The unbearable whiteness of being: How Cal Poly can overcome its diversity problem

A few days ago, the last thing Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong probably thought he'd be doing the night before the university's annual showcase weekend is standing in front of 1,000 angry students pushed to the edge by yet another stupid frat trick.

Yet, that's just where he found himself Thursday night, fielding questions about just what he would do to punish the men-boys of Lambda Chi Alpha, who managed by either gross ignorance, outright racism or both, to ridicule multiple cultures while playing dress-up in blackface and gang-style fashions.

Students lined up on both sides of the Harman Hall stage to take turns grilling the president about his response to the frat incident and overall approach to Cal Poly's inclusivity problem.

What would he do to make people of color feel safer on campus? What would he do to make the student body more representative of California's multicultural population?

For Armstrong, it was an exercise in trying to balance appreciation for the students' visceral pain with his many and varied responsibilities as leader of the university.

Despite his efforts, I'm not sure many students left feeling satisfied.

On Friday morning, he stepped out of the Administration Building to greet protesters and again listen and share his support, but he was summarily rebuffed.

One student accused him of trying to use them for a photo op.

Earlier Thursday, Armstrong stopped by The Tribune to share his disgust for the frat members' behavior and answer our questions about the incident.

We also wanted to know if the university would expel Kyler Watkins, the blackface poster child of Lambda Chi's disgrace. Would the frat be kicked off campus entirely?

The answer was the same as he gave later that night. Probably not. Why? Because as loathsome as their behavior was, the frat brothers are protected by the very same rights we hold dear in this newsroom every day.

The right to free expression must leave room for ideas we cheer and those we despise, even when that expression comes in the form of dumb white boys drawing fake tats on their knuckles, sporting chains and bandanas, and striking gang poses in a display that would be judged repulsive by most anyone over the age of 12 who has a functional understanding of decency.

But this incident is only one example of the larger problem, and that is the university's persistent whiteness — a shortcoming that's been present as long as Cal Poly has been in existence.

How do you turn a campus that's 55 percent white into a place that can attract people of color? How do you recruit more than a handful of African-American students? How do you make minority students feel more comfortable and truly proud of their university so that they reach out to others like them and help grow that population?

You do it with a united effort.

You do it with big programs like the Cal Poly Opportunity Grant and small gestures like joining a march for equality.

You do it by enlisting help from all corners of campus, from the president's office to the newest arriving freshman student.

You do it by challenging everyone to learn more about each other, take an ethnic studies course, join an organization of people who aren't exactly like you.

It's not easy, and it's not a one-man job.

Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong speaks at a public forum responding to a photo of a fraternity member in blackface that was posted to social media. Lucas Clark

One thing that cheers me about the current response we're seeing is the passion and courage students are showing to make a difference, to stand up against apathy and the status quo.

That's a relatively new occurrence, and I applaud them for it, because Cal Poly is not exactly known for its activism. I certainly don't recall anything like this when I graduated in 1993.

As Armstrong and his colleagues were leaving our office Thursday, they asked if I personally thought less of the university and the value of my degree.

Absolutely not.

And none of you — current students, faculty, administrators and alumni — should either.

Don't think less. Expect more.

Meanwhile, I have a new vested interest in the university's success: Just last week, my graduating senior daughter accepted her admission to Cal Poly, because it's the best undergraduate education for the price in California.

I hope she arrives there in September ready to embrace new experiences, meet new people and expand her horizons. I hope she doesn't join clubs who only look like her, sound like her or come from a similar background as her.

If every person on campus would just take that simple approach, that's how Cal Poly succeeds.

Joe Tarica: 805-781-7911; @joetarica
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