Cal Poly investing $243,000 on diversity consultant to help campus become more inclusive

Cal Poly has hired a nationally recognized expert on diversity to help the university become a more inclusive campus that reflects the demographics of California.

Damon A. Williams, an Atlanta-based consultant, introduced himself to a large, Cal Poly audience that mostly filled Spanos Theatre on Thursday as part of the university’s launch of its Inclusive Excellence Action Plan.

The full cost of services of Williams and his team is $243,000 for a total of 38 days of consulting, about 15 of those on site at Cal Poly’s campus. The plan will be executed over a 12-month period.

“The university’s investment in Damon Williams and his team underscores our commitment to improving our campus climate and culture, enhancing our students’ Learn by Doing experience, furthering our leadership development, and ensuring that every member of our community knows they belong,” said Matt Lazier, the university’s director of media relations.

The contract is not being paid for through the general fund, tuition or student fees, Lazier said. Information on how the work is being funded wasn’t immediately available Friday, he said.

The campus-wide climate survey will start in April with the goal of getting at least a 70-80 percent response rate of Cal Poly students, faculty and staff. The survey will ask questions geared to better understand how to form new program and culture initiatives, the school said.

Then, the university plans to develop approaches to “spark leadership, accountability and inclusion in every school, college and division on campus.”

“We’re talking about access and equity for all students, faculty and staff,” Williams said. “We’re talking about how we are preparing all of our students, undergrad and grad to be leaders in a world that’s diverse, global and interconnected. How are we preparing them to live each and every day with empathy?”

Cal Poly ranks among the worst public schools in California when it comes to serving black students, according to a report released in the fall from USC’s Race and Equity Center.

And Cal Poly was identified as the least racially diverse student population among all public universities in California, with a 54.8 percent white student body in 2017, according to enrollment data provided by the CSU and UC systems.

The university has made enhancing diversity and inclusion a major goal as it has faced multiple high-profile incidents of intolerance that has sparked outrage from many — including an incident last year in which a fraternity member wore blackface.

Other incidents in past years that have cast a cloud over Cal Poly’s image have included a Greek Halloween-themed event titled “Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos” in which men wore Colonial-era costumes, while women wore sexually explicit Native American-themed attire in 2013; and the hanging of a noose and Confederate flag on campus in 2008.

Students protest at Cal Poly Open House in response to fraternity photos that showed one student in blackface and others imitating gang members. Laura Dickinson

The survey will ask questions of respondents that will help the university to understand what it needs to do to create an environment that “feels like home,” said President Jeffrey Armstrong in a letter to the Cal Poly community.

“This isn’t changing how we’ve been doing things, but it’s heightening awareness on campus,” Armstrong told The Tribune.

The plan also will offer workshops, professional development, training programs and other learning opportunities to thousands of campus citizens “to increase their diversity and inclusion skills and abilities,” Armstrong said.

After the blackface incident, students protested, and last year more than 1,000 students attended an emotional meeting hosted by Armstrong and other administrators, held in response to the controversy.

“It’s a long-term campus task that each of us must help with to achieve our campus goal,” said Jozi De Leon, Cal Poly’s vice president for diversity & inclusion and chief diversity officer. “We heard our students when they said they needed to have an experience here that’s better, to create an environment where all perspectives are valued, heard and understood.”

De Leon said the results of the report will be “concrete and measurable.”

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.