Screenshot from Armstrong's video address

Parker Swanson is a political science senior. His views expressed in this letter do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News or Swanson’s affiliations. 

Trigger warning: Sexual assault, racism

Dear Editor,

I’m writing this in the wake of President Armstrong’s recent “emergency hire” of Paulette Granburry Russell as the new Vice President of Diversity of Inclusion, which, to put it lightly, was not well received by the Cal Poly community. After a series of intense pushback that featured a letter signed by 3,000 community members and a petition with over 12,000 signatories that outlined her complicity in the Larry Nassar case at Michigan State University, Russell rescinded her acceptance of the job.

Stunningly, President Armstrong responded to this community-wide outrage not by rescinding Russell’s offer himself, but with a 10 paragraph email expressing utter contempt for those who spoke out against his decision, calling the criticism “ill-informed, misplaced and in some cases downright vile”. He deemed the Cal Poly community hypocritical for not expressing concerns when Russell was a finalist for the post in 2017, completely ignoring that the Larry Nassar case did not receive media attention until the following year. He essentially chalked up the claims laid out by the letter and petition to be fake news without citing a single piece of erroneous evidence, and encouraged us to “take the time to research the facts before making judgments and posting conclusions”.

So, at President Armstrong’s behest, I’ve decided to take the time to research the facts and evidence behind his claims before posting my own conclusion.

Armstrong is right that Russell is not new to our campus, but she also is no stranger to Armstrong. The two worked together for 10 years at Michigan State when Armstrong served as the Dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Armstrong claims the emergency hire of his old colleague was out of a necessity to keep momentum and continuity of leadership, and that public outcry has robbed Cal Poly of an industry leader with over two decades of experience. I would question the level of leadership our university, particularly our students of color, would gain from a woman who turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse of over 500 woman and girls over a 20 year span as the Title IX coordinator at Michigan State, a position that President Armstrong conveniently left out in his initial announcement email. I certainly wouldn’t want Harvey Weinstein to join our faculty, even if he did have decades of film experience and kept our momentum going.

Armstrong insists that several major investigations did not peg Russell with any misconduct or criminal acts, including a 2015 investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. However, the contents of that report indicate Michigan State University violated federal law in the handling of sexual assaults on its campus under Russell’s leadership of the Title IX office, and the lack of proper procedures and policies to handle sexual assault reports contributed to a sexually hostile environment on campus. Armstrong also referenced an investigation that only cleared Michigan State of NCAA related violations, as well as the Michigan Attorney General’s investigation that has not even concluded yet, as the MSU Board of Trustees has stalled the probe by refusing to release further documents regarding Nassar. She is, at the very least, guilty of gross negligence or incompetence, and the claim of Russell’s complete innocence from Armstrong is patently false. 

Armstrong seems to be flabbergasted that we would accuse him of being secretive and nefarious, despite his records showing him to be quite adept at working in the shadows. A recent CSU audit report uncovered multiple instances of him raising student fees without consulting the very people who would be paying these fees, opting for “alternative” consultation methods instead. A separate audit in 2017 found that he unjustifiably grew his management staff and gave raises to administrators without up-to-date performance evaluations. It is no wonder why 2018 data shows the number of administrators has grown 69 percent on Cal Poly’s campus since 2007, while the amount of tenured and tenure-track professors has decreased by 2 percent.

Armstrong reflected great disappointment in the Cal Poly community banding together to speak out against the hire. In fact, he holds an interesting view of freedom of speech. He bent over backwards to close parts of campus for Milo Yannopolouis and load him up with over $100,000 in security. Armstrong’s response to the blackface incident that rocked our campus in 2018, containing significantly less content and outrage that his impassioned defense of Russell’s character had, attempted to justify his own inaction with a staunch defense of freedom of speech and expression. He allows the “free speech” wall that is littered with obscenities like clockwork to be erected on Dexter Lawn each year. 

Armstrong also turned the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities on a group of students representing the SLO Peace Coalition, acting within their constitutional rights to peacefully protest the presence of defense contractor Raytheon at the Cal Poly Career Fair. Surely there is no connection between Will Swanson, the former chairman/CEO of Raytheon, sitting on the board of the Cal Poly’s main fundraising arm while donating millions of war profits to the university and Armstrong’s comment regarding the Raytheon protests that “free speech rights do not include the right to disrupt university events”. Apparently, they also do not include the right to criticize Armstrong or the true level of leadership his former colleague would bring to this university.

Armstrong has not inspired much confidence in his own leadership this year and his campuswide gaslighting is just the cherry on top. He had no problem with sending the entire campus community a lengthy scolding during the evening hours of a weekday, but he failed to send even a short email reflecting universitywide solidarity after Cal Poly’s Chinese Student Association was subjected to a horrific, racist Zoom-bombing. He failed to find the resources to hire two new SAFER advocates to provide valuable resources to survivors of sexual assault, even revealing that they would always be first on the chopping block in times of financial crisis, but still proceeded with the hiring of lucrative administrative positions, including a new Cal Poly Corporation CEO and Russell. 

He completely bungled the university response to COVID-19, and failed to provide any relief for tuition or the $476 in student fees he raised on currently unusable facilities because the university’s poor financial management still has us paying off our Recreation Center. International students terrified of losing their student visas due to new online learning policies received shaming from Armstrong about the Russell pushback instead of reassurance that the university would stand with them.

His long term record is just as indefensible. Under Armstrong’s leadership, Cal Poly ranks among the worst schools for black and Latinx student success. Cal Poly Police may have very well played an active role in violently dispersing a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest with rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper balls. Fences consistently litter our campus to signify a never-ending cycle of poorly managed construction projects. Even uttering his name on campus will usually result in a negative reaction. 

What conclusion do I reach in light of these facts? President Armstrong has utterly failed marginalized communities and the Cal Poly community at large, the very people that give his job a meaning. If he truly cared about this university, he would tender his resignation immediately and allow a new administration to take the reigns. But given his near $430,000 salary, $12,000 car allowance, free house, and apparent ability to act with impunity, I doubt he’ll do the right thing any time soon.

In Solidarity,

Parker Swanson

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