Pepperdine Justice Coalition Stages PCH Protest After Dean’s Controversial Letter

A Pepperdine protester

“I’ll belong at Pepperdine when ____.” 

Pepperdine students and faculty called on the 70-plus Instagram users who had tuned in via livestream to fill in this blank on Wednesday, Nov. 11, as part of an early-morning protest staged just outside Pepperdine’s Malibu campus. Despite many students not being present in Malibu due to the coronavirus pandemic, the protest drew an estimated 30 attendees, some of whom bore signs reading, “Protect Black students” and, “True history is not that of the oppressor.” Later, faculty marched to Pepperdine’s Freedom Wall to read aloud and post notecards with the “I’ll belong at Pepperdine when” responses. 

Led by a student group called Pepperdine Justice Coalition, the protest sought “to acknowledge, support and include marginalized groups.” It was organized in response to the recent actions of Pete Peterson, who currently serves as the School of Public Policy’s dean. 

On Monday, Oct. 12, the dean shared an email petition with subscribers of the outlet Conservative News decrying “leftist curriculum” in colleges. “There are dire consequences to allowing a liberal viewpoint to be forced on the next generation, and we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg right now,” the letter said. 

“Some of his language he used was just like … ‘What? You’re a dean and you’re saying all this?’ At Pepperdine? This is one of the most right-leaning schools in Southern California. I don’t know what he’s on,” Cameron Zohary, a third-year undergraduate, said. 

Pepperdine administration was unaware of the email before it was sent; Dean Peterson himself did not know his photo would be associated with the email. The dean apologized to the campus during one of Pepperdine President Jim Gash’s presidential briefings, which are essentially public Zoom forums. The school also shared a statement online: “[Peterson’s] email doesn’t represent who we are or who we seek to be. Not even close.”

Peterson did not respond to emails from The Malibu Times. However, he earlier told the Pepperdine Graphic that he agreed with other administrators that future messaging needed to follow the university process. He also described his email’s tone as “aggressive” and “crass.” 

Many students feel that more action should be taken. “Gash said that the content of the email and petition weren’t aligned with Pepperdine’s values, but also said that he won’t be putting out a public apology, which felt like a slap in the face because the email Peterson sent out was public,” Amani McCalleb, current president of Pepperdine’s Black Student Association, said. “It deserved an equal response from the university.”  

Pepperdine Justice Coalition called for the dean to acknowledge the full hurt it believes he caused or step down from his position. 

Alex Forero, a Pepperdine representative, wrote in an email to The Malibu Times that “the university does not provide specific comments on personnel actions. However,” she wrote, “appropriate administrative action has been taken.” But Pepperdine Justice Coalition’s protest did not start, nor does it end with the dean’s removal. The group sought to address a campus culture it sees as racist or, at the very least, condoning of racism and the “empty promises and incremental steps” taken by the administration to address the issue. Organizers lamented the long period of time the university was taking in its search for a chief diversity officer, a role the school expects to fill after its search ends next February. Pepperdine Justice Coalition desired change sooner. Its demands also included the implementation of “anti-racist pedagogy” and more funding for “marginalized clubs.” 

Third-year student Aniah Weaks was one of the Pepperdine Justice Coalition organizers. Despite the fact she’s currently with her family on the East Coast, Weaks put in hours of work during the week leading up to the protest.

“I’m not going to be the last Black student at Pepperdine. I’m not going to be the last woman at Pepperdine. I’m not going to be the last Black woman at Pepperdine,” she said. “I think about the people that will inevitably come after me and I hope I can be a part of something that makes Pepperdine better for them even if I never meet them.”