Even though administrators say Cal Poly’s next incoming class will be the “most diverse” ever, it will still be mostly white — failing to reflect the state’s increasingly racially diverse college-bound population.
A coalition of students say there are concrete steps university administrators can take to increase diversity on campus, and the recommendations are based on one clear plea: Invest in supporting marginalized students who are already enrolled.
“This is a university that’s really hard for us to be at. For all of us, when we come here, we are being pushed out from the start,” said Alejandro Bupara, an electrical engineering major who identifies as mestizo Latino and queer, and interns with Students for Quality Education.
A lack of affordable housing, overt racism by white students, sexual violence that disproportionately victimizes women of color and transgender people, and a seemingly endless flow of microaggressions — subtle forms of prejudice — are all part of campus life that Bupara describes for marginalized students.
To address this, the coalition prioritized two demands of the administration: to increase monetary support of campus cross cultural centers and departments, and hire additional advocates to support survivors of sexual violence.
These things, Bupara said, “would go a long way toward making people feel comfortable here and make a concrete difference in people’s lives.”
Students have asked for similar support for years and edited the list down this year to these two priorities.
In May, a group marched through campus to raise awareness of their requests while chanting, “Cal Poly shame on you. Black and brown students need funding too” and “Now’s the time to organize. Give your students better lives.”
Centers of acceptance in a racist campus climate
It’s been more than a year since a photo emerged of a student in blackface at a gang-themed frat party. That incident is still fresh in students’ minds.
A student in another photo dressed as a “gangster,” wearing jeans cuffed over throwback Nikes, a white T-shirt and a backwards baseball cap — an outfit, Bupara says, that is “more or less my outfit on any given day.”
“Everybody seeing that photo was not surprised, but so, so angry, because these people will never understand the situation that they’re mocking. And, they are the ones that look sideways at black and brown students when we come into classrooms. They’re the ones that will whisper about us,” Bupara said.
After the blackface photo emerged, student Martina Odusanya turned to the Black Academic Excellence Center. Odusanya, who studies liberal arts and engineering, is also vice president of the Black Student Union and has a chair position on the National Society of Black Engineers.
“A lot of us were feeling down. The larger Cal Poly community didn’t understand our feelings of sadness, feeling oppression and feeling attacked,” she told The Tribune. “Having a space like that, it helps knowing you have support. It builds a sense of community.”
The center is one of the institutions that the coalition says is understaffed and underfunded.
They want the university to invest $25,000 each to the Black Academic Excellence Center and the Dream Center, and $18,200 each to the Gender Equity Center, MultiCultural Center, Pride Center and to the Ethnic Studies Department and the Women’s & Gender Studies Department.
The centers, Odusanya said, help expand the visibility of marginalized students, they’re beneficial to attract a more diverse student body, and they help keep students of marginalized groups enrolled in the university. Retention has been a problem, she said.
The total cost of the investment that the coalition demands adds up to $141,000 — that’s the amount that the university and California State University system spent on security for two events featuring Milo Yiannopoulos, who some students describe as an alt-right, neo-Nazi, white supremacist.
Survivors of sexual assault and rape
Among the coalition members is Amelia Meyerhoff, an English student who also studies psychology and created the project, “The Clapback: An Investigation of the Sexual Assault and Rape Culture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.”
Of the survivors of sexual violence that she interviewed for the project, two-thirds were women of color, she said. That’s in line with broader data that show women of color experience sexual violence at a higher rate than white women do.
That’s one reason the coalition’s goals include hiring two more student advocates at the campus resource center called Safer.
The university recently created new positions at Safer, establishing one full-time and two part-time advocate positions, according to university spokesman Matt Lazier. It also added another full-time position, not as an advocate, but as a prevention specialist.
Still, Meyerhoff says that’s not enough.
“If you look at the Rape Abuse Incest National Network campus sexual violence statistics and apply those to our Cal Poly census from 2016, we have at least 3,000 survivors on campus,” Meyerhoff said.
“If we are realistically hoping that survivors are going to come forward when they go through this at our university, which our university heavily advocates for when you come here during orientation, how are you supposed to cater to all of us?”
Meyerhoff, who is white, said marginalized groups have to work together to effectively push for change.
“Cal Poly has not just an issue with sexual violence, they have a huge issue with racism, sexism, discrimination against trans or non-conforming sexual orientations,” Meyerhoff said. “Marginalized communities need to come together and fight together because there is more power in numbers.”
Cal Poly’s work on diversity and inclusion
The Cal Poly administration has made efforts to address the campus climate, including investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in a diversity consultant and campus-wide survey.
“Diversity and inclusion programming increased significantly in recent years and continues with our ongoing CPX campus climate efforts and expansion of our Cal Poly Scholars program through the Cal Poly Opportunity Fund,” Lazier said.
The Cal Poly Scholars program recruits and retains high-achieving, first-generation and economically disadvantaged students from California high schools by providing support through financial, academic, and community resources.
CPX, Cal Poly Experience, as a study that includes listening sessions, surveys, hang-outs and leadership trainings in a broader effort to help create change and “lead Cal Poly on a path toward greater equity and inclusion,” the program website says.
Those efforts have admirable goals, but progress is slow.
Last year, The Tribune reported that Cal Poly had the least racially diverse student population among all public universities in California (54.8 percent white), and the lowest portion of black students (0.7 percent).
If early enrollment data holds up, the incoming class in fall 2019 won’t be very different. Of those who’ve said they will attend as freshmen next year, 54.7 percent (2,658) are white and 0.8 percent (37) are black.
“There have been no tangible results from their efforts,” Odusanya said. Instead, “We’re kind of yelling into the void, and they’re not listening to us.”
In response to the student demands, Lazier said, the budget “is always a process in which many priorities are considered. Campus leadership appreciates hearing from all aspects of the community when taking these various priorities into account.”
“We know that not everyone will agree with every budgetary decision. Nevertheless, university leaders are listening. We know this is the only way we can improve — by listening and working together as a community, coming to the table in the spirit of genuine, constructive dialogue, and being open and honest with one another about our own perspectives and what each of us may not yet understand about the issues,” Lazier said in an email to The Tribune.
“University administration welcomes this dialogue, and our doors are open to any member of our community.”
Correction: This story was updated June 4 to accurately reflect the new positions created at Safer. Information initially provided by Cal Poly, and included in the original story, was incorrect.