The Pugh Center: When Safety is Shattered

“Physically at the center of the campus and conceptually at the center of Colby’s efforts to be inclusive, the Pugh Center is a distinctive Colby solution to a challenge felt throughout higher education–how to honor the diversity of people who make up the College with a facility that is inclusive rather than exclusive.” Located in Pulver, Colby’s student center, Pugh was initially created with two missions in mind. The first was to provide a safe place for minority students and groups on campus. The second was to foster multiculturalism through advocacy and the promotion of diversity, explains future president of Pugh Community Board Alexandra Murry. While the Pugh Center is suppose to represent a safe place, especially for Colby’s students of color, a confrontation between police and Colby students that occurred on April 12th, 2009 shattered not only the support system that is said to exist here at Colby, but also the ability of Pugh to provide said protection and security.

The Pugh Center consists of two floors and is technically considered its own building—in that there are physical barriers that demarcate its boundaries. Because the Pugh Center is supposed to be a safe place for students, it is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week (even when the rest of Pulver is closed). In fact, the founder emphasized this all-access type of schedule in order to provide students, no matter what the time or the day, with a place they could turn to and seek refuge in. For example, freshmen have been known to use the space to sleep in if they feel uncomfortable living with their assigned roommate. Aside from acting as a haven to students who need a peaceful area to resort to, it also exists as both home to Colby’s clubs, and as an event space. The club-specific rooms, which differ in size and in resources due to funding, exist predominately on the second floor, with a few on the first.

The ground floor of Pugh is somewhat round-shaped with couches and coffee tables lining the outside walls. There are also small four-person tables to study or to sip coffee and have an intimate conversation at. The focal point of the room however is the elevated three-sided, wood-paneled wall unit that acts as the Pugh stage. It is here where speakers typically conduct their lectures. The walls of Pugh are adorned with LGBTQ flags, an African tapestry, bookshelves of multicultural literature, and posters advertising the campus’ various programs. The Pugh Center logo also hangs in the middle of the stage—a word cloud with adjectives like “activism,” “diversity,” and “multiculturalism” stemming from it. These physical elements of the center work to successfully establish a welcoming vibe for all students despite race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual preference. Another value of the Pugh Center, aside from its array of functions and its motto, is its adaptability. The layout of the furniture is constantly rearranged to fit the needs of the various events that are held there—whether an acapella concert, a film screening, or a roundtable discussion. The Pugh Center is flexible in its hosting abilities as well as in the wide array of support it is expected to provide.

Since its endowment and installation, the Pugh Center has proved a necessary and valuable resource to the Colby population. It also is the only designated space on campus that embodies social ideals that transcend the physicality of the space. Despite these achievements, on April 12th, 2009, an event occurred that not only devastated the college and tarnished the vision of Pugh, but also shed light on the reality of race relations at Colby.

It all began late on the eve of Easter, during a school sponsored dance party in Page Commons. After midnight, two students sought refuge in Pugh, tired after a night of partying. One got comfortable and fell asleep. After spotting this student, a Colby security officer preceded to enter the space and question him in case medical attention was needed. As the “Rave to the Grave” dance ended and students began collecting their belongings from Pugh, chaos ensued. Eventually, innocent questioning turned into Colby security officers physically restraining two students to the ground. While both were submissive and compliant, an extreme amount of force was used. One student even began bleeding from his head. Colby security called for backup, and eventually the Waterville Police joined the effort to restrain the students—macing one three times in the face. Though both students pleaded to be let go, release was not awarded and the two students (and a third) were arrested and held for a night at the Kennebec County Jail in Augusta, Maine. The students were all of color.

The next day, on April 13th, Colby College came together to protest the police brutality that had ensued the night before in the Pugh Center. Staff and students filled the quad in red garb as speeches were made, complaints voiced and demands made. Confused, scared, and distraught, the Colby Campus was turned upside down. The support system we are told to believe in suddenly proved itself ineffective. Not only was the fate of the students up in the air but also the way in which the event would be handled by the press and by Colby administrators. The future was unknown.

The fact that the incident involved three students of color ignited many questions about the role of race at Colby College. The social and racial implications of April 12th were unavoidable. The fact that three seemingly innocent students were subject to violence by Caucasian security and police seized center stage. People began asking whether or not these events would have happened had the students been white. In addition to this, the fact that violence was shed against students of color in the Pugh center—the campus’s safe space for such students—held many heavy implications. If students of color are not even safe in Pugh, are they safe at Colby at all? While amendments have been made to the roles and powers of Colby security, the implications of that day continue to burn brightly on campus.

As the restrained students became martyrs, the Pugh Center, in the aftermath of April 12th, became a highly contested symbol for race relations on Colby’s campus. The Pugh Center is supposed to be a place where students of color feel that they, and their interests, are protected. The Pugh Center was built on the premise that it was dedicated to fostering diversity and multiculturalism within the student body in a healthy and productive manner. The fact that blood was shed in Pugh signifies a breakdown of the system, or a lapse in the very mission of the center itself. The irony of it is disgusting. The reality that actions were taken against students of color in their very own safe space represents a disregard and total lack of respect for the goals and the purpose of Pugh.

April 12th also represented the student body’s distrust in the administration. How could the college let those who are supposed to be protecting us and ensuring our safety act in such an inappropriate and violent manner? It is one thing to question a student but another to physical restrain them until they are bleeding, hurt, crying, and pleading for help. It is also unsettling that when these students promised they would comply with security’s orders, their requests were simply ignored. Isn’t a college campus supposed to make its student’s opinions and needs a first priority? Isn’t our safety something that should take precedence and importance over everything else?

The event illuminated truths about race relations at Colby College. It is generally accepted that Colby is a college of white privilege. As Echo writers Veronica Foster and Hannah DeAngelis explained in their article, “Why Should We Revisiting April 12th,” Colby College is predominately white. And with whiteness comes oblivion, or rather a disregard or lack of attention to how students who differ from this norm fit into a school that has forever struggled with its diversity percentages. We want our campus to provide a second home and an education for all of its students, no matter who they are or where they come from. The fact that students of color are so unrepresented here, and are also victims of such violence and discrimination, demonstrates that Colby College is not sufficiently fulfilling its goals and its promises. Colby College is not protecting its students – especially its minorities. While April 12th, 2009 highlighted weaknesses within the college, it also worked as a necessary wake-up call to create positive change.

April 12th, 2009 not only brought the Colby community together but also opened up a space for conversations about race to occur. The incident not only forced us to see how far Colby’s reality is from its potential, but also invited us to brainstorm the ways in which we can improve this place and make it more welcoming. Colby College was able to self-reflect and come to understand the areas in which it was hurting its students. April 12th, 2009 also made us reevaluate the way in which the Pugh Center functions as a space of equality and protection.

(For more information on the Pugh Center, see Taking Stock: Multiculturalism and the Pugh Center)

About Leah Tichansky

Leah Tichansky, class of 2013, is an American Studies major and Jewish Studies minor. She is from New York City. Her favorite place is the Hume Center because of how beautiful the lake is.