Lessons on Reading Investigative Reports

As is customary and wise, Smith College (my alma mater in the interest of full disclosure) ordered an investigative report related to a call made to campus police regarding a minority student sitting and eating lunch in an un-airconditioned room at a campus residential hall (Tyler House for those in the know). The crux of the matter is this: Why were the campus police called? Why was the student, rightfully there in the first place, questioned? Did the call by this employee constitute discrimination?

OK, these are frequent questions arising in today’s uneasy climate when folks seem to call police for any minority who is in a place frequented by whites. Fear. We don’t need to think that far back to remember what happened to Professor Henry Louis Gates when he tried to get into his OWN home in Cambridge, MA.

Many a minority person has walked toward their own home following getting off a computer train, only to be surveilled during that walk as if the commuter does not live there. How many minorities are singled out in high end stores when they are looking at merchandise? And, it is not just minorities who are either srutinized or surveilled: people who don’t look the part are subject to being singled out too. Think Pretty Woman and Rodeo Drive.

What is startling to me, among other issues and what is instructive on a go-forward basis, is the President of Smith College’s reponse to the report (hereafter Report). I raise my concerns because I suspect many folks read and address reports as she did and it is a deep failing to look only at the written word.

Let me explain.

The Report exhonorates the employee who called campus police. The Report found no discriminatory motive. The test used: preponderance of the evidence. Even the President of Smith noted that the Report is not the end of discriminatory practices on campus and there is an ongoing need to insure that all students are welcomed and made to feel this campus is their home and they are safe from campus police questioning unnecessarily.

But, what is surprising, shocking even, is what the Report fails to address and the President’s absolute obliviousness to reading a Report both for what is there and what is not there. The Report does not answer questions about the man with a cane circling the area in question. Indeed, initially, the police thought this man (what is his race might be relevant) was the alleged wrongdoer or trespasser. No outcomes on who this was. No investigation it seems. Gee, that’s odd. Did I miss a section of the Report perhaps?

Then, the employee in question is reinstated. No mention is made of re-training. No mention is made about assumptions made that need to be corrected. No mention is made of the failure of the caller to reach out to other employees nearby who could have explained the student’s presence — rightful presence. Where is all this in the report? Might the employee caller have issued an apology to the student? Did I miss that happening? Did I miss sections of the Report on suggested discipline for the caller?

Now, here’s some added items which the Report fails to address: the deep assumptions folks make about minorities; the fact that the first response is police intervention rather than communication and the absolute failure to observe carefully. I get that we don’t want strangers on our campus or in our campus building (or office buildings or cafeterias or waiting rooms). One point: they are in all of these places in a city with a sizable homeless population.

But, by all accounts, we had a young person eating and sitting on a sofa. Much is made of her sitting curled up on the sofa and the lack of air conditioning in the living room. Now tell me, a young person eating hardly seems dangerous. Police are needed for this? How about asking her question politely: Are you OK here? Can I find you a better cooler place to eat? Remind me what program you are with this summer.

No police needed. Words. Thoughtful words. Where were they?

Recently, there was another example of Smith College failing to speak key words. The College called for Mountain Day, a wonderful old tradition to enable students to see leaves and relax and enjoy the outdoors and sleep in, on the very day of the Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearing with testimony from Dr. Blasey Ford. Remember, Smith is a women’s college, the number of which are declining dramatically.

In the President’s announcement, no where does she mention using the day to reflect on and watch the hearings. When I went online about this, the PR folk reached out to me via email and told me that that was the purpose of calling the Mountain Day then — enabling students to hear the hearings. Oh yes? Who said that and where? Was it in the President’s announcement? NO. Was it shared publicly? NO.

Seems to me the President of Smith did not want to anger those who did not want to hear and reflect and ponder the hearings — older alums? Republican alums? Believers in Trump? So, politics trumped exploration of deep issues with transparency.

Mistake repeated with the Report. Folks, transparency matters. A Report is only as good as what is written and our assessment of its gaps and flaws. Howsoever good the Report on the issues on which it reported, we need to look at how poor is it in terms of what was NOT addressed, not questioned, not explored, not brought to the surface.

My alma mater is an embarrassment to me, to its students, to its alums, to its role as a women’s college with opportunities and money to make a difference. Here, the status quo prevailed. That worries me. If the President of Smith cannot see through the Report and ask the hard hard questions regarding omissions, who can?

Lost opportunity for students, faculty, staff — especially those who engage with students day in and day out. I ask you please whether you are in academe, business. healthcare, technology, government, media: read Reports with care and ask this question: What is not in the report before me that might matter?

Smith College missed that chance. We can do better. We must do better. Now.

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor