The California Attorney General’s investigation of the April 2018 alleged blackface incident, along with other racially insensitive acts, has concluded and reaffirmed Cal Poly’s stance that such acts are protected as free speech by the First Amendment.

“The acts that occurred at Cal Poly, while profoundly offensive and insensitive – and demonstrating an appalling lack of judgment – were protected as free speech by the First Amendment,” University President Jeffrey Armstrong wrote in a campus-wide email last Tuesday.

Armstrong informed the campus community of the report’s findings in the email and included his promise “to do everything in my power to improve our campus environment.”

He also wrote of the university’s obligation to obey the law, but the administration’s intent to work toward “an environment in which we learn about and appreciate our differences and how they make us stronger.”

What is within Armstrong’s power?

The email did not expand on what is within Armstrong’s power in regards to racially insensitive acts. University Spokesperson Matt Lazier clarified some of Armstrong’s statements in an email to Mustang News.

“It is not within the power of the university or its administration to dictate what any campus community member can think or say,” Lazier wrote. “It is within the university’s power to make its commitment to diversity and inclusion clear to all who work, study or visit on campus; to call out speech and actions that run counter to our values; and to be vocal and active and in our support for the underrepresented people within our campus community.”

The university is currently focusing on providing educational opportunities inside and outside the classroom geared toward “introducing all campus community members to the benefits of diversity and inclusion and how they strengthen our Learn by Doing education,” Lazier wrote.

After the alleged blackface incident involving Kyler Watkins, an agriculture business administration senior and Lambda Chi Alpha member, everything from protests to hateful flyers were seen around campus.

Below is a timeline of what the university has done in an attempt to improve campus climate since the alleged blackface incident.

April 8: A photo of agriculture business administration senior Kyler Watkins dressed in alleged blackface at a Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity event spread on social media during Cal Poly’s annual Poly Cultural Weekend.

April 9: The university and Lambda Chi Alpha’s national chapter suspended the on-campus Lambda Chi Alpha chapter. The Interfraternity Council (IFC) held a meeting that a group of Cal Poly students attended to voice their frustration.

The IFC meeting resulted in a symbolic vote to suspend Lambda Chi.

Cal Poly community members organized a town hall meeting. Attendees discussed the incident and called for administrative action, including Watkins’ expulsion. 

April 12: Armstrong, the Office of University Diversity and Inclusion (OUDI) and Student Affairs held a student forum in Harmon Hall regarding the alleged blackface incident.

When a student questioned why Armstrong will not expel Watkins, he replied “Over the last 15 years, the Supreme Court has protected and protected hate speech. That’s the world that public universities live under. It is a legal issue.”

April 17: President Armstrong announced a temporary interim suspension of all Panhellenic and Interfraternity Council fraternities and sororities, effective immediately. In the email, he referenced the alleged blackface incident and a racially insensitive photo from a Sigma Nu event six weeks prior.

April 30: Cal Poly announced Diversity and Inclusion Specialist at the University of North Carolina, Kimberly McLaughlin-Smith, would consult the campus on how to increase diversity and inclusivity. She spoke at open forums on-campus May 3 and 4, and was hired to continue to work with the university for a 6-month period “to guide us toward change.” McLaughlin-Smith will return to Cal Poly Nov. 8 for a faculty and staff training as well as a student training, according to Lazier. She was not able to be reached for comment.

May 4: In a campus-wide video address, Armstrong stated he learned of a racially insensitive photo posted to a private fraternity Snapchat group. Armstrong announced in the video that the university turned the incident, among several other reported incidents of racially insensitive behavior, over to the California Attorney General for investigation to determine whether or not the students involved had violated any of the universities policies. 

June 7: The OUDI shared a document with the campus community titled Diversity Action Initiatives. The 30-page document outlined 137 ongoing, 21 completed and 34 future Cal Poly diversity initiatives, going back as far as 2011. They are split into three categories, OUDI initiatives, Academic Affairs initiatives and Student Affairs initiatives. 

Proposed initiatives include a student diversity advisory committee, which would consist of student representatives to help the Office of University Diversity and Inclusion (OUDI) understand student concerns and the effect of current initiatives, and an expansion of currently offered allyship workshops, which focus on race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality.

Within Academic Affairs, proposed initiatives include a General Education (GE) redesign, which would put a greater emphasis on diversity in each GE subject area, and the creation of an Academic Support Network, which would increase the variety and types of academic services available and provide equal access to free academic support services.

Proposed initiatives within Student Affairs include a 10-week diversity seminar for students, establishing a community space for Equal Opportunity Programs and the Federal TRiO Programs. Expanding the Black Academic Excellence Center and increasing its staff was also proposed. 

Other key initiatives highlighted in the document include becoming a Hispanic Serving Institution with 25 percent of Cal Poly’s demographic composed of Latinx and Hispanic identifying students and creating a Cal Poly Core Pre-Orientation for Black, Latinx and Native American students. Investing $150,000 of CSU funding to hire up to 10 faculty positions that focus on diversity and inclusion was also listed.

Although the university states they would like to improve diversity on campus to better reflect California’s demographics, the university has said they cannot and will not accept students into Cal Poly on the premise of race.

Sept. 13: Armstrong announced decision to implement the Cal Poly Opportunity Fee which provides financial assistance for low-income and first-generation California students. The fee will raise tuition costs for out-of-state students.

“It is within the university’s power to find innovative ways to increase access to Cal Poly as broadly as possible to academically qualified students,” Lazier wrote. “The recently announced Cal Poly Opportunity Fee (CPOF) is a step in this direction, and we know from the existing Cal Poly Scholars program that CPOF and the resulting financial aid packages for low-income and first-generation students will have a significant impact on diversifying our student body.”

Sept. 11: Mustang News reported that Armstrong lifted the blanket suspension for Interfraternity Council (IFC) fraternities and Panhellenic Association (PHA) sororities.

Sept. 14-24: Freshmen and transfer students participating in Week of Welcome attended new mandatory diversity sessions lead by Vice President of Student Affairs Diversity and Inclusion James Patton. 

 Oct. 1: IFC voted to lift Lambda Chi Alpha’s suspension. However, they are still suspended by the national chapter until April 2019.

Oct. 2: Armstrong shared the Attorney General’s report findings with the community. The email stated students should expect to see more diversity actions in the upcoming weeks and months.

While these actions have taken place since the events of Spring 2018, Lazier wrote that Armstrong stated diversity has been one of his main priorities since his first day as president in 2011.

Lazier wrote that Armstrong stated diversity has been one of his main priorities since his first day as president in 2011

“I want to dispel the idea that the university’s diversity and inclusion programs are only in response to the events of last spring,” Lazier wrote. “Diversity and Inclusion are important issues to the president — both personally and as the leader of this campus — and he and his administration understand the need for comprehensive and continual work in these areas.”

Lazier wrote that the university is also focusing on faculty hiring with an emphasis on diversity and inclusion topics in disciplinary areas throughout the six colleges, offering training for faculty members on diversity in the curriculum and offering Implicit Bias training for faculty and staff.

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