An Open Letter: Reckoning with Mount Tamalpais College’s Culture of Harm
This letter represents the shared concerns of a large contingent of the dedicated and knowledgeable Mt. Tamalpais College community (formerly “Prison University Project” at San Quentin state prison). It’s the result of dozens of interviews and conversations with faculty (current and past), staff (current and past), former MTC students, and donors.
Dear Mt. Tamalpais College Community & the General Public,
It is with hope for change that we write this letter detailing the hostile environment that has been pervasive at Mt. Tamalpais College (MTC). Years without accountability, and a willingness to abuse power, have created a toxic environment that is undermining the mission and values MTC has nominally championed. We choose to share this letter publicly because many of the requests made individually to leadership have been ignored. Multiple attempts have been made to reform the organization from within, but each attempt has been met with a categorical refusal by leadership to self-reflect, change, or respond to the needs of the larger community. In addition, our more private appeal to the Board of Directors has also been largely ignored and pushed aside. Many of us have struggled for months if not years with if and how to come forward with this information, not wanting to undercut the impactful, sometimes radical work being done by some faculty and students inside, and most of all, not wanting to harm students inside who experience so many pre existing barriers to education. It has become abundantly clear to us, however, that justice cannot be achieved at the expense of other marginalized people’s well-being, and our silence will only perpetuate the ongoing harm experienced by people in the community.
We are united in a vision of transformative justice, knowing that as James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. ” A purpose of this letter is to shed light on the issues MTC leadership refuses to face, as well as to counter a false and oversimplified narrative shared by too many outside audiences, that the program’s success hinges on the leadership of PUP’s Executive Director (now President of MTC). This perception undermines the powerful commitment and contributions by students, staff, and faculty over the past quarter-century. The collective body of students, faculty, and staff possess a depth of knowledge, skill sets, and expertise that actually drive the education happening inside and outside the prison. In fact, as we will detail below, the Executive Director and Chief Academic Officer have more often impeded the work of those groups, rather than empowering and supporting them.
Leadership at Mt. Tamalpais College has created a toxic environment marked by transphobia, anti-Blackness, retaliation, gaslighting, and white saviorism. Current leadership has actively rejected practices that support collaboration and inclusivity, among staff and faculty alike; instead, they have created a punitive culture that penalizes Black and brown staff and faculty, as well as trans and LGBTQIA+ people. Staff, faculty, and students who question or criticize leadership’s decisions and practices — especially when they concern practices of belonging and inclusion — are met with acts of retaliation. This goes beyond the experience of one or two people; the experiences of dozens of people who were interviewed suggest a pattern that cannot be dismissed.
Below, we offer examples and patterns compiled from interviews and inter-community dialogue that demonstrate how MTC’s leadership has failed. Many stories and anecdotes were collected in the course of our conversations. The accounts below are expressed in the distinct range of voices of those involved, along with more generalized descriptions of repeated patterns of abuse.
Resistance to Accountability, Abuse of Power, and the Resulting Toxic Environment
My goodness, now I know what it feels like to go to the parole board.
This comment was made in the prison’s education department by the Executive Director, a white woman who has never experienced incarceration, in front of a small group of incarcerated students. She had just completed a restorative circle in response to staff and faculty complaints about her use of the N-word during a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training being offered by students for staff and faculty. During the restorative circle, each person had been allowed to say how hearing the ED’s use of that word had affected them. The ED had become increasingly defensive as people in the circle spoke.
A white woman should never use the N Word….
That word triggers me….
As a person of color on your staff, I shouldn’t have to hear that word at my place of employment. Ever. And because you are the head of this organization, it feels scary to even say what I just said….
Instead of taking the opportunity to address the harm that she caused, the ED centered herself as a perceived victim and refused to be held accountable.
- Leading up to the training, she learned some students felt that the MTC program was not prioritizing racial equity work and she tried to “root out” the instigator. “Are staff or volunteers messaging to them that these are not issues of concern to the organization, and is that perhaps causing them to interpret this kind of event in a loaded or even distorted way?” she asked staff. Leadership at MTC continued labeling specific staff and volunteers as instigators who negatively influenced others throughout the next year and a half.
- After the DEI training, the ED complained about the staff members and faculty who didn’t think she should say the N-word. “Don’t they know this is a college and not a social justice organization?” she said on several occasions. This is when she began emphasizing “academic freedom” as a crucial principle. The Chief Academic Officer (CAO) and ED would continue to say that MTC wasn’t a social justice organization in response to subsequent critiques of the organization’s racial equity practices.
- She then fired the restorative justice consultant hired by the Board to lead the restorative process before any conclusions could be made or feedback given to the organization.
- As the board silently watched, the ED rewrote the mission statement to emphasize “academic freedom,” without also committing to racial justice, sidelining concerns from staff about changing the mission statement without having any discussions about organizational values.
- She refused staff requests to bring in qualified trainers to discuss organizational racism because she found the racial justice field “undeveloped” and prescriptive.
- She became involved in every staff hire to make sure they weren’t too motivated by “social justice.” There were concerns from staff that this expectation created opportunities for discriminatory hiring and was coded language used to excuse leadership’s responsibility for addressing calls to address internal racism.
- The ED brought in her own hand-picked consultant to make recommendations to the organization on diversity and equity initiatives. The staff never got to hear the consultant’s recommendations.
- Over the next year and a half, almost every staff member who had filed a formal complaint is no longer with the organization, despite the Board’s guarantee there would be no retaliatory consequences. Those who weren’t laid off or fired left, due to the psychological toll of the toxic work environment.
But perhaps most emblematic of the failure to take accountability was the ED’s comment when placed in a circle to hear the harm she’d caused. My goodness, now I know what it feels like to go to the parole board. In a room where she had power over people’s livelihoods and other people’s access to education, because she was being asked to be accountable, she saw herself as the person being persecuted. She equated being held accountable with being denied freedom, such as that experienced by incarcerated people going in front of the Parole Board, betraying a deep and dangerous lack of understanding of her own power and positionality. And then she began to dismantle the very structures designed to hold her accountable.
There were many, many examples of the toxic and dysfunctional environment; we’ve selected a few below that point to consistent patterns:
- There were several accounts of members of the executive team creating a toxic work environment, including: comments that denied the needs and existence of trans staff and students, questioning by leadership about employees’ sex lives during work check-ins, and inappropriate speculations and armchair diagnoses of employees’ mental health.
- Employees who are critical or questioning of executive decisions or the organization’s commitment to racial equity are often counseled about their “tone” or “attitude.” On more than one occasion, this became the basis for a negative finding on their annual work evaluation.
- The Chief Academic Officer has said that she should not have to perform the manual labor necessary to keep the program going, such as using her clearance to escort volunteer faculty into the prison, responding to emails, scanning documents, making photocopies for classes. The CAO repeatedly asks her supervisees or unpaid faculty to do her work, while she takes the credit and assumes the decision-making power.
- From 2018 until the termination of the program due to the pandemic, credited classes only received in person evaluation and oversight by staff if a student made a complaint to staff. This lack of active oversight puts an undue burden on our vulnerable students, and has increasingly led to more frequent disagreements between faculty working together to teach a single class. This has resulted in students complaining that the quality of instruction was devolving.
One of the starkest effects of the organization’s resistance to accountability comes up around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) issues. The organization’s resistance to accountability and continued abuses of power are most clearly revealed in its resistance to discussions about DEI, impacting not just staff, but also students.
A staff meeting includes two Black staff members, and is led by the ED and CAO, two white women. The conversation turns to race, and one of the Black staff members asks questions about where the organization stands regarding diversity and inclusion. When this Black staff member cites the difference between equity and equality, noting that the organization does not seem to recognize that difference, they are met with defensiveness and avoidance by the ED. The ED’s long-winded responses, peppered with references to “academic freedom,” fail to address why DEI efforts are not central to an organization that serves predominantly Black and brown students, even as the faculty is predominantly white. The Black staff member experiences such a strong sense of frustration and gaslighting that they leave the room in tears. The other Black staff member steps out to offer some support. When a Black staff member suggests that MTC could benefit from talking about these issues in greater depth, they are met with the accusation, “Are you calling us racist?!,” framing the request as an attack on white people. Yet again, any attempt to address issues of race and power are shut down by white leadership’s inability to self-reflect and engage in appropriate change-making. And this meeting is just one example of the many times MTC leadership wields phrases like “academic freedom” and “intellectual freedom” as a means to silence and criticize faculty, staff, and students who speak out against racist, sexist, classist, able-ist, etc. teaching practices and curriculum.
Other examples of MTC’s failure to engage in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work:
- Black and LGBTQIA+ employees are subjected to surveillance, oversight, and administrative reprimands that other white, cis, and heterosexual staff practicing similar behaviors do not endure. Such surveillance is often a micromanagement of how they use their time during the workday, or with whom they fraternize outside of their jobs.
- Black staff were subjected to the “N” word in multiple spaces, and were also subjected to hearing the usage of the “N” word defended on several occasions. In one instance, a white faculty member who used the “N” word in the Black staff’s presence was later prioritized for an interview for a management position by members of the executive team, over the objections of staff.
- A MTC volunteer faculty approached the organization with a plan for a DEI training, with the input and collaboration of students. MTC leadership green-lit the plan, but when the students and faculty volunteer reached out to MTC leadership to share the training prior to the larger rollout to all staff and faculty, leadership scheduled meetings and then didn’t show up. Leadership also acted as gatekeepers about which parts of the training could be shared with faculty and undermined the students and faculty in various other ways.
- The Executive Director repeatedly tells staff that to hire a person of color or formerly incarcerated person in a leadership role “requiring” an advanced degree would be to tokenize them, sending the message that there are no formerly incarcerated or people of color that would meet the qualifications. Meanwhile, there has been ample feedback about the existing leadership lacking key skills in management, differentiated learning, teacher training, and cultural competency which she does not seem concerned about.
- Feedback from faculty about the lack of support around cultural competency and DEI issues are ignored. Faculty of color that have complained about micro-aggressions from other white MTC community members are ignored.
- The ED cites a lack of diversity in higher education as the reason MTC does not have many Black or brown faculty. Meanwhile, no systems have been created to support and retain Black and brown staff and faculty, as evidenced by MTC not retaining BIPOC staff and faculty at the same rate as their white counterparts.
Mismanagement of Resources & Fundraising under False Pretenses:
While MTC students, staff, and faculty reel in response to the uncertainties of COVID-19, MTC abandons their education mandate. Even though many other prison higher ed and self-help programs pivot to distance programming, MTC fails to create a path for distance learning for students and teachers to finish the semester, already halfway completed. Instead, MTC ceases almost all direct communication with students and faculty about education, and abandons almost every attempt to continue educational programming.
During the pandemic, MTC pivots from their mission, and begins providing care packages to incarcerated people at San Quentin and other prisons. They also spend $140,000 to hire food trucks and portable shower units for correctional officers. While incarcerated people in San Quentin remain locked in their cells with limited access to showers and phone calls, correctional officers eat burritos and wash up on MTC’s dime.
And in the organizing efforts that have arisen during the pandemic, MTC distanced itself from the growing movement to advocate for releases or to shore up their resources to help people reentering the community. The ED criticizes organizations doing work to release incarcerated people in a newsletter, saying CDCR is doing their best. In spite of this criticism, amidst popular uprisings in response to George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police, new donations begin to pour into MTC’s coffers. MTC’s name appears on numerous internet lists of “places to donate to support racial justice and abolition.” Still, MTC refuses to advocate for PPE, releases, or many of the other expressed needs of their students. After a few of their teaching volunteers did join these advocacy efforts, MTC reached out to ask them to write about their individual efforts for the MTC annual report. Indeed, MTC has sent out fundraising letters highlighting social justice advocacy, even as they refuse to support it materially themselves.
The following examples offer insight into MTC’s history of mismanaging both financial and human resources:
- In 2016, the entire staff was required to take a pay cut due to mismanagement of the organization’s budget. MTC has a history of sometimes counting their financial chickens before they hatch. On one occasion, it was made clear to staff that unless they consented to a pay cut, a staff member who had just suffered a brain injury would be laid off. The staff unanimously agreed to the reduced pay.
- In 2017, $35,000 of grant money was spent on hotel food at a training for technical assistance, while staff was still working at reduced pay.
- Recent years have seen extreme and growing disparities in salary between administration and staff.
- On September 4, 2020, MTC sent out an email celebrating 1000 new first-time donors this year. Less than a week later they laid off two staff members who had raised concerns about transphobia and racism within the organization. Those two lay-offs completed a decimation of those who had clearance to enter to and manage the program on the inside. Shortly after the layoffs, a newsletter went out with organizational updates, including an announcement that PUP would be hiring for multiple positions soon. This high turnover of staff erodes the trust and continuity needed to help students pursue their higher educational goals.
- In almost every instance, MTC prioritizes spending money in ways that build the upper levels of the program, while not investing in positions that directly support students. For instance, despite several protracted searches, many on-the-ground positions for staff who work directly with students and faculty have gone unfilled: the Academic Program Director (still unfilled) for a year and a half; the registrar (only recently filled) for over a year.
- A glut of consultants were paid to address many of the issues enumerated above. The recommendations were never implemented, and at times were not even shared with the larger organization.
- Lastly, relying on all-volunteer, unpaid faculty means that only those who can afford to donate their time, resulting in a predominantly white, upper class volunteer faculty that have few things in common with the students. Instead of investing in BIPOC faculty or those with more diverse backgrounds, massive amounts of money have been spent on consultants, new executive-level positions, and executive team pay raises.
This letter emerges from a deep, collective investment in MTC’s mission — to offer high quality education to incarcerated students at San Quentin state prison. This letter also emerges from the sense of responsibility that faculty and other members of the MTC community feel, upon learning about the details related above. This letter is signed in trust and support of the impacted community of staff, students, and faculty who have bravely shared their harmful experiences with MTC from as early as 2016, and likely for longer.
We feel compelled to make public these troubling aspects of Mt. Tam College’s culture. Abuses of power, mismanagement of resources, and resistance to a culture of accountability are having a disturbing impact upon the community. Thus far, MTC has in many ways been able to live up to its mission to provide high quality education, primarily through the labor of the undersigned and others, most of whom volunteer their time and expertise for free. That said, the viability of the program does not justify the ways MTC has created a toxic workplace that disproportionately harms BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ people.
This group of signers has a collective vision for the future of Mt. Tam College, one that relies on effective and equitable pedagogy, collaboration, transparency, and relationship-building. But before we can look to this vision, we must address the harms done and the root causes that contributed to them. Now is the time for an honest reckoning, one that includes all constituencies, from students to donors. As MTC attempts to resurrect its commitment to education, albeit in correspondence form, now is the time to look with clear eyes at the leadership practices and beliefs that have enabled this damaging work culture. Only then can we move towards healing, in service of a vision that serves all.
Members of San Quentin’s Educational Community (Current and Past MTC Staff, Students, and Volunteer Faculty)
If you would like to sign this letter as a member of the MTC/PUP Community, please fill out this form.
10 Current/Past MTC Staff Members (Anonymous)
4 Past MTC Students (Anonymous)
Volunteer Faculty (Donors are marked using an asterisk):
Nikita Rahman, MSW Candidate
MTH 50A, MTH 99 (3 semesters)
Elliott Hoey, PhD Linguistics
ENG 204, Writing Tutor (2 semesters)
Rebecca VanDeVoort, MFA Creative Writing
ENG 99B, ENG 99A, Reading Strategies, Designated Tutor (6 semesters)
Nayeon Kim, BA History, Spanish; JD Candidate
SPA 101, SPA 102, ENG 99B (7 semesters)
Angela Wall, PhD Critical Theory and Cultural Studies
ENG 99B, ENG 220 (3 semesters)
Camille Buchanan, MA Candidate in Educational Therapy
MTH 50A Study Group Leader (3 semesters)
Leah Humphreys, MA Library and Information Science
ENG 204 Research Asst (1 semester)
Kristen Levine, BA Journalism; MFA in Writing
Writing Tutor (2 semesters)
*Amber Shields, PhD Film Studies
ART 220, ENG 99A, ENG 99B, Spanish & General Writing Tutor (9 semesters)
*Rallie Murray, MA Anthropology; PhD Anthropology and Social Change
Writing Tutor (8 semesters)
Swati Rayasam, MSc Global Health & Environment
ENG 204 (4 semesters)
*Susan Hirsch, MA English Literature
ENG 99A, ENG 99B, ENG 101A, ENG 101B, ENG 102 (10 semesters)
*Jane Courant MA English; PhD Drama
Tutor (General Writing, Shakespeare), Extracurricular Play Reading (16 semesters)
David Thompson, PhD Anthropology,
ENG 99A (1 semester)
Jocelyn Saidenberg, PhD Comparative Literature
ENG 210, SP1, SP2, ART 220 (6 semesters)
*David Buuck, BA Development Studies; MFA Creative Writing; MA History of Consciousness
ENG 101B, ENG 102, ENG 234, ENG 246 (8 semesters)
*Regina Mullen, BA Literature
ENG 99A, ENG 99B (6 semesters)
Harish Ramadas, PhD Mathematics
MTH 99, MTH 115 (7 semesters)
*Cayla Mihalovich, BA Literature and Creative Writing
Writing Tutor (3 semesters)
*Kyana Van Houten, BS Physics
MTH 99, MTH 115, MTH 50B Tutor, Physics Study Group Tutor (6 semesters)
*Ian Sethre, MA Modern European History; MA Administration
HIS 101, HIS 102, POL 241, ENG 204, MUS 180, Study Hall Tutor (13 semesters)
*Courtney Rein, MA English Literature
ENG 99B & Designated Tutor (13 semesters)
*Mark Lipkin, MPP Candidate
MTH 115, Criminal Justice Reform & Philanthropy Workshop, Math Tutor (4 semesters)
*Rebecca Rapf, PhD Physical Chemistry
MTH 99, CHM 111, Study Group Leader (5 semesters)
Samantha Giles, MFA Creative Writing
ENG 210, Study Hall Tutor, (8 semesters)
Emily F. Chu, PhD Chemistry
Math Tutor, Pre-Calculus I, Biology, Elementary Algebra & Chemistry Study Group Leader, Substitute Math Volunteer (15 semesters)
Lara Durback, MFA Creative Writing
ENG 101A, ENG 204 Research Asst, General and Designated Tutor (9 semesters)
*Kathryn Crim, PhD Comparative Literature
ENG 101, ENG 102, ENG 248, ENG 204 Research Asst (7 semesters)
Anum Glasgow, PhD Bioengineering
MTH 115 (8 semesters)
Elizabeth Hargrett, PhD History
ENG 204 (2 semesters)
*Alex Zobel, PhD English Literature
ENG 99B, ENG 101A, ENG 101B, ENG 204, Study Hall Tutor (6 semesters)
Yasmine Griffiths, MPH Global Health & Environment
Introduction to Public Health, ENG 99A (2 semesters)
C. Mia Ihm, PhD Physics
MTH 99, Math & Physics Study Groups, Math Support Tutor, Math Substitute (10 semesters)
*Jillian Azevedo, PhD History
ENG 99A, ENG 99B (2 semesters)
*Hannah Edber, MA Education, MA Literature, PhD student in Curriculum & Instruction
ENG 99A (3 semesters)
Marianne Kaletzky, PhD Comparative Literature
SPA 101, SPA 102, writing tutor (6 semesters)
*Dan Walls, PhD Chemical Engineering
MTH 50A, MTH 50B, and Elementary Algebra Co-Instructor, Study Group Leader, Substitute (8 Semesters)
Josie Innamorato, MA Public Policy
MTH 115, MTH 50B, MTH 99 Study Group Leader (3 semesters)
*Geoffrey G. O’Brien
ENG 99B, ENG 101A, ENG 101B, ENG 102, Writing Tutoring (22 semesters)
Andrew Blinkinsop, PhD candidate Political Science
ENG 99B (1 semester)
*Lindsay Gray, MSc
Biology, ENG 204 (3 Semesters)
Greg Dyer, BA Statistics, MSW student
MTH 50A, 50B, Study Group Leader (3 semesters)
Sarah W. Clowes