In a letter sent Friday, Pomona College’s Sociology Department rejected student demands for the rescission of a hiring offer to Dr. Alice Goffman, defending their decision to choose the “legendary” and well-qualified teacher to fill an open professorship in the department.
After receiving the demand letter from “a pseudonymous email account,” the Sociology Department, in its response letter, refuted the claims of the students and, in line with the response from College administration, reaffirmed its decision to hire Goffman.
The students believe that Goffman—who was hired over two Black candidates—should not be hired because “the national controversy around Alice Goffman’s academic integrity, dubious integrity, her hyper-criminalization of Black men, and hyper-sexualization of Black women does not embrace and align with our shared community values.”
The Sociology Department does not share the students’ sentiments about Goffman:
“We reject the premise that Alice Goffman’s work hyper-criminalizes and hyper-sexualizes African-Americans. In fact, her book is widely regarded as a sympathetic and humanizing portrait of an over-policed community, and has been part of the national conversation about racial disparities in crime and incarceration. There have been, as there always are, scholarly critiques of the book’s methods and findings. Such debate is to be expected and encouraged in the academic community.”
Responding to concerns that Goffman’s hire does not align with the students’ definition of sociology—“[critiquing] elitism and interlocking systems of domination and power”—the Department asserts that the students have a faulty definition of sociology:
“We reject the characterization of sociology as a field that critiques elitism and power. Rather, sociology is a discipline that seeks to uncover the social processes that underlie seemingly individual experiences, which may or may not involve critique.”
The Department also refutes student concerns that Goffman’s critically-acclaimed book, On the Run, and the research behind it, are “racist, sensationalist and unethical,” and that Goffman employs “harmful research methods”:
“The methods of On the Run, while controversial, have not been found to be unethical. The University of Wisconsin conducted an internal review in response to the inappropriately anonymous critique mentioned in your letter and uncovered no wrongdoing. Further, it is publicly known that Goffman shares the royalties from her work with her research subjects and continues to have warm, personal relationships with them to this day.”
While the Department does support “the creation of peer-appointed, influential student positions on the hiring committee” and faculty that better reflects the department’s students, as demanded by the students, it states that such changes in policy are out of the Department’s control:
“We agree that the Sociology Department should better reflect the diversity of its majors. In fact, for years, the Department has sought an additional tenure line for this purpose, but has not been given that support by the administration…we are supportive of the possibility of elected, voting student members of a search committee. [But] [t]his would require a change in College-wide policy.”
However, the Department also believes Goffman sufficiently fulfills the diversity requirement, stating that “Goffman is also known as a legendary teacher, even at this early stage in her career, who works closely with all students, especially students from diverse backgrounds.”
The two other candidates for the position—Dr. Marla Kohlman of Kenyon College and Dr. Katrina Bell McDonald of Johns Hopkins University—have not received controversy for their work, but they have also not been under the national spotlight as Goffman has.
Kohlman received her degrees from Haverford College, American University, and the University of Maryland, College Park. Her work focuses on “institutional frameworks of inequality (gender, race, class, sexuality, etc.).”
McDonald received her degrees from Mills College, Stanford University, and the University of California, Davis. Her work centers around “how life is lived at the margins of society for disadvantaged social groups, such as racial, gender, and class minorities.” She has written a book titled Embracing Sisterhood: Class, Identity, and Contemporary Black Women.
Goffman, meanwhile, wrote the critically acclaimed On the Run, which made the New York Times’ “100 notable books of 2014” list. She received her degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University, and has received the “2011 Dissertation Award” by the American Sociological Association for “the best Ph.D. dissertation for a calendar year.”