With a new political party in control of the federal government, a new mayor in the city of San Luis Obispo and diversity and inclusivity issues surrounding the Cal Poly campus, Mustang News sat down with Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong to hear his opinions and thoughts. Chief Communications Officer Chris Murphy and Chief of Staff Jessica Darin sat in on the meeting.
Q: With Milo Yiannopoulos coming to campus, what is administration doing to prepare for any possible scenario to arise?
A: We have visitors at Cal Poly all the time by our student clubs, our departments, the colleges; we invite individuals to campus on frequent occasions … I’m sure Milo Yiannopoulos coming has brought some additional controversy and challenges so our university police, they’re prepared for security at all times and they are going to heighten their efforts at this point. I’m not sure, there are probably other events on going on on campus. So I am very proud of our university police and what they do and also our division of student affairs is very involved, they work behind the scenes every day every minute. They will be engaged and present at both events. We expect it to be safe; there will be protests, but we’ve got steps in place to maintain order and be sensitive to all involved.
Q: What is hard about trying to protect free speech while at the same time creating a safe environment for students?
A: You know, there are aspects of this that are really not difficult and that’s really the First Amendment’s free speech. People indicate that that’s controversial and that’s an issue. That’s really not an issue. The Supreme Court has clearly defined free speech; they’ve defined what hate speech is and is not. And for better or for worse, they’ve narrowed it down to almost nothing. So, free speech is really preeminent and is something that is an easy decision with regard to what are we going to do.
It’s an easy decision not to censor, because where do you stop? If we censor here, would you want Mustang News censored? A few years ago, I guess two years ago, we had some writing [about] some student in Mustang News that really upset people in the community … Now what’s hard, what’s really hard, is when free speech is so hurtful.
And in this case, things Milo says, they’re awful. He puts a student’s picture or any person’s picture up on the screen, that’s very hurtful. And it hurts me, it hurts the leadership to see our students frightened, to see them worried about what’s going to happen. But we have to protect free speech. We can’t censor.
So when you ask what’s hard, that part. That part is definitely hard. It’s difficult. But free speech is pretty clear, it’s difficult to censor. How do you partially censor? You can’t. Once you move that direction, it’s a slippery slope. So we are working very hard, being very diligent on all aspects of this.
With our messaging, such that we’re not censoring, but also doing the very best to make sure that our students and everyone knows we do expect a welcoming, more diverse campus. We want people to treat each other with respect. And we can send those messages consistently and we will continue to take actions to do that as we build our programs and move forward. But we have to do that in an environment where any voice can be heard. And it can be very controversial. [Milo] thrives on controversy. So the best thing to do is ignore him.
I read something in the paper today, I really applaud the mayor. She says, ‘Well, why don’t you go to the potluck, why don’t you set up potluck dinners with the neighbors or go to other events, but ignore him?’ I thought that was very wise of the mayor.
Q: Next week is inclusivity week, can you guys expand a little more about what that’s all about? And why the university decided to have an inclusivity week?
A: Yeah, we’ve had something about that (inclusivity) every year. It seems like it’s different every year, because we’re trying different things. Last year, we had some forums and other aspects. This year we have some speakers and we really want to, you know, get the message out and have attention down to a department level.
[Inclusivity is] one of the things that we’ve got to work on long-term and it has to always start today to keep working. I like our theme, “Inclusivity starts with me,” which is really work on the inclusivity, diversity of our campus, the demographics of students, the demographics of faculty and staff but it’s also our climate and how people feel, how are they? Do they enjoy going to work? How are they treated? And it includes the community too so faculty, staff and students – even those who don’t live on campus, important that we keep that in mind … We’ve had scholarship programs going for five years, [which has had a] tremendous impact on diversity and academic success, of low income and diverse students. We have scholarships that have been added that we will be talking about later in the year – still working on the details – that will enhance diversity.
The third of the four candidates in today and tomorrow for vice president of diversity and inclusivity; that individual is now going to be cabinet level and report directly to me and all our discussions and advice that comes to me from the highest leadership levels of Cal Poly, he or she will be there with a voice. We’re excited. We’ve also added Kari Mansager, [university diversity and inclusivity program director]. Kari came in not too long ago, adding a lot of training.
All of our team has gone through an unconscious bias training or implicit bias training, a lot of other aspects of training that we want to implement. We want to make sure that before anyone who serves on a search committee for a new faculty member, especially for tenured track faculty member that they’ve gone through some training because otherwise if you don’t have policies or procedures in place, people tend to hire people just like them and then the next thing you know you have a pool of candidates that are not diverse at all. So it’s multifaceted.
Q: [According to a recent] Mustang News article, [there are] only about 200 African Americans on campus. How will administration make sure that people of color stay at Cal Poly?
A: So your article was really good, I commend you on that article. Something we’ve been talking about your article touched on, African Americans have no place for hair care. I mean that I was talking to some colleagues about that. I know some of the [California State Universities] have done some things and we are going to look into that…
We estimate for Fall of ‘17, [there are] somewhere less than 1,400 Cal Poly-eligible African American seniors in the entire state, and that’s for all public, private, and some of students go to out-of-state schools, so we are working on ways to provide scholarships and advising…
Also, [we are] working to recruit and retain faculty and staff members. We’ve had some turnover in [the] past, looked at each and every one [and] we want to cut back on that, how we can do better, looking to recruit and retain the very best people from a very diverse pool because that’s very important for students to see role models.
Q: Another small minority group on campus are undocumented students here at Cal Poly; what is the administration going to do to help these students?
A: We care very deeply about our undocumented students and we’ve been reaching out to them since I arrived. [I] added programs to Student Affairs. If they do declare themselves AB 540 status, then they can get non-resident changed to resident tuition, [which makes them] eligible for aid. They’ll have aid similar to California residents.
We are going to be opening up a Dream Center by around spring quarter. [It will be a] location where undocumented students can come hang out and also get support and get a lot of questions answered.
We’ve been very firm and signed on to multiple national letters, spoken to our legislators about the DACA program, very supportive of [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] DACA; they’re very young children when they were brought in. We have a lot of CP students and a lot of alumni that are DACA. There was a glitch in DACA this summer and we had several Cal Poly alumni lose their job completely or lost their job for a couple months because of this glitch so we haven’t heard anything definitive from President Trump about DACA, that’s our big concern.
A lot [is] going on in [the] news right now with different countries being banned. I was very pleased that they opened it up more for green cards and I’m really concerned with how it’s being handled, but the whole politics of it I’m going to stay away from. They’re going to push that through, but at this point there’s not been a decision to push back with DACA, that’s our biggest concern — that’s higher education’s biggest concern. The Dream Center [is] not just a space but [will] have a staff member, a new position.
Q: What is the administration’s main goal with the Dream Center?
A: Well, the main goal is to support student success for undocumented students, it gets back to [the] whole idea of [a] more diverse and welcoming campus and we’ve got to do everything we can and control what we can control. [There are] so many things swirling from the outside that can frighten people.
One of the biggest concerns with undocumented students is that they’re frightened. [If] they don’t declare AB 540, then it’s very serious because … they are missing out on all the help that we can provide. We can’t help as much if they don’t declare because then they have no aid, no ability for loan and they have to pay out-of-state tuition.
Now we also have Cal Poly Cares. Cal Poly Cares is a program out of student affairs and it funds emergency requests from students. [There have been] major increases in undocumented students since we started the program, which I think is a good thing because they are aware [and] they’re not afraid to ask. Situations where parents have passed away, illnesses, lots of things, housing, if we know a student is homeless, or we know a student has a problem, we will look into it with that program. Our Cal Poly Foundation, the members started a foundation fund for the students that contributes [to Cal Poly Cares].
We want to grow our scholarships for lower income students so that they live on campus for four years, five years if [they’re in] architecture or some engineering programs and we want them to have this support that they need. We want the debt to lower, we’ve got some aggressive plans on how we can get additional funding to increase financial aid [to] the number of low income students that graduate from Cal Poly that will in turn enhance diversity and that’s what we can do that’s Prop 209 consistent but will involve some outside groups who will help us.
Q: What is your relationship with Mayor Heidi Harmon and the community?
A: A group of students, the California State Student Association, CSSA, representatives from every campus, were here this weekend. They asked me questions about that yesterday.
We have a really good relationship with the city, great relationship with [former Mayor Jan] Marx and we have a great relationship with Mayor Harmon. I was really pleased the first week on the job she spent an entire day with us learning about Cal Poly. I’ve seen her at a number of events, I saw her recently at the chamber dinner; she talked a long time with Vice President [Keith] Humphrey and myself, she’s very engaged, she cares deeply, she knows that part of the electorate that got her in office were Cal Poly students. She’s trying hard to do the best thing just like all of us are, so we look forward to working with her. It’s been great so far.
New council members as well, Aaron Gomez and Andy Pence, they spent a day on campus, [have] great relationship[s] with their county Board of Supervisors and also the cities in north and south [San Luis Obispo] County, talking with them and engaging with all of those groups including the chamber, the Economic Vitality Corporation and how can we grow economic development in this area, how can Cal Poly be involved and then as we do that, think about diversity, think about inclusion so it’s top of the mind every day.
Q: How do you think, with the Trump administration, which has been vocal against certain minorities, that’s going to affect Cal Poly’s campus climate?
A: What happens in Washington, what happens in Sacramento is always impacting us. Every president has felt the press is after them; this presidency is nothing like I’ve ever seen, I’m just going to stay focused on student success and continue to do the very best we can and control what we can control … I’m really proud to be part of the CSU [System], [with] questions like sanctuary campus[es]; I got a letter saying we need to step out of what’s going on, appropriately, not quick to jump or reach conclusions and we have discussions with CSU leadership … I think that’s what our campus needs, we need to be thoughtful and yet focused on what we can do here; it’s an amazing time, I’ll say that.
Note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Correction: A previous version of this post attributed the quote about city council members coming to campus to Chris Murphy. It has been attributed to President Armstrong’s quote.
Correction: A previous version of this post stated that Communications Specialist Jessica Dieny sat in on the meeting. It has been corrected to state that Chief of Staff Jessica Darin sat in on the meeting.