Cal Poly promotes understanding

After last year’s Crops House incident, officials look to tolerance and diversity education for students and staff

nwilson@thetribunenews.comNovember 13, 2009 

Cal Poly leaders say work is still in progress to encourage more diversity and tolerance on campus, and some developments that the university had planned are proceeding.

Some minority students said in town-hall-style meetings last year that there is a lack of understanding of ethnic and cultural backgrounds on campus.

University leaders organized the meetings after a group of agriculture students living in a university-owned home displayed a noose and Confederate flag.

They were also accused of posting an anti-gay sign, but that allegation was never confirmed.

Immediately after what became known as the Crops House incident, Cal Poly President Warren Baker expressed his outrage over the display in a gathering of hundreds at the Performing Arts Center.

Baker also sent a letter to the campus community discussing the creation of a plan to better handle reports of harassment, hate, bias and insensitivity.

The letter noted the need for people to feel “valued and included” at Cal Poly and called for anti-bias and diversity training for faculty and staff.

In the year since the Crops House incident, the Anti-Defamation League has done a handful of diversity training workshops for faculty and staff at the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences.

And Cal Poly officials now say they’ll hire an ombudsman to field complaints on campus about prejudice and other issues, including sexual harassment.

A timeline for the hiring and a possible salary amount hasn’t yet been set, but details are being worked out, and the university expects to have an announcement soon, said David Conn, Cal Poly’s vice provost for academic programs and undergraduate education.

“This would be someone who’s there to help and to lend a caring ear,” Conn said. “It would be someone listening to concerns and taking them seriously and then either resolving them or making a referral to the appropriate place.”

Conn said the position likely would be filled by somebody from inside the university because Cal Poly’s budget this year is tight after reduced state funding.

Officials also point to a new student-led committee called iRespect.

Cal Poly business major Ignacio Orozco, who co-chairs the committee of about 10 students, said he gave eight talks to freshmen and transfer students about the Crops House incident and a need for mutual respect among people of different backgrounds on campus.

“Students must continue the dialogue regarding diversity and tolerance at the Cal Poly campus,” Orozco said. “We must actively choose to create a culture where we respect one another and we seek to learn about people different from ourselves.”

The students in the iRespect committee also said they gathered more than 3,200 signatures from students pledging to recognize prejudices and be an agent for tolerance, respect and mutual understanding.

Conn said the university plans to hire an agency to conduct additional sessions on diversity awareness.

The training would instruct a small group of faculty on how to teach other faculty members about diversity and tolerance issues — including any unintended comments during classroom discussions that might be insensitive.

University officials are looking into other practical activities and programs they might coordinate to promote a model of Inclusive Excellence, an initiative other universities and colleges are participating in nationwide.

“We’re still figuring out an agenda, and there’s not a lot of money available with state budget cuts,” Conn said. “We’re proceeding slowly because we want to get it right and not waste resources or be counterproductive.”

Conn noted administrative and faculty leaders went on a retreat in the fall and vowed to promote mutual understanding among students to prepare them to live and work in a diverse world.

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