The COVID-19 crisis has been just one of Skidmore College’s worries of late. When students learned that a professor and his partner, David and Andrea Peterson, were present at a “Back the Blue” rally in Saratoga Springs this past July, during which Black Lives Matter counterprotestors were teargassed and a handful arrested, they took to social media, calling for the professor’s immediate dismissal. (Students also protested by actively dropping Peterson’s classes prior to the beginning of the fall semester.) When later reached for comment, Peterson told the Skidmore News that he and his partner were at the rally, simply out of curiosity, with no ulterior motive or side to support. “Given the painful events that continue to unfold across this nation,” he said, “I guess we just felt compelled to see first-hand how all of this was playing out in our own community. Maybe we’re just naïve, but we did hope to witness something along the lines of a dialogue; a willingness to learn and work toward a common goal. Personally, I think it would be a far more humane world if we would all pull back from our knee-jerk assumptions about one another.”
To date, students and faculty have held a peaceful protest, as well as an online vigil, and Peterson, who has worked at the college for more than three decades, has kept his job (though he’s apparently become persona non grata among the student body). In his interview with the Skidmore News, he referenced a “process” that had gotten underway, due to the social media campaign against him, but it’s unclear what exactly was being investigated and what the results of the process have been since it began.
While Conner hasn’t spoken to local press about the Peterson matter, he has expressed support for the students’ peaceful protest, and spoke at the online vigil. And earlier this month, he unveiled a wide-ranging racial justice initiative, a year-long series of projects created to address diversity and inclusion on Skidmore’s campus and beyond. (When Saratoga Living requested an interview with Connor about the new initiative, it was denied one, instead being pointed to a pre-recorded video by Connor explaining the initiative and the initiative’s hub page, which provides a more detailed look at the initiative and an open letter to the college from Connor.)
Per Connor, the initiative is composed of 12 distinct projects designed to help create a “community of trust” on Skidmore’s campus and was formulated after weeks of “open and honest” discussions with students, faculty, staff and members of the Saratoga community. The initiative will address three main subject areas: Institutional Commitments for Race and Justice Progress; College and Community Partnerships and Projects; and Curricular, Co-Curricular, and Educational Projects. “Skidmore College is an exceptional liberal arts institution that benefits from the incredible work and unique perspectives of all members of this campus community,” said Conner in the video. “But with that said, Skidmore—like all of us as individuals—can be better and do better.” (Connor did not directly reference the Peterson matter during his message.)
That commitment to “do and be better” includes allocating significant funding to support new and existing diversity and inclusion programs. The college has already begun its search for a director of the office of student diversity programs, as well as a director of the center for equity, inclusion and justice. President Conner also announced plans to fund speakers, projects and symposia organized by the Black Studies Program, with the goal of amplifying traditionally under-represented voices. The initiative even extends beyond Skidmore’s campus, with a main focus being to strengthen the relationship between Skidmore and the Saratoga community. “I want to make this clear,” said Conner. “We are not simply placing a bandaid on these issues with the hope that they will go away. We are identifying wounds and working to achieve real and lasting healing and change.”
—additional reporting by Will Levith