe her as a woman who doesn’t always tolerate criticism very well and doesn’t mask her impatience. And right now, they’re also describing her as an island set adrift by the same MIIS administration that appointed her as the institute’s Chief Diversity Officer and then did nothing to support her in the role.
It’s ironic that a woman whose life’s work has centered on identity-based conflicts now finds herself in the middle of one. But as one colleague put it, “[MIIS] has a convoluted (and less than admirable) history when it comes to education and race that Pushpa has been almost single-handedly fighting to change for a long time.”
While Iyer remains a professor and director of the Center for Conflict Studies at MIIS, she resigned from the Chief Diversity Officer post. In an email to the MIIS community, Jeff Dayton-Johnson, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the institute, sent an email to the MIIS community announcing that Iyer had resigned from the post.
Here’s the background.
After Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, and after nationwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations, MIIS sought to start a discussion about systemic racism, including a conversation series and a mandatory anti-racism class. One Black student, who didn’t want their name public, says Iyer wanted to hold a webinar for Black students to talk about their experience about being Black at MIIS and in America; that, the student says, put the burden on Black students to teach non-Black students about racism and put them in the position of adapting their language and feelings to avoid making non-Black students uncomfortable.
After some back and forth, Iyer sent an email to a second Black student that read, in part, “I’m at my wits end with the black students I meet at MIIS.” The two students filed a complaint with Dayton-Johnson, and a restorative justice process was supposed to occur, but it’s not clear that it happened.
Among the students’ demands: That Iyer apologize to them and the school apologize to all Black students at MIIS, and that Iyer resign as CDO.
After the Weekly ran a story about Iyer’s resignation, and attributed that resignation to the students’ demand, a group of MIIS alumni – Black, brown and white – sent letters and comments to the paper. The letters state that Iyer hadn’t resigned because of the email she sent to the Black student; she resigned because the school’s administration left her hanging out to dry. The alumni letters also claims the Black students involved created their own microaggression against Iyer, one of many, along with apathy and pushback from the school, that Iyer has faced in her 13 years at MIIS.
One alum, Francesca Aka, says she’s discouraged by Iyer’s resignation. “For an institute such as MIIS that teaches and advocates for social justice, it did great injustice to one of its international faculty members by undermining her work and not publicly recognizing her value.” Alum Gina Pham describes Iyer as the boldest and most effective professional in diversity work she’s ever met. “Pushpa managed to advance race conversations past the level of superficiality and white fragility they too often get stuck at, and she taught the MIIS community how to practice allyship in their daily lives,” Pham writes, despite “lack of support from administration and facing constant racism herself.”
A MIIS media representative writes that Dayton-Johnson’s previous email to the MIIS community would be his only public statement. Iyer did not respond to requests for comment.