An image of a Cal Poly student in blackface has drawn national and international attention. The university’s image and reputation have been affected as a result.
While university President Jeffrey Armstrong continues to denounce the incidents, referring to another recent incident as “vile and absolutely unacceptable,” many have called for the president’s resignation. In a letter to the editor published in Mustang News, Nancy Buffum, a parent of an admitted student, echoed the call for Armstrong’s resignation.
“I repeat, I will not permit my daughter to attend such a school,” Buffum. “I call for the resignation of the president of the university and the disbanding of racist organizations on campus, including fraternities and student clubs.”
Buffum’s letter represents a shift in how many prospective students and their parents perceive Cal Poly.
“We’ve received responses of every nature,” Admissions Operations Director Terrance Harris said. “We’ve received responses from prospective students and their parents who were disappointed, who were hurt, who were angry. We’ve received feedback of support from people who are encouraged by the fact that there is a community that wants to positively respond to a negative incident.”
Buffum’s letter is one example of the negative responses the university and Admissions has received. Some students who accepted their admission to Cal Poly before the blackface incident are now withdrawing their confirmations, Harris said.
History professor and Vice President of Cal Poly’s California Faculty Association (CFA) Lewis Call cited the possible impacts the incident could have on acceptances from Black applicants, specifically.
“I can understand if you’re an African-American student and you’re looking [to attend] a place like Cal Poly and you see all these racist incidents, all this racist hate language and graffiti and so forth, why would you come here? And, if you did come here, why would you stay?” Call said.
Call said he knew “we were in trouble” when he saw the blackface incident as the top story on The Guardian, an international news organization in England.
“If people in England have heard about Cal Poly at all, this is what they’ve heard about,” Call said. “They think of it as some racist American university, so I’m afraid it’s doing serious damage to our international reputation.”
Call further cited how Cal Poly’s campus climate makes it challenging to attract and retain diverse faculty.
“Just as we have trouble attracting African-American students, it’s the same with regards to faculty,” Call said.
Biological sciences senior and student of color Mekai Sheffie said he did not know much about Cal Poly before accepting a scholarship offer to play football.
“I didn’t know the school was 0.7 percent Black,” Sheffie said. “If I knew that, that definitely would’ve been an influence on my decision … even with the scholarship on hand.”
Sheffie said he understands why a prospective student would not want to come to Cal Poly given the campus climate.
“I don’t want a degree from this place. Who wants a degree from a place that doesn’t value you?” Sheffie said. “I don’t want that to be representative of me, because [then] I look like the guy that went to the school and allowed this to happen.”
Some students have already heard comments like the ones Sheffie refers to. One student caller at Cal Poly Phonathon was told over the phone they were “complicit with a racist institution.”
I don’t want a degree from this place.
Who wants a degree from a place that doesn’t value you?Mekai Sheffie
Just as Admissions has received mixed responses, so have the student callers at Phonathon. The callers not only aim to get donation pledges, but also try to have a conversation with parents and alumni about their Cal Poly experience.
“For the most part, people are generally kind of shrugging at [the blackface incident], at least on our end,” psychology senior and Phonathon Student Manager Kat Preston said. “There has been some talk about it being disappointing, but nothing too significant.”
Annual Giving allows donors to direct their pledged funds towards an area of their choosing, such as the Multicultural Center or a particular student club of their choice. If a parent or alumnus has any negative responses, Preston said she encourages callers to give them an avenue to address it.
“I feel as if the position that we are in as student callers, that’s the best we can do to make a helpful impact,” Preston said.
In a May 4 video addressing another recent racially insensitive incident, Armstrong emphasized that such incidents are not unique to Cal Poly.
“We must also acknowledge that these acts stem from the inability of any institution to adequately address historic and pervasive bias and inequities,” Armstrong said.
Regardless of the varied reactions, there has been an effect on Cal Poly’s reputation after the blackface incident, and many are questioning if the school is right for them.
“It was not one blackface incident alone that disturbed me, it is the lack of repercussions or honest efforts for cultural shift after a series of racist incidents,” Buffum said. “I can only conclude that the university administration essentially condones continued racist and hate mongering behaviors by students.”