Can Cal Poly become more diverse and inclusive? ‘We have to,’ President Armstrong says

Cal Poly on Thursday released the results of a campus-wide survey about university culture that recognizes what many students and staff have said for years: People from traditionally marginalized groups have a less positive experience at the San Luis Obispo campus than their peers.

Listening sessions performed alongside the Cal Poly Experience survey uncovered that Cal Poly has a negative reputation as a “good-old-boy school” and “a white, wealthy school, where diversity is not welcome.”

The results were announced at the opening of a Strategic Diversity Leadership Institute, a two-day conference to review the survey and to launch Cal Poly’s next steps toward changing the culture with a strategic action plan.

Read Next

That plan revolves around a commitment from the institution to support and promote change from individual students, faculty and staff, training them to become leaders and to foster a culture that is inclusive, equitable and diverse.

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

“As your president, I am committed to making Cal Poly a place where everyone can thrive,” Armstrong said. “This will also require myself and other administrators to examine our policies and procedures.

“We’ve made great strides by eliminating policies that have led to structural inequities such as early admission and we’ve also created infrastructure to provide students with greater access to Cal Poly, such as Cal Poly Scholars and other programs that have existed for many years like EOP (Educational Opportunity Program) and Summer Institute.”

The survey and listening session work was led by Damon Williams, a leader in working on diversity with universities, corporations and nonprofits. He began a contract with Cal Poly in 2019 to help the university develop and enact an Inclusive Excellence Action Plan; his contact has been extended into next year.

The survey found that different groups on campus have different experiences. That includes students, faculty and staff of color, particularly African American, Latinx and Asian Pacific Islander students — as well as multi-racial, multi-ethnic students, faculty and staff, plus members of the LGBTQ community and individuals who had financial or economic struggle.

“Across multiple, different indicators, there was a story that, No. 1, said that all people saw that there was a challenge. No. 2, certain diverse groups were expressing that they had a lesser experience than their counterparts,” Williams told the Tribune on Tuesday, adding that he sees similar trends at other universities across the country.

Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong speaks Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, at the opening of the Strategic Diversity Leadership Institute. The two-day conference-style campus event is designed to help the Cal Poly community interpret the results of the Cal Poly Experience survey, released Thursday. Joe Johnston Cal Poly

In his speech Thursday, Armstrong addressed the most recent public example of how the campus culture can be hostile to groups of students.

On Wednesday, a Cal Poly professor provided The Tribune with a screenshot of an Instagram post that shows Cal Poly students appearing to mock undocumented immigrants.

The photo comes after a string of racist incidents involving Cal Poly students.

In 2018, Lambda Chi Alpha’s Cal Poly chapter was put on interim suspension after photos posted online showed a fraternity member in blackface and other members throwing gang signs while dressed as gangster stereotypes at a party. Other incidents in past years have included a Greek event titled “Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos” in 2013, and the hanging of a noose and Confederate flag on campus in 2008.

“We don’t know the intent” of the recent photo, Armstrong said to a large crowd Thursday afternoon. “The impact is clear. The impact and the pain to members of our valued community was clear.”

“Something that was a joke to some was and is a racial slur and an act of racism for others,” Armstrong said. “Let me be perfectly clear: Every Mustang belongs at Cal Poly. Actions and behavior that demean others have no place on our campus.”

Armstrong pointed to the example of the post to discuss what peers can do to prevent such instances by not allowing it to pass without objection or correction.

Bystander intervention can keep this from happening, he said, adding that it is not only events that make it onto social media that are harmful. It’s important, he said, for people like him — heterosexual, white males — to listen and to understand.

Diversity expert Damon Williams speaks Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, at Cal Poly at the opening of the Strategic Diversity Leadership Institute. The two-day conference-style campus event is designed to help the San Luis Obispo university community interpret the results of the Cal Poly Experience survey, released Thursday. Joe Johnston Cal Poly

“It’s everyday impacts of microaggressions and unconscious bias that hits,” Armstrong said. “That’s why it’s important to develop action plans and implement personal action plans.”

Armstrong ended his talk by saying that “We won’t get everything right. We’re human. We have to keep trying. We have to admit when we’ve been wrong or thoughtless. We have to try to do better. We have to get better.”

In a keynote speech Thursday afternoon, Williams said “how we show up is so important to how we ultimately move diversity, equity and inclusion work.

“How we make a stand to say, ‘I want to be a part of something moving toward the good.’ How we take an understanding of our power, our privilege, who we are, what we bring, and we make a decision to give and to share that with someone else,” Williams said.

“How we not only microaggress, but when we do we learn, we understand from it, we listen, we try to do better, we try to move with empathy and we try to microaffirm others and try to create a ripple effect of inclusion each and every day.”

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune

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: