A California professor who claimed to have been the victim of a “hate crime” was placed on paid leave last month after police determined that she herself had been the perpetrator.
On March 9, Dr. Kerri Dunn, a visiting professor of psychology at Claremont McKenna College, reported that her car had been vandalized—the vehicle’s windows were shattered, its tires slashed, and its body spray-painted with various epithets. The incident came shortly after Dr. Dunn—who was well known for her campus activism—had spoken at a forum titled “Free Speech vs. Hate Speech.”
The response from the administration was frantic. “A hate crime such as this one is the greatest imaginable affront to everything that we stand for at CMC,” said Pamela Gann, the president of Claremont McKenna, which is one of five undergraduate institutions in the Claremont consortium near Los Angeles. “Our community and our ability to have discourse have been directly and violently attacked by conduct and speech in an unconscionable act that was specifically targeted against a faculty member.”
“We … have organized a number of community events and forums intended to educate our entire community about the unacceptable nature of these actions,” President Gann said, declaring that the college would “offer a $10,000 reward to anyone who comes forward with information leading to the solving of this crime.”
“These events are tragic, disturbing and unacceptable,” added the president of Pitzer College, another member of the consortium. “They have created a climate of fear in people and made us less secure in our community.”
In response to the incident, the five Claremont colleges canceled classes on March 10 and instead held a series of rallies, sit-ins, and demonstrations. About 2,000 people assembled for a rally that night in which students wore black shirts, chanted slogans, and carried signs reading “pro-diversity, anti-hate.” Dr. Dunn gave an impassioned speech at the gathering in which she called the vandalism of her car “a well planned out act of terrorism.”
A week after the rally, however, Claremont police stunned the campus with the announcement that two witnesses had “positively identified the victim as vandalizing her own vehicle.” In addition, police said, “interviews with the alleged victim revealed inconsistencies in her statement regarding the incident.”
In a press release, the Claremont Police Department and the FBI concluded that the perpetrator of the “hate crime” had been none other than Dr. Dunn herself.
Dr. Dunn vigorously denied the charges. “This is like a very big deal if they think I’m a suspect,” she told The Los Angeles Times. “I didn’t want any of this from the beginning. This is so overshadowing the bigger problem on campus, which is that the administration has turned its head regularly on hate speech and hate crimes.”
Dr. Dunn’s case was not bolstered by news reports of her previous run-ins with the law. In September of 1999, while living in Nebraska, she was arrested for driving without a license and with false license plates. Later that year Dr. Dunn was caught stealing a sweater from a clothing store, and in 2000 she was arrested again, this time for shoplifting hundreds of dollars in merchandise from two department stores.
“Arrest warrants had to be issued after Dunn failed to appear in court for both the shoplifting and license violations,” the Times stated. A police report characterized her as “belligerent and uncooperative.”
As the evidence against Dr. Dunn has accumulated, the righteous outrage that permeated the Claremont campuses last month has subsided considerably. Nonetheless, many students, professors, and administrators insist that Dr. Dunn’s innocence or guilt is not the main issue.
“I can only emphasize that, irrespective of whether the incident was real or a hoax, the tremendous response of our students and faculty in coming together on Wednesday, March 10 was very positive and should not be forgotten,” President Gann said.
Pomona College President David Oxtoby agreed, reported the Claremont Collage, the consortium’s student newspaper. “In an effort to keep students focused on the issues raised in the campus response, Oxtoby promised to redouble his effort to address issues of racism, homophobia and religious intolerance. ‘I remain committed to the directions of change that we have been discussing over the last several months in order to create a truly diverse and supportive community,’ said Oxtoby.”
Even the city government congratulated the colleges for their response to the incident: “Although it now appears uncertain whether Professor Kerri Dunn was the victim of a hate crime, the Claremont Committee on Human Relations wishes to commend you for the manner in which you denounced it.”
“We hope that the unfortunate turn of events does not discourage you from denouncing future acts of intolerance,” the committee wrote. “We likewise hope that you are not discouraged from seeking solutions to tolerance and diversity problems that may still exist.”
In spite of all the enmity and fear generated by the vandalism, Claremont police indicated that Dr. Dunn would not be charged with a “hate crime.”
“It has to be directed toward an individual or a specific group of individuals, so this doesn’t meet the criteria for a hate crime,” said Lt. Stan Van Horn. “As far as we have been able to determine, the only possible charge—unless the District Attorney knows something we don’t know—would be filing a false police report, which is a misdemeanor.”
Sean Grindlay is the managing editor of Campus Report Online.