The drama enveloping Chestnut Hill College, fittingly, began in a theater, and someday it’s probably going to end in a courtroom. But before a judge decides officially whether Chestnut Hill College can be held liable for a charge of racial discrimination, alums, faculty and former school leaders are wondering why the situation ever had to go this far, why the Northwest Philly Catholic school has been so unwilling to acknowledge possible problems with race from which even the mayor of Philadelphia is telling the college to repent.
The mayor’s words came last week. Jim Kenney tweeted his support of a City Council resolution that passed 14-3 criticizing the college and requesting it drop a challenge of findings of discrimination against a former black student named Allan-Michael Meads.
In 2012, Meads was expelled by the college a few weeks before he was set to graduate for allegedly stealing proceeds from a play he directed. He filed a complaint with the state-backed Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, which charged the college with discrimination in a finding of probable cause released in 2015 that cited more lenient punishments from the school for cases of theft perpetrated by white students. Chestnut Hill College challenged the investigation with a lawsuit stipulating that because of its status as a Catholic university the PHRC lacks jurisdiction over it. The City Council resolution, introduced by Helen Gym and Cindy Bass, noted the challenge could set “a dangerous precedent” where students at private religious colleges would not be protected by anti-discrimination laws.
Danielle Banks, Chestnut Hill College’s lawyer, said the college did not discriminate because of race, and if the court determines the PHRC has jurisdiction the college will fight for its innocence and disprove what she sees as a one-sided view of the incident by City Council and the PHRC.
“When I see something like this where the college is more harsh to folks who are black,” Banks said, “it is just not true.”
The legal challenge has stumped many alums, particularly the CHC Alumni of Color Collective. They had previously been attempting to cultivate a better relationship with Chestnut Hill College.
“We’re not monolithic and I know a lot of us that have had wonderful experiences and go back,” said Jenn Wilmot, a 2006 graduate. “But there’s a strong contingency of us that say, ‘hey, there’s some problems.’ There were some serious problems at this school and we’re trying to figure out what the college is going to do about it.”
So far the answer has been very little, even as pressure mounts from the outside — and the inside. Around 10 percent of faculty members left over the summer, and several key staff members have left in recent years. For many of them, the motives were clear: dissatisfaction with the school’s administration, led by longtime President Sister Carol Jean Vale and a board either too ambivalent or too powerless to do anything as Chestnut Hill College deals with a controversy over race on campus.
“This school had some of the best and warmest and most sincere people I’d ever met, but they didn’t have a clue what they were dealing with,” said W. Antoinette Ford, the College’s lone black board member until she quit before her term expired in 2014. “And that can be more dangerous than being vicious.”
‘A Raisin in the Sun’ and the aftermath
For his senior year in 2012, Allan-Michael Meads wanted to challenge himself and direct a play, and he wanted to give back to Chestnut Hill College’s theater department, where he says diversity was increasing.
Meads had enrolled at Chestnut Hill College in 2007, and proved himself to be a pretty good actor during his time there. He was in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” He played one of the starring roles in “Fiddler on the Roof,” acting as Tevye. His plan for 2012 was to direct an all-black cast in “A Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 classic.
That plan, according to cast members, was not embraced nor heavily supervised by Chestnut Hill College administration and staff. Quincy Inman, who had a lead role in “A Raisin in the Sun,” remembers his academic advisor calling it “a horrible literary work” and not something relevant at Chestnut Hill College. This academic advisor, he said, would ask him questions about Meads’ directing habits and how he was handling money. The cast was often forced to reschedule rehearsals after being told they couldn’t hold them in the typical space for plays. Inman said Vale, the university president, didn’t attend opening night of “A Raisin in the Sun,” as she did for most other productions.
Shortly after the play’s performances, dean of student life Krista Bailey Murphy met with Meads and separately with cast members, who initially turned against Meads. Meads maintains the play made about $1,800 in revenue, and he spent $500 of the proceeds on a donation to the Lupus Foundation, another $800 on a cast party at Applebee’s and the rest on various supplies. Cast members say other theater productions had parties, sometimes catered by the school, and it was routine for advisors in other extracurricular activities to buy students gifts or pay for parties with school funds. Meads also gave free tickets to middle school students and businesses that assisted in the play’s production.
According to the PHRC findings, Chestnut Hill College calculated there should have been a profit of about $2,248. Multiple sources say no faculty or staff advised Meads on the play, financially or otherwise, and the PHRC findings state there was no evidence provided by Chestnut Hill College that showed Meads had been briefed on accounting procedures. It also stated that Chestnut Hill College delayed sending documents the PHRC requested for months.
Inman now says he felt like he and other cast members were deceived by the school.
“I truly believe that from the moment this play came out that at a predominantly Caucasian school with nuns,” Inman said, “it wasn’t something the school wanted.”
Said Banks: “There was no backlash from this play. It’s a beautiful play. Everybody supported Mr. Meads. When he had his disciplinary hearing he said he thought he deserved this money. One of the reasons he was expelled was he the way he responded in meetings.”
Meads denies taking money for himself and said after some of the initial, heated meetings with Chestnut Hill College leadership he requested an appointment with Vale, the president. He said he wanted to talk to her about race.
“The next day I was expelled,” Meads said. “And then this is everything, the fighting to get back.”
Former professor Susan Magee had Meads in one of her classes. She was perplexed when she found out Meads had been expelled, as were other faculty who knew him. Meads was a resident advisor, gave tours of the campus and had no previous disciplinary record.
There was talk of faculty signing a petition protesting the expulsion, but the plan never came to fruition. Professors who didn’t have tenure, including Magee, didn’t want to sign out of fear Vale would retaliate.
“It’s a kind of environment where you just don’t feel like it’s OK to stand up,” Magee said, “and be like, ‘maybe that’s not the right decision.’”
The Catholic sisters’ ‘world is very narrow’
Magee is talking now because she’s one of the many professors and staff who have recently left the school. The list of faculty on Chestnut Hill College’s website directory from last spring shows 10 people who are no longer teaching at the school this fall. That’s a loss of about 10 percent of total faculty at the small school, and the number might be even higher. Some faculty members who have left the school are still pictured in the directory.
Staff upheaval is harder to quantify, but several changes have taken place. Chestnut Hill College, for instance, is on its third vice president for academic affairs since 2013. Billy Penn learned that even in the last week, three staffers with positions of varying stature have resigned. Representatives for the school declined to respond to questions about departures of faculty and staff.
Magee is not shy about why she left Chestnut Hill College, her alma mater: “It wasn’t just because of the case but that had a lot to do with my decision. I saw that it had become a very repressive environment where we weren’t allowed to question. We were supposed to just accept what they were saying and go along.”
The reason for the “repressive environment,” according to current and former faculty members, starts with Vale, who has been president since the early 1990s. She’s a Sister of Saint Joseph, the religious order that founded Chestnut Hill College as Mount Saint Joseph College in 1924.
During Vale’s tenure, the formerly all-women’s college has changed drastically. Enrollment and the geographical size of the college have basically doubled, sports teams have moved up to the Division II level and in 2003, Chestnut Hill College began accepting male students, really altering the dynamic of the university.
In 2014, the undergraduate student body was about 35 percent black, according to federal data. In 1994, not long after Vale became president, the student body was about 11 percent black.
With a diverse enrollment on paper, Inman explained his belief that Vale and other leaders — many of whom are also Sisters of St. Joseph — don’t find it possible they could be creating an unreceptive environment for students of color, especially given they’ve been inculcated with the Catholic view that sisters help all people.
“Their world is very narrow,” he said. “They literally live with their sisters, eat with their sisters. They’re protected under this bubble of the Catholic faith organization. They live with people with shared views, talk with people with shared views. I don’t believe it’s on purpose.”
A review by the Alumni of Color Collective last year found seven people of color among 93 faculty members and two people of color among 59 director positions on staff — none of whom were deans or served at the vice president level. When Chestnut Hill College created an office for diversity and inclusion last year in response to the Meads controversy, it appointed a white nun already employed by the school to lead.
One of the few conscious decisions to increase diversity may have been Ford’s appointment to the board in 2013. Ford, a 1963 graduate, attended Chestnut Hill College at a time when the black student body consisted of her and three other women. When she saw how white the rest of the board was, it reminded her of the 1960s. She said there was one other black member whose term ran out shortly after she joined (Unlike most private and public universities, Chestnut Hill College does not publicly list its board members and did not respond to a request about the board).
Ford, the first black woman to be a White House Fellow and a presidential appointee to the Washington D.C. City Council under Richard Nixon, brought up concerns about the school not understanding other races and cultures but said her input was either unheard or ignored. She recalled one conversation during a meeting about diversity where “in only the innocence they could bring up” a sister responded to some of Ford’s comments by saying, “can you tell me what it’s like to be an African-American?”
“It wasn’t funny,” Ford said. “It was pitiful.”
She also recommended at least four leaders of color for board spots in hopes that if these suggestions weren’t right for the board perhaps they’d help the college find others, increasing Chestnut Hill College’s network among minority communities. The school never acted upon the recommendations, she said.
The effect of what Ford considers a lack of understanding by the leadership particularly bothers her. She remembers rarely thinking about the civil rights issues swirling around her in the early 1960s, saying that when you’re in college you don’t always see the big picture as you try to get through school.
“Therefore,” Ford said, “the responsibility is greater for the people who can help you keep your eyes open.”
Reflection papers for white students, expulsion for Meads
You can look at situations noted in the PHRC’s finding of probable cause for examples of different treatment of black students versus white students at Chestnut Hill College and find many. There was, for instance, a time when a white female student was punished for theft of another student’s car by having to write a reflection paper.
Or to realize the alleged differences you can call a few recent black alumni. Like Jenn Wilmot.
She enrolled at the school in 2002 after graduating from University City High School. She accepted a full academic scholarship without visiting the campus and joined the volleyball team. Close to the end of fall semester her freshman year, Wilmot and four friends were hanging out in her dorm room, loudly talking and laughing. They received a noise complaint, and Wilmot said she slammed the door on the resident advisor who complained.
Later she met with a sister who at the time held a student life leadership position. The sister asked Wilmot where she attended high school. After saying she went to University City High, a predominantly black school, Wilmot said the sister replied, “Oh, that’s why you don’t know how we do things around here.”
Wilmot was kicked out of college housing for the spring semester and forced to commute from home. She said she was given no due process.
Wilmot graduated in 2006 and has since gone on to grad school at Penn and the University of Missouri and is now working on her doctorate at the University of Kansas. She said her experience at the University of Missouri for graduate school further solidified her view of Chestnut Hill College as unwelcoming for black students. Though Mizzou has had its own issues, she said their diversity initiatives far outdo anything she saw at Chestnut Hill College.
“I also don’t think it will get better if you have an appeal on the table basically saying we should be exempt from the [Human Relations] Act because we’re a religious institution,” Wilmot said. “You basically want to have the freedom to discriminate more than you already have done.”
The school maintains it is asking a legal question given the resemblance to a case decided by the Commonwealth Court. In 1988, the Commonwealth Court ruled the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission has no jurisdiction over Catholic high schools. Though they are private, Catholic high schools as well as Catholic colleges receive some state funding. In fiscal year 2013-14, according to the City Council resolution, Chestnut Hill College received $950,000 in state grants and student loans.
The next step in the PHRC’s process would be a public hearing at which Meads will be present, as well as Chestnut Hill College, in something that would be a similar to a trial. But a hearing wouldn’t happen if the Commonwealth Court rules the PHRC doesn’t have jurisdiction.
“Given the status of the law it’s a valid question to ask,” said Kevin Feeley, a PR professional representing Chestnut Hill College, “and CHC believes it was unfairly being condemned for merely asking the question.”
Vale was not made available for comment, nor were faculty and staff of the college. Banks and Feeley discussed the case and the City Council resolution generally but declined to comment on several specific questions about Chestnut Hill College.
In an email blast earlier this week, Wilmot and other members of the Alumni of Color Collective said in the coming days they would be turning their attention to the college’s leadership and urged followers to contact Vale: “Does Sister Carol Jean Vale really believe that Mayor Jim Kenney, Philadelphia City Council, the Philadelphia Chapter of the NAACP, and the PHRC all got it wrong?”
The board grants five-year terms for presidents at Chestnut Hill College. Vale’s most recent term expires in 2017.
After being kicked out of Chestnut Hill College, Meads transferred to Cheyney University, from which he graduated. He’s working on his master’s in education at Cabrini College and also works in the theater department at his former middle school, Springfield Township.
Chestnut Hill College maintains it did not discriminate against him and has not had an opportunity to present its side. Meads argues they’re fighting so they won’t have to.
“This isn’t an odyssey. It’s a real story. It happened and you guys have failed to acknowledge it,” he said, referring to the college. “And you’ve failed to face me.”