Brenda Helmbrecht, Shanae Martinez, and Mira Rosenthal are faculty members of the English department and Sarah Bridger and Maggie Bodemer are faculty members of the history department at Cal Poly. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News.
To President Armstrong,
We write to you as faculty members and staff of Cal Poly who are deeply committed to problems of sexual assault and other issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion that our campus faces. On July 1, your office announced the hiring of Paulette Granberry Russell for Vice President of Diversity and Inclusivity. As the head of Michigan State University’s (MSU) Title IX office, Russell was in charge during one of the worst sex abuse scandals in American history, when MSU faculty member and doctor Larry Nassar sexually abused more than 250 women and girls over the course of twenty years. The choice of Russell is highly controversial, and we are disturbed at the irregularities in the hiring process that led to this outcome. The details and timing of this search were inexplicably kept confidential: faculty were never informed that this was an “emergency search” nor provided with an explanation of the emergency search process; no public call went out for faculty participation or input; and, despite the ready availability of videoconferencing technology, no opportunity for public interaction with Russell was ever provided. In short, the traditional principles and practices of shared governance were bypassed entirely, with no explanation.
We have grave reservations not only about the lack of transparency in the hiring process but also about Russell’s previous history as the head of MSU’s Title IX office during an era of deep dysfunction, in which extraordinary criminal behavior occurred with no accountability. Two issues concern us about Russell’s tenure at MSU, one narrower and one much broader. The first is her professional role concerning the 2014 student complaint filed against Larry Nassar, which her office inadequately investigated, clearing him and enabling his continued abuse. The second issue is Russell’s role in the larger history of Title IX enforcement at MSU, which was clearly a broken and hostile system that enabled Nassar’s behavior for years.
We should not confuse the narrow standards of criminal liability with serious and urgent concerns about responsibility and leadership. For years MSU maintained a culture hostile to complaints of sexual abuse, an environment in which Nassar’s victims were actively discouraged from pursuing formal allegations against him and in which widespread and shocking violations of the Clery Act occurred. As head of the Title IX office, Russell was at the top of that system. Her claim that she was unaware of what was going on — if true — would seem to be a powerful indictment of her ability to lead and to create a campus climate rooted in love, empathy, and respect.
We contest the lack of shared governance during the hiring process as well as Russell’s qualifications for a position as Cal Poly’s Vice President for Diversity and Inclusivity. Therefore, we demand that the offer to Russell be rescinded and a new search conducted with appropriate shared governance, consultation with student stakeholders and adequate vetting of candidates.
We also demand extensive written clarification of the following:
1. The exact process by which this search was conducted, including how the final hiring decision was reached and why normal procedures of shared governance were ignored.
2. How your office vetted Russell’s account of her own actions, beyond taking Russell’s word that she bore no responsibility for any aspect of the dysfunction and abuse at MSU. This should include an explanation of your claim that Russell had “no connection” to the notoriously hostile campus climate or the numerous Title IX violations cited by the Department of Education, despite being the head of MSU’s Title IX office.
The position of Vice President for Diversity and Inclusivity is enormously important at Cal Poly, given the problems the university has faced regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion. The exclusion of students from the hiring process is particularly disturbing, especially considering the comprehensive demands made by organizations like Students for Quality Education and the Black Student Union regarding the hiring of additional SAFER Advocates and the need to address understaffed student resources. A unilateral, emergency search — without transparency, oversight, and extensive consultation with campus stakeholders —threatens the legitimacy of inclusive excellence and the progress that the university has been working so hard to achieve.
We request an official, public response from you no later than one week following receipt of this letter.