Education

Cal Poly moves ahead on improving diversity, inclusion

Cal Poly students protest the appearance of hate speech on a “Free Speech Wall” erected on the Dexter Lawn in November.
Cal Poly students protest the appearance of hate speech on a “Free Speech Wall” erected on the Dexter Lawn in November. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

After weeks of protests and a vocal push for change by a group of student activists, Cal Poly has announced several measures to create a more diverse, welcoming and inclusive campus.

In separate letters to the Cal Poly community Friday, Cal Poly President Jeff Armstrong and Jean DeCosta, the university’s interim executive director of the Office of University Diversity & Inclusivity, outlined the work underway and work yet to be done to improve the university’s “campus climate.”

“As President Armstrong has said, diversity and inclusion are critically important to the success of all Cal Poly students, faculty and staff,” DeCosta wrote. “We are committed both to diversifying the community and to creating and supporting a campus climate in which all can flourish.”

Armstrong detailed 15 ideas that are underway or “will be supported by administration upon appropriate consultation in 2016.”

He also laid out eight additional initiatives that will need more work and broader campus consultation.

“One of the immediate changes we made was to have our chief diversity officer report directly to me and serve on my leadership cabinet,” Armstrong wrote in his email. “This will continue when we hire a permanent executive director for the Office of University Diversity & Inclusivity.”

University officials have reportedly already undertaken initiatives to develop a more inviting campus even before meeting with student activists from SLO Solidarity.

We are committed both to diversifying the community and to creating and supporting a campus climate in which all can flourish.

Jean DeCosta, Cal Poly interim executive director of the Office of University Diversity and Inclusivity

SLO Solidarity has led protests after one of its leaders received a death threat on Facebook while pushing for policy, curriculum and other institutional changes related to tolerance. A student, Charles Raymond Bird, suspected of sending the threatening Facebook message Dec. 1 has been arrested and charged.

Prior to the death threat, student activists rallied against insensitive language and drawings scrawled on a “Free Speech Wall” erected by the Cal Poly College Republicans in early November. The wall included a few writings and drawings hostile toward Muslims and gender fluidity.

Cal Poly’s ideas, already in progress in a Draft Action Plan, include:

  • adding more diversity education during the Week of Welcome
  • implementing an anonymous online reporting system for incidents of discrimination, harassment and retaliation to add to already existing services
  • offering anti-stigma education around mental health issues in the student community
  • increasing recruitment efforts of faculty and staff of color
  • increasing opportunities for under-represented groups to connect with each other during Week of Welcome

Ideas in the Draft Action Plan still in the works include:

  • implementing mandatory cultural awareness training for all students, similar to other targeted programs nationwide, such as AlcoholEdu and Haven, which provide student education on health and alcohol issues
  • adding more diversity-related general education classes
  • expanding opportunities for faculty and staff to get more training on diversity and inclusion issues
  • hiring representatives to ensure a separate Diversity Strategic Framework is implemented

Cal Poly’s Diversity Strategic Framework identifies four main areas of focus to improve the university: encouraging a more diverse group of students, faculty and staff; providing support programs to retain the campus’ diversity; enhancing the campus climate by promoting ways to make it more welcoming to minorities; and exemplifying academic excellence by making sure diverse perspectives are considered when developing curricular experiences.

Cal Poly officials noted several steps the campus took from 2012 to 2015 to improve diversity and inclusion.

Those include:

  • conducting a Campus Climate Survey that anonymously polled students, faculty and staff on questions related to quality of life on campus
  • hiring an expert to infuse multiculturalism into the curriculum
  • creating a new center for English language instruction to open in fall 2016
  • adding a tenure-track faculty line in the ethnic studies major
  • funding $15,000 in signage to convert single-person staff restrooms to all-gender restrooms
  • designing new Student Housing South dorm (Cal Poly’s new freshman dorm under construction for 1,475 beds) with 100 percent all-gender restrooms

DeCosta noted that her office’s duties include implementing and updating the diversity and climate action plan that’s continually evolving; meeting with the Academic Senate and student government, as well as deans and department chairs to assess and support diversity goals; and hiring a permanent executive director.

SLO Solidarity leaders didn’t respond Monday to a request for comment on the university’s latest announcement.

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