Cal Poly is ‘a hard place for non-whites’ and other diverse groups, data show

Racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism and elitism are part of the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus experience for students, faculty and staff, according to results of a campus-wide survey.

A report published Thursday provides a summary of findings and analysis of the Cal Poly Experience research project to assess the campus climate. It was initiated in the beginning of 2019 at the request of the Center for Strategic Diversity Leadership and Social Innovation, an organization hired by Cal Poly to improve diversity, inclusion and equity.

The work has been led by Damon Williams, a leader in developing diversity, equity and inclusivity at institutions across the country. His team has done similar work with the University of Denver, Georgia State University, American Airlines, FedEx and the Brooklyn Nets.

The Cal Poly survey was completed by more than 11,000 people, including 40 percent of students (8,749), 60 percent of faculty (894) and 61 percent of staff (1,127), which Williams said was a strong response that makes him confident in the findings. Those who took the survey closely reflected the demographics of the campus population, and any difference was accounted for by weighting the data.

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Katrina Wade-Golden led the survey efforts and introduced the findings to a crowd at a Strategic Diversity Leadership conference Thursday, underscoring that every person on campus deserves to be treated with respect and valued.

“I feel like as we discuss some of the findings today, some of them are going to be very disturbing to you, even as they validate some of your experiences,” Wade-Golden said. “But you should know, there’s a gleam of positivity in this even though some of the data are less than favorable. And that is that Cal Poly is pivoting to making some big actions as it relates to advancing the work and moving the needle.

In his address at the session, Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong stressed the seriousness of the challenge, how widespread buy-in must be to effect change, and that the administration is fully committed.

“The story is not everyone thrives at Cal Poly. Some are just surviving. Changing will take a commitment of everybody on this campus,” Armstrong said Thursday. “Either everyone commits to changing Cal Poly or Cal Poly does not change.”

Moving forward, the university aims to support and promote that change with the help of individual students, faculty and staff who will be trained as leaders to create a campus culture that reflects diversity, equity and inclusivity.

Findings of Cal Poly Experience Initiative Survey

Two key findings were identified by Williams, which he described in a conversation with The Tribune on Tuesday:

“There was a strong sense across all demographics that there’s an opportunity for Cal Poly to get better in terms of the campus climate,” Williams said, “meaning that everybody saw challenges, everybody saw opportunities to get better, and that was a consistent finding across the board.”

The second finding is that different groups on campus have different experiences.

“Certain diverse groups were expressing that they had a lesser experience than their counterparts we were comparing them to, and we were able to authenticate those findings using multiple techniques to understand the relative weight of the impact of identity of race, or gender or disability,” Williams said.

The scale to measure the general campus climate used these phrases: Is Cal Poly hostile or friendly, disrespectful or respectful, contentious or collegial, individualistic or collaborative, competitive or cooperative, unsupportive or supportive, unwelcoming or welcoming.

Surveyors also measured the climate in terms of diversity, equity and inclusivity, using questions to determine if someone experienced the campus as racist or non-racist, homogeneous or diverse, sexist or non-sexist, homophobic or non-homophobic, ageist or non-ageist.

The survey also asked whether respondents felt valued and if they were thriving and growing. Other questions focused on their perceptions of fair treatment and whether they felt they had been discriminated against.

Here are some takeaways from the survey:

  • African American and Black students were least satisfied and reported feeling the most discriminated against, following by Hispanic and Latinx students and Asian American students.

  • Women students, faculty and staff were likely to report a lesser experience with campus climate and were more likely to feel they had been discriminated against compared to men, though both said the campus is fraught with challenges.
  • LGBTQIA students and faculty reported a consistently less positive experience than their heterosexual peers and were more likely to have felt discriminated against.
  • Students with disability scored lower on every Cal Poly Experience indicator when compared to those without any disability.

  • Students, faculty and staff with financial challenges reported a consistently lesser experience than their financially stable peers.

  • White faculty and staff and multiracial-ethnic faculty and staff reported a positive perception of the campus climate. These findings diverged from those of African American or black faculty and staff and Hispanic or Latinx faculty and staff who scored their general experience with the day-to-day realities of climate as challenging.

  • Across the board, faculty and staff identified challenges with the diversity, equity and inclusion climate, institutional commitment and perceptions of being valued and belonging.

Cal Poly students, faculty and staff talk about racism, sexism

Listening sessions with Cal Poly community members reinforced what data show and vice versa.

Participants shared experiences that reflect a culture that has been unfriendly or even hostile to people based on their ethnicity, gender identity or expression of sexuality, in part based on a lack of accountability from students who reinforce social systems of oppression.

Participants were critical of past leadership around diversity, equity and inclusion and particularly critical of the university’s immediate response to hostile incidents like a recent photo of a student in blackface or the university’s decision to allow Milo Yiannopoulos to visit campus.

While many students asked for a “zero-tolerance policy” on hate-speech, the report’s authors said that doesn’t seem possible because of legal constraints.

At the same time, conservative respondents also expressed that they feel they are the “other” on campus, the report says.

Here’s what some unidentified community members said, according to the report:

  • “We have a 120-year-old campus. Women were only allowed in since 1949. Until 20 or so years ago, Cal Poly was only known as an agriculture school. With that, there has been the ‘good old boy’ mentality brought to campus by legacy students that they learned from their fathers and grandfathers. It wasn’t until maybe 15 years ago when the Colleges of Engineering and Architecture became highly ranked that Cal Poly even had diverse students applying. The last administration did not face, or maybe did not acknowledge, this issue. SLO is one of the least diverse communities in California and has one of the top cost-of-living indexes in California. This is the problem — culture, cost and location.”

  • “This campus has a long history of racism and bias. To many minority groups, it can be a hostile environment. Name-calling, shunning, microaggressions on an everyday basis has been a problem. The blackface incidents last year, Milo coming to campus twice, and a long history of incidents have made this campus a hard place for non-whites.”

  • “One major challenge at the faculty level is unconscious bias. In a hiring process recently, one of the candidates was an Asian woman. She was softly spoken and had a slight accent. Every single other candidate was talked about based on their credentials or presentation. For the Asian woman candidate, my (white, female, liberal) colleagues said things about the candidate’s personality. Unconscious bias against Asians, even among allies. This is in addition to the explicit bias.”

  • “It’s a very white campus, and I don’t think we have a great reputation within communities of color (for) us being a safe place to send your child. The blackface incident last spring noticeably hurt in that area. It’s expensive to come here because of the fee structure, leading to some basic needs challenges that we see all of the time with our students. In many ways, it’s the one-on-one interactions or certain small moments that shape the college experience, and there’s still a lot of ignorance that can lead to comments or actions (microaggressions) that make people feel unwelcome. You will hear wealthy students talking all the time about their life, and low-income students are just in earshot and are like, ‘you’re living in a fantasy land.’ People need to understand their privilege.”

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Monica Vaughan reports on health, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo County, oil and wildlife at The Tribune. She previously covered crime and justice in the Sacramento Valley, is a graduate of the University of Oregon journalism school and is a sixth-generation Californian. Have an idea for a story? Email: