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Outgoing ASU West dean leaves legacy of interdisciplinary collaboration

ASU dean helps students think more critically about social expectations.
May 3, 2017

Tromp, forensic scientist Kimberly Kobojek and students in 'Murder Most Foul' crack baffling murder case from 1862 using combination of scientific and social aspects

Outgoing ASU West campus Dean Marlene Tromp is handing over a strong legacy. Under her guidance, the campus has added an interdisciplinary forensics major, launched a cybersecurity initiative and created mentoring programs to serve first-generation college students.

Her successor, Todd Sandrin, is looking forward to building on Tromp’s accomplishments, even as there’s one role he probably won’t be able to fill: international, Victorian-era sleuth.

Tromp, forensic scientist Kimberly KobojekKimberly Kobojek is a clinical associate professor in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences’ School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences. and students in a class called “Murder Most Foul” cracked a murder case three years ago that had baffled investigators for decades in the late 1800s after a maid was accused of hacking her friend to death with a hatchet.

“Basically,” Tromp said, “they threw up their arms like, ‘We don’t know who did this crime. We just don’t know.’”

The case, Tromp says, shows how social bias can muddle criminal justice, making it practical even today, and it features prominently in her latest book, “Intimate Murderer,” which is under review.

Tromp, currently vice provost and head of ASU’s Glendale-based New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, will step into her role as campus provost and executive vice chancellor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, on June 1. She’ll take her expertise in Victorian England and belief in interdisciplinary studies along with her.

“A big part of the idea” behind the “Murder Most Foul” course, which involved English history, forensic science and cultural studies, “was how do we help people be better critical thinkers?” she said.

“And that’s actually what an interdisciplinary college does so beautifully, because what we’re saying is you really can’t understand the science unless you understand social sciences, and humanities, and arts. You have to understand all these things together … because that’s what people are failing to do in a lot of these cases.”

Tromp referenced the trials involving Jodi Arias, Casey Anthony and O.J. Simpson as similar to the 150-year-old Sandyford case in which Jessie McLachlan was accused, in that the public had a hard time processing cultural expectations together with evidence.   

Without discussing the verdicts in those modern cases, Tromp said that justice wasn’t served in the 1862 hatchet attack.

Throughout the semester, Tromp and Kobojek examined with their students both the scientific and social aspects involved in the slaying of Scottish maidservant Jessie McPherson.

From the beginning, McLachlan was a suspect, Tromp said. Society’s inability, however, to conceive of a woman committing a brutal hatchet murder led to public outcry. McLachlan’s death sentence was reduced to 20 years in prison. And McPherson’s employer, James Fleming, who was nearly 90 years old at the time of his maid’s death, was rumored to have been the real killer — even though, as Tromp and Kobojek concluded, all forensic evidence pointed to McLachlan.

“Kim was able to use her forensic experience and knowledge, and I was able to use my cultural experience and knowledge, and we were able to say there’s this social component that made it hard for people to imagine [the female suspect] as a murderer,” Tromp said.

Fleming’s last words were reported to have been, “I may have been a sinner, but I didn’t kill the woman.”

McLachlan, meanwhile, went back and forth throughout her 20 years in prison between confessing and denying the crime.

“That was how the case was left,” Tromp said.

In “Intimate Murder,” Tromp examined eight separate but similar cases, both contemporary and from the 19th century.

“What I really wanted to do with this book is challenge people to think in more complex ways about cases that they think they already know and understand,” she said, “because I think that we actually have the power to become better critical readers of our culture and to be better at creating justice in the world. We can create justice more effectively if we can understand where we have our own stumbling blocks.”

Arias was convicted in the death of her boyfriend, who was found in the shower of his Mesa home. She has said it was an act of self-defense. Anthony was accused and acquitted of killing her 2-year-old daughter. Simpson was accused and acquitted in the deaths of his ex-wife and her friend.

Tromp has been with ASU since 2011 and has served as the dean of New College since 2013. She is the author of “Altered States: Sex, Nation, Drugs, and Self-Transformation in Victorian Spiritualism” (SUNY 2006); “The Private Rod: Sexual Violence, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England” (UP Virginia 2000); and more than 20 essays and chapters on 19th-century culture.

Sandrin, meanwhile, came to ASU in 2008 and three years later founded New College Undergraduate Inquiry and Research Experiences. His research resides at the intersection of microbiology and chemistry, and he has optimized technology to identify microbes.

“We will miss her terribly,” Sandrin said of Tromp. “She has been a truly tireless advocate for our students and built partnerships and pathways that are going to allow us to do great things in the future, have more engagement with the community, and certainly grow ASU at West campus and far beyond.”

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ASU experts: Cinco de Mayo has been commercialized, and many don't recognize it.
May 4, 2017

ASU experts in Mexican-American history discuss the holiday's origins and evolution

So you think Cinco de Mayo is a made-up holiday contrived to sell stereotypically Mexican bar food and alcohol to gringos? Turns out, you’re mostly right, according Arizona State University Professor Alexander Aviña.

Aviña, who teaches history in the university’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, says the holiday started to grow beyond the Mexican-American community in the Southwest in the late 1980s when Latino-focused advertisers saw an opportunity.

“Business people saw that the Mexican-American community in the US was gaining in consumption power, and the thing is once you do that you open it up for everybody and it becomes totally commercialized,” Aviña said. 

To learn more about this holiday that has changed drastically in the last 30 years, ASU Now spoke with a pair of experts on Mexican-American history. Aviña, who teaches Mexican history, and Professor Monica De La Torre, who teaches media in the School of Transborder Studies, helped provide this list of things to know about Cinco de Mayo:

1. It’s not Mexican Independence Day.

Old Cinco de Mayo poster


Mexican Independence Day is in September and celebrates the nation's liberation from Spain in 1810.

Cinco de Mayo recalls a skirmish more than 50 years later, the Battle of Puebla, when Mexico was fighting against a French invasion. A ragtag group of Mexican workers and farmers joined up with an outmatched army unit to take down one of the strongest military powers of the day — at least in one battle.

A French expeditionary force, Aviña said, was “defeated by a combination of underfunded, undertrained professional army and a bunch of irregular guerilla fighters who were peasants — and dressed like peasants — and had an assortment of bad, bad weaponry,” including machetes and slingshots. 

The invaders, meanwhile, would have had muskets and cannons, and “they totally underestimated the tactical awareness of (Mexico’s Gen. Ignacio) Zaragoza and the fighting spirit of these Mexican fighters.   

 2. The Battle of Puebla was just the start.

"The Execution of Emperor Maximilian" oil painting by Édouard Manet. Courtesy of the Yorck Project


That victory was the only success against the French, who proceeded to overtake Mexico and rule from 1862 to 1867, by installing the only European royal “crazy enough,” Aviña said, to take the job: Emperor Maximilian I.

As the U.S. Civil War was winding down, the U.S. government was able to turn its attention to the French and wanted them out of North America. Also, France’s standing in Europe was being jeopardized by a unifying Germany.

Napoleon Bonaparte decided to withdraw troops from Mexico. Maximilian, an Austrian loyal to France, however, chose to stay.

Maximilian “arrives in Mexico, he rules for a couple of years, he alienates everybody because he’s too liberal for the conservatives, and the Mexican liberals are in no way going to accept an emperor installed by a foreign force,” Aviña said.

Maximilian was executed in 1867, and the only traces remaining of the French occupation were the baguette used in torta sandwiches or the crepes used to prepare crepas de huitlacoche.

3. The battle is commemorated in Texas.

Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza
A portrait of Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza. Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress


Zaragoza was born in modern-day Texas, and his birthplace is commemorated in what today is Goliad State Park, where the U.S. government rebuilt his birth home.

The people of Puebla, Mexico, near Mexico City, the site of the famous battle, established a 10-foot bronze statue of Zaragoza in 1980. 

Zaragoza’s second-in-command during the battle was no other than Profirio Díaz, who helped depose Maximilian and became the ruler of Mexico for the next 35 years.

He was so heavy-handed that he “causes the explosion of the Mexican revolution in 1910,” Aviña said, effectively setting up the government system that exists today.

4. It's been celebrated ever since — but not like this.


As early as 1865, Spanish-language newspapers in the U.S. West show committees being formed to raise funds and awareness against the French occupation. The communities from California to Texas these publications served had become American overnight with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, and this was their way of exerting influence on a nation with which they continued to identify.

“Cinco de Mayo during the 1860s as it's celebrated or commemorated in places like California really helped developed what historians refer to as a greater Mexican identity, so a Mexican identity that goes beyond borders,” Aviña said.

In the ’60s and ’70s, the Chicano Movement revived the holiday, Aviña said: “It’s part of recuperating parts of a Mexican past that will give some sort of national pride and dignity to people who have been oppressed racially and treated like second-class citizens in the U.S.”

5. It's been increasingly commercialized.

Cinco de Mayo
People gathered downtown recently to listen to Entre Mujeres, a trans-local music composition project between Chicanas/Latinas in the U.S. and Jarochas/Mexican female musicians in Mexico. Entre Mujeres project includesTylana Enomoto of Quetzal, among others. Photo by Tim Trumble/ASU.


As the holiday became commercialized in the ’80s and ’90s, the Mexican-American community largely ceased to identify with it, Aviña said.

Monetizing the one and only Mexican-American holiday means tacos, tequila and mariachi music — which is problematic, De La Torre said.  

She sees the holiday as it’s celebrated today as a missed opportunity to actually connect.

“It’s an unjust stereotype to say that Mexican food is only beer, tequila, tacos and salsa. Instead of only listening to mariachi on Cinco de Mayo, you should listen to other bands. Chicano Batman is a great band; Quetzal is a great band.”

De La Torre suggests that it's OK to celebrate the holiday, but make sure you're learning more about it as you do. 

Aviña, meanwhile, said, “I’m going to probably put posts on Facebook about offensive use of Mexican dress and costume.”