Dodge professor talks ‘The Birth of a Nation’ and diversity at Chapman

Ron McCants
Ron McCants, a first-year adjunct professor at Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, has supported students advocating for the removal of the controversial “The Birth of a Nation” poster. Photo by Max Weirauch.

A newly-hired Ron McCants was walking the halls of the Marion Knott Studios in late August 2018 to get the “lay of the land,” he said, when he came across a poster hanging on the wall.

“I took a picture of the poster and sent it to my wife,” said McCants, an adjunct professor at the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. “‘What are we going to do? Why is this up?’ I wrote. That was my first encounter.”

That poster was Chapman’s “The Birth of a Nation” poster, which hung in the hallway until faculty voted for its removal April 22. After film production graduate student Arri Caviness tweeted March 29, sparking debate about the poster’s display and the film’s depiction of black people, other students began demanding action.

After a community forum April 16 and a student protest April 18, many students were outspoken about removing the poster and putting a plaque in its place, or returning it to the donor. McCants, who spoke at the forum, was the only faculty member to speak at the protest.

In an interview with The Panther, McCants talked about his thoughts about the poster and its removal, the ongoing discussion around student and faculty diversity at Chapman and the ways in which Dodge College can move forward.

McCants’ responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Q: How would you describe your first year at Chapman?
A: I can characterize my first year at Chapman similarly to my first year of undergraduate at Dartmouth College. In the sense, you are stepping into a new world and you don’t know all of the pieces yet. You have a puzzle to solve. Just as you start with the order of a puzzle before you fill it in, it’s getting a sense of what the picture could be by looking at the edges. My experience has been made by the students.

I have grown to love the students because they are the people I communicate the most with at Chapman. I have somewhat of a protective role for them that when it comes down to it, I take my responsibility to speak up for them and fight for them. I feel like they would do the same for me.

Q: Have students come to you personally throughout the experience with the poster?
A: I happened to be in the faculty lounge (the day of the April 16 forum) because I was off from work and I said, ‘Oh, let me check out the faculty lounge and see what’s happening.’ I happened to be near the Cross-Cultural Center and (Dean of Students) Jerry Price came into the faculty lounge and he was talking to somebody else about the forum he had to attend. I was like, ‘That sounds like something I want to attend.’

I’ve probably had a couple of black students in my (senior thesis development) class. The majority of black students at Chapman don’t even know that I am (at Chapman), so when I showed up, they immediately latched on. When you look through the map for black people, 13 percent of this country is black. We have (about) 8,000 students here; 13 percent is about 1,000. We have 122 black students.

It’s a similar ratio with the faculty. I think there are two of us, maybe three that are black (at Dodge). It brings the question of what must be done to attract black faculty and black students to Chapman. When you have a diverse campus, it makes the learning environment that much richer.

Q: Now that the poster has been removed, how do you think Dodge is going to move forward with conversations about diversity?
A: The next step is to talk about, in a structured way, how we can attract people of color, particularly black people, to the campus and to make sure our student body and faculty is representative of the population of the U.S. Chapman is at risk of being a place that no one wants to go to that will not be able to fund itself, because there will be other universities that have better statistics in terms of where people feel comfortable.

That’s really what that conversation should be: How do we turn this into an opportunity to attract students of color for the betterment of our university?

Q: Students may not have thought to consider the ramifications that they could face when they leave Chapman. Is that a conversation worth having?
A: It is. The reason why universities often tamp down on issues like the poster is because it affects the donors’ dollars; it affects peoples’ careers. It’s important to bring this up when we are talking about the ramifications of racism.