Cal Poly’s Muslim student club says university is trying to make amends

Muslim Student Association leaders say their group has often felt marginalized at Cal Poly, but now they’re seeing some positive changes from administrators. Students Rubia Siddiqi, Zia Absar, Leila Assal and Ibraheem Azam meet with their faculty adviser, Steve Lloyd-Moffett, second from right.
Muslim Student Association leaders say their group has often felt marginalized at Cal Poly, but now they’re seeing some positive changes from administrators. Students Rubia Siddiqi, Zia Absar, Leila Assal and Ibraheem Azam meet with their faculty adviser, Steve Lloyd-Moffett, second from right.

Leaders of a Muslim student group that has often felt marginalized at Cal Poly say they’re seeing some positive, if incremental, changes from campus administrators who have endorsed a new public prayer space in the library and an appearance Saturday by renowned Muslim-American scholar Dalia Mogahed, an adviser to former President Barack Obama.

The club expects more than 1,000 people from the campus and community to attend the talk scheduled for 3 to 5 p.m. in the Chumash Auditorium. Her topic: “Islamophobia — A Threat to All.” The university has contributed $3,000 to Mogahed’s $5,000 speaking fee.

Mogahed, whose commentary has received more than 10 million YouTube views, was invited by the club about a month ago. She came on short notice after hearing about some of the concerns Cal Poly’s Muslim students have had about not feeling included, Muslim Student Association president Rubia Siddiqi said.

“I think that was a big reason for why she’s coming here,” Siddiqi said. “She has a busy schedule, but she heard about some of the things that have happened here.”

Some of the developments at Cal Poly have included repeated anti-Muslim and racist graffiti from anonymous sources on a plywood “Free Speech Wall” set up by the Cal Poly College Republicans group; a campus speech in January by right-wing agitator Milo Yiannopoulos, who has targeted Muslims as prone to “gang rape”; and criticisms over how the campus handled a Muslim student conference last year.

About 1,300 people signed a petition calling for Cal Poly to reimburse the Muslim Student Association the $4,800 in security costs it was charged for a three-day conference it held in January 2016. The petition called the treatment unfair because the Cal Poly College Republicans weren’t asked to pay the $54,000 cost for security to host Yiannopoulos. (The university says its contribution to Mogahed’s speaking fee is unrelated to calls for reimbursement.)

The Muslim student club leaders and Cal Poly administrators have held several meetings about how the university can support Muslim students and other minorities on campus in the wake of the petition.

“My general sense is that the university is slowly getting better, but it takes awhile to steer a large ship to change courses,” said Stephen Lloyd-Moffett, adviser to the Muslim Student Association. “It is not yet part of the DNA of the university to think first about ensuring that everyone feels welcome and supported. The weight of Cal Poly’s history and the structures of the bureaucracy still don’t live up to ideals, but there seems to be light shining through.”

Citing an example of bureaucratic obstacles, Siddiqi said Muslim students have sought for years to create a space to pray on campus. But she acknowledged recent efforts by Keith Humphrey, Cal Poly’s vice president of student affairs, to help the club.

“That took something like 10 years to achieve,” Siddiqi said. “It’s a very small space in an office area that we now have, and we’re glad to have it.”

Lloyd-Moffett said the administration’s efforts have been largely “reactive” to incidents of intolerance, such as public statements denouncing “hurtful” bigoted comments on a Free Speech Wall in recent years that have targeted Muslims and other groups. But a more proactive approach to create a welcoming campus has been lacking, he said.

President Jeffrey Armstrong’s public support of Mogahed’s talk, for example, breaks the practice of a president refraining from media statements on a student club event, Lloyd-Moffett said.

Senior administrators generally don’t comment on individual events “to help ensure the university always maintains a viewpoint-neutral position,” Cal Poly spokesman Matt Lazier said.

Administrators disagree that a structural problem exists and say Cal Poly is continuing efforts to promote an inclusive environment for minorities.

“We are working really hard in lots of areas to be inclusive and promote diversity,” Humphrey said. “Sometimes students want to see lots of change quickly, and it can take longer for results to be seen.”

As examples of university efforts, Humphrey noted the new library “faith space” for students; orientation talks with greater emphasis on diversity and inclusion; a planned Dream Center to support undocumented students; and the Office of University Diversity and Inclusivity director’s recent promotion to vice president level.

Cal Poly officials said the security fee waiver for the Yiannopoulos event was consistent with its practice for talks hosted by student clubs, and that a multiday conference carries separate fee assessments.

“The student club went through an event planning process that any other group on campus would be subject to,” Humphrey said. “If they were to hold a conference again, they’d be subject to the same types of costs.”

Armstrong and Humphrey attended a Muslim student club meeting to discuss students’ frustrations, including the conference planning.

“I think they heard some very candid talk from the club, and to their credit, they spent as much time as the students were willing to talk to listen,” Lloyd-Moffett said.

Siddiqi said the students are thrilled that Mogahed is coming to Cal Poly and praised her abilities to articulate cultural gaps in America. The anticipation was shared by Armstrong.

“We look forward to Dalia Mogahed’s presentation,” Armstrong said in a statement. “We steadfastly support a multitude of perspectives and voices at Cal Poly and embrace all efforts to create a more inclusive campus community and increase appreciation for the many cultures and viewpoints represented at our university.”