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IPS students react to Skinner’s return from State Dept. firing

Dr. Kiron Skinner, the Director of the Institute for Politics and Strategy (IPS) and the former Director for Policy Planning at the Department of State, is back on campus after being dismissed from her role in the State Department. The Tartan spoke to three current students and one alum of the International Relations and Politics program, which Skinner directs, about the circumstances around her dismissal from the State Department and her return to the University. All were willing to go on the record with The Tartan under the condition of anonymity, because they’re currently under her authority in IPS or for fear of future career repercussions.

“There’s an environment of fear and intimidation that permeates people who especially rely on her for any sort of hope of career advancement as a student. If you want to succeed, you need to lean on her connections to get you where you want to go in D.C.,” said one alum of the program. Politico reported that Skinner was dismissed from her role in the state department over an “abusive” management style, with anonymous State Department sources alleging that she made homophobic comments, accused people of having affairs, and abused her authority. In an interview with The Tartan, she denied making any homophobic remarks and characterized some of the reporting as being “out of context.”

“I think in terms of my experience with her as an instructor, she was strict but fair. It was really when I brought up concerns about the new masters program where things really got out of hand,” said the alum. The alum, during their time as a student, had brought up concerns about the master’s program which were perceived by Skinner as criticism, leading to “nasty” conversations between them.

A current undergraduate student of the program brought up concerns about the reputation of IPS. “As a student, it personally hurts me to have someone like her be the head of the department when I’m seeking future work — it hurts my personal reputation as a Carnegie Mellon student to be associated with her and her track record.”

Another undergraduate student said that they are still cautious, as they haven’t been here that long, nor do they know Skinner personally. Attempting to sort through everything that they’ve heard and choosing what to believe is very difficult. “Especially among the undergrads, we are very scared to even talk about what happened because it’s just not within our power. There’s an obvious, huge, power gap between us, as undergrad students, and Skinner, who’s the head of the department.” It’s difficult, they say, to ask questions, since as an undergrad in the department “your chances are riding on what you say and what you do.”
Several students want the administration to be more transparent. “CMU definitely struggles with the perception that it doesn’t care about its students,” remarked the previously mentioned alum.

“CMU loves to be neutral on everything; as long as Dr. Skinner didn’t literally set fire to the White House, they’ll be okay with her,” a current student expressed. “And it’s really unsettling that Dietrich just wants to bury this instead of addressing it head-on.”

Another student commented, “I think transparency is just the biggest thing. Because right now, what it feels like is happening is just everyone’s left in the dark, and we’re just hearing from outside sources and vague statements from Skinner and trying to maybe address what’s going on but not really. If people were more forthright and direct about what’s going on, I think the students would feel less ambivalent about the situation.”

In an interview with the Tartan in September, Skinner admitted that she misspoke when she made a controversial statement during a security forum in Washington D.C. regarding the U.S.’s relationship with China as a growing power. Skinner had said, “it’s the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian,” and accepted that the criticism directed towards her was legitimate. She clarified that “China is very different than other competitors we have had” and that “we have to take China on its own terms. A lot more seriously.”

Skinner is holding a discussion on US-China relations on Monday, Oct. 7, 2019. In an email announcing the event, she acknowledged the previous controversial remarks she had made during her tenure in the State Department on competition between US and China. She wrote, “It is therefore my duty as an academic within a world-class university to open up dialogue with our students to hear their concerns about US-China relations, with particular regard to global competition and the trade war, so that we can work together towards building a strong US-China policy.”

One of the students who spoke to the Tartan welcomed the event, expressing hope that “being able to hear it directly from her” instead of from the media, which they said could be conflating and exaggerating her points, would help get more insight into her foreign policy thinking and her controversial statements. “In regards to the other more personal issues, I don’t think that will probably ever be addressed,” the student said.

Skinner declined to comment on this article, saying she could not effectively respond without advance viewing of the article.

The discussion on US-China relations will be held by Skinner on Monday, Oct. 7, from 4:30 pm to 5:30 pm in the Cohon University Center’s McConomy Auditorium. A second meeting, also led by Skinner, was announced Sunday night, in which all IPS students and faculty are invited to attend. That meeting will take place from 5:30 to 6:30 pm in the same location, immediately after the previous meeting.