A College’s Controversial Fundraiser Led a Dean to Quit. Now the President Faces Calls to Resign.

Students are calling for the president of Connecticut College to resign over her handling of a fundraising event that had been scheduled for last week at a Florida social club with a history of racism and antisemitism.

Katherine Bergeron, who has been president since 2014, canceled the event after facing criticism, but that wasn’t the end of the story. The college’s dean of institutional equity and inclusion resigned a day later. Over the past week, broader concerns have emerged about diversity, equity, and inclusion at the small liberal-arts institution, as well as about Bergeron’s leadership.

A fiery letter from the now-former dean, Rodmon Cedric King, described a “toxic administrative culture of fear and intimidation” at the college. Students and alumni have started organizing on social media. Meanwhile, the Board of Trustees affirmed its support for Bergeron over the weekend and promised to commission an outside review of the college’s DEI efforts.

Leo Saperstein, a sophomore at Connecticut College, said that many students want Bergeron to resign. He said they are concerned that DEI staff aren’t being supported by college leaders.

“The staffers are not being paid enough, they’re not given the respect they deserve, and they are completely and almost always overlooked,” he said.

A student group called Black Voices Conn Coll is planning a lock-in protest, writing in an Instagram post that Bergeron’s commitment to DEI “is nothing but performative.” An alumni group, CC Alums Against Hate, created an online petition, which as of Wednesday had collected over 90 signatures demanding Bergeron’s resignation.

Connecticut College’s choice of location for the fundraiser — the Everglades Club in Palm Beach, Fla. — and the criticism that followed from students was first reported by The College Voice, the campus newspaper. The club has a history of excluding Black and Jewish individuals from its membership. Singer Sammy Davis Jr. was denied entry to the building.

Bergeron canceled the event on February 6 when she was already in Florida preparing for it, according to the newspaper. King resigned from his position as dean on February 7, having held the position for just over a year.

Bergeron issued an apology to the campus community on February 8, and described King’s resignation as a loss to the college. She also said that diversity, equity, and inclusion work is “fundamental” to the institution.

“Full participation is a core value at Conn, which is why I regret our decision to schedule an event at a location whose history and reputation suggest otherwise,” she wrote. “We made that decision believing that our values were clear.”

Before her role as president, Bergeron was dean of the College at Brown University for seven years. A spokesperson for Connecticut College declined to make Bergeron available for an interview.

In his letter to the chair and vice chair of the college’s Board of Trustees, King wrote that Bergeron had bullied senior administrators, behavior that he concluded had been a fixture of her time as president. He also wrote that employees’ fear of angering Bergeron had created a “toxic administrative culture of fear and intimidation.”

Administrators are in the midst of creating a five-year financial plan for the college, one that King described as “compromised” by that very culture, keeping campus officials from being honest about financial projections.

“I am taking on significant personal and professional risk in writing to you. I fully expect some form of retaliation against me for sharing the information in this letter and in my letter of resignation,” King wrote.

Since 2021, at least six other DEI staff members have left the college, including four program directors, a Title IX coordinator, and King’s predecessor, John F. McKnight Jr., who was dean of institutional equity and inclusion from 2016 until 2021.

Debo P. Adegbile, chair of the college’s board, sent a letter to the campus community on Sunday, reaffirming the college’s commitment to DEI initiatives and expressing support for Bergeron’s leadership.

Adegbile also said that the board would be making further investments in the college’s Equity and Inclusion Action Plan based on feedback from the community and an outside review’s findings. Trustees are also planning to meet with faculty, staff, students, and alumni this week to begin conversations about DEI at the college.

Saperstein said he has noticed one positive development over the past few days: Students from all backgrounds have rallied together, which has had a positive impact on the campus.

“I’m really happy about the fact that people are coming together,” he said. “That this issue is bringing people together and not pitting us apart is something really beautiful.”

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