This letter reflects the opinions of Roberta Achtenberg, former commissioner of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Achtenberg was also on the California State University (CSU) Board of Trustees (1999 to 2015) and a CSU Board of Trustees Chair (2006 to 2008). Letters to the editor do not reflect the opinions or editorial coverage of Mustang News.
During the past two weeks, Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Racially insensitive photos emerging from two of the university’s fraternities have some calling Cal Poly a racist institution and its president, Jeffrey D. Armstrong, uncaring and uncommitted to diversity and inclusion. I strongly disagree with this criticism. No one has worked harder over the past seven years to diversify Cal Poly than Armstrong, and the evidence of both his commitment and encouraging successes are right there on campus. There is no ignoring the recent controversies: online photos showing one fraternity member in blackface and others from the same fraternity dressed as stereotypical gang members; a separate photo showing members of another fraternity dressed as Hispanic stereotypes; and racist flyers and graffiti discovered on campus days later. Students are rightly hurt and angry about these incidents, and they have made their anger known. One element of their protests has been the charge that the campus administration, headed by Armstrong, has failed to improve diversity and the campus climate around race and ethnicity, and that this failure demonstrates a lack of caring or commitment to those changes.
As it happens, I served on the California State University Board of Trustees from 2000 to 2015, and I was part of the committee that helped to hire Armstrong. I know Cal Poly and its president well, and I know that his commitment to enhancing the university’s diversity and inclusion on campus is second to none.
Under his leadership, the campus already has made headway. When Armstrong arrived in 2011, 63 percent of Cal Poly students were white; today it is just less than 55 percent. The campus is more diverse now than at any time in its history. Applications from underrepresented minority students doubled between 2008 and 2018, while overall applications increased by half that much. The university has recruited senior-level administrators to lead diversity and inclusion efforts on campus and has hired clusters of diverse faculty whose teaching or research focuses on diversity and who can support each other as they help to transform the campus. The university also created the Cal Poly Scholars Program, an annual scholarship and support program aimed at recruiting and retaining low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students from partner California high schools. And last year, the university announced two scholarships aimed at underrepresented minorities: the Cal Poly SLO Elijah J. McCoy African-American Engineering Scholarship and the Meritorious Cal Poly Scholars Fund, which benefits underrepresented minority students.
Additionally, the president recently proposed a fee for out-of-state students to help fund additional financial aid for low-income California students, many of whom are from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups. I can think of no other initiative that holds as much promise to increase the diversity of Cal Poly’s campus than this proposed program. This is just a small part of Cal Poly’s work toward a more diverse and inclusive campus. And yet, student protesters are right to say it’s not enough. As Armstrong himself wrote in a recent letter to campus: “Cal Poly’s faculty, staff and students should reflect the diversity of the state of California in every facet — gender, race, sexual orientation, class, ideology, ethnicity and more. Until that happens, we have not finished our work.”
Students have also criticized Armstrong and his administration for not doing enough to recognize and resist institutional and unconscious bias. My guess is that the students are more or less right about this, not because of any special fault with Armstrong, but because no institution in American life has adequately addressed the internalized racism or unconscious bias that are the legacy of nearly 400 years of oppression and discrimination. The president’s recent letter discusses some efforts to work on this issue at Cal Poly, and I encourage him to do those things and more.
Any collection of 25,000 Americans (roughly the size of Cal Poly’s campus community) will have some overt racists, some covert racists and many people whose lives and backgrounds mean that cross-cultural understanding and empathy require effort and choice. The hateful and hurtful actions of the past two weeks demonstrate the truth of the first two points at Cal Poly, but the student demonstrations and the response from Armstrong and his administration demonstrate the truth of the third. People of goodwill can make change, in their hearts and in the world, but only when we work together. Working together requires that we distinguish between partial success and abject failure, that we not let the actions of the few define the destiny of the many and that we know who our friends are.
*This letter has been edited for clarity.