“I would wake up in the middle of the night and think of it.”
A small Massachusetts college is embroiled in controversy after students witnessed two professors engage in a verbal altercation last month, upsetting students and sparking complaints of “structural racism” at the school.
Professor Katie Kent, Chair of the English Department at Williams College, is facing calls to resign following the April 17 incident. According to a report in the Williams Record, Williams College’s independent student newspaper, two students witnessed Kent “behave aggressively” toward American Studies Professor Dorothy Wang.
The students have expressed extreme distress over the incident, calling it an example of structural racism at the school. They have demanded Kent, who is white, either resign or be fired for “berating” Wang, who is Asian.
The controversy started just before 4 p.m. on April 17, according to the Record, when Wang and a student, 20-year-old Jamie Kasulis, walked through a hallway in the school and encountered Kent. Kent was on her way to an English Department meeting when Wang asked her if the case of Kimberly Love, an Assistant Professor of English at the school, would be discussed. Love had recently taken a leave of absence from the school, citing the college’s “violent practices” as her primary concern.
According to Wang and Kasulis, Kent became immediately agitated by the question, telling Wang that there had already been sufficient discussion about Love’s case within the department.
“Professor Kent got immediately irritated,” Kasulis said. “She took a defensive posture. She raised her voice.”
But Wang pressed Kent, saying that Love felt unsafe and unwelcome. According to Wang, Kent responded to the grilling defensively and with a raised voice.
“She was talking about the College, Dorothy,” Kent responded. “She wasn’t talking about the department; she was talking about the College.”
According to Wang, Kent’s behavior was emblematic of the the English Department’s inability to confront racism.
When Kent started walking away from the conversation, Wang told Kasulis, “this is why I disaffiliated from English.” Upon hearing Wang, an enraged Kent turned around and said something to the effect of “are you talking shit to me to your students?,” according to Wang.
“She was literally yelling in the hallway,” Kasulis recounted.
Another student, 20-year-old Emily L. Zheng, had been listening to the conversation from a chair across the hallway, the Record reported. When she heard Kent raise her voice at Wang, she says she stepped in to help the professor.
“I came over as soon as I heard her run back into the hallway and yell profanities,” Zheng said. “I didn’t really want to intrude … but I did so only after she started raising her voice, because that was alarming. I stood up because I couldn’t just sit there while she verbally attacked my friend and my professor.”
According to Zheng, Kent’s physical posture made her fear for the safety of both Wang and Kasulis. But once she intervened in the conversation, she says Kent’s tone visibly changed.
“There was this visible moment where she realized that we were two students who were witnessing all this, where she snapped, and was like, ‘Hi, nice to meet you,'” Zheng said.
According to the students, Kent took their hand and apologized to them before inviting them to office hours to discuss the incident. Wang says she responded by saying, “Katie, I really don’t appreciate your trying to drive a wedge between me and my students.” While the students shook Kent’s hand, they declined her invitation to office hours.
“The students were calm, they were strong, and [Kent] was the one who lost control,” Wang said after the incident. “They were so strong, it was actually almost emotional for me because I’m very outspoken, especially on issues of race and racism, and I’ve never had faculty support me publicly. I’ve never had faculty stand up.”
After the altercation, the students took their concerns with Kent to the Dean of Faculty, Denise Buell, and the President of the College, Maud Mande. According to the students, they were not satisfied with the results of the meeting with college leadership.
The students claim they were emotionally harmed by the altercation and had trouble sleeping.
“This is something that none of us are going to forget happened, and for a week afterward I would wake up in the middle of the night and think of it,” Kasulis said, adding that she was physically shaking throughout the incident.
WATCH: Survivors of Colorado Shooting Walk Out on Gun-Control Speakers
“It confirms Kimberly Love’s assertion about violence of the institution,” Wang said of the incident. “People think she was just being hyperbolic, or they don’t understand. They’re always like, ‘Oh, what do you mean? Did somebody punch her in the face?’ That’s been the response, right? But [there are] all of these forms of violence: psychic, verbal, denigrating what we do.”
In an editorial for the Record, Kasulis and Wang called on Kent to be held accountable for her actions. The students characterized Kent’s treatment of Wang as “violence.”
“[T]his sort of violence, as well as numerous other forms of it, have been going on at the College for years,” the students said. “The fact that claims of violence are so often belittled and dismissed by disciplinary bodies, administration, faculty and students are in itself a mechanism of institutional violence.”
“The silencing and vilification of faculty of color (FoC) who speak out about political and institutional issues is violence,” the students continued.
Wang and Kasulis contended that the administration’s request for evidence of racism within the department is also violence. They also called on Kent to resign as chair of the English department – immediately.
In an emailed statement to the Record, Kent apologized for her actions:
“During an encounter with Professor Wang and two of her students in Hollander Hall on Wednesday, April 17, I raised my voice and spoke to her using inappropriate language,” Kent said. “I should not have yelled or sworn – I shouldn’t have accused her of ‘talking shit about me’ to her students. Professor Wang’s questions about what I take to be confidential Departmental and College matters caught me off-guard and made me both upset and defensive. Nonetheless, I regret speaking to her in that way. I also regret putting her students in that uncomfortable position. It wasn’t my best moment. I lost my cool, and I apologize. All of us have moments where we wish we had done better – this is one of mine.”