‘It was like a real slap in the face’: Students meet with President Armstrong about treatment of SWANA community

Members of the Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) community met with President Jeffrey Armstrong, Vice President of Student Affairs Keith Humphrey, Vice President of the Office of Academic Diversity and Inclusion Denise Isom and Chief of Staff Jennifer Haft to discuss issues facing the SWANA community. face on campus on May 23.

During the meeting, SWANA identifying students said they had not felt heard by the university during their entire college experience and for them, this meeting was no different month.

Members of the SWANA community, who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons, reiterated their grievances against the university’s management and messaging around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, lack of recognition for SWANA students on the campus, police presence on campus, censorship of pro-Palestinian voices and protests on campus.

Twenty-five students gathered in the Vista Grande conference room after members of the SWANA community repeatedly requested a meeting with university officials. Students were given an hour to speak to university administrators. President Armstrong closed the meeting with 10 minutes of responses.

Students raised the issue of police presence on campus during pro-Palestinian protests such as the die-ins and the protest that blocked California Street on the morning of May 23.

“When we finally want to speak up and show our opinions, the school’s response is police presence,” said one student.

The student added that members of the Muslim Student Association and pro-Palestinian speakers felt threatened by the university’s decision to deploy a police car in front of their table on Dexter Lawn for three hours.

Other students reiterated that they felt police presence was disproportionately deployed against SWANA students, particularly when it came to pro-Palestinian activism.

In response, Armstrong told the group that “there have been incidents over the years where you just can’t afford to be surprised.”

“I really believe we are working hard, in a neutral way, to ensure safety,” Armstrong said. “There are times when there are more than you might think, but they are professionals, they try to figure things out.”

Some members of the SWANA community also found this response disappointing in a follow-up conversation with Mustang News.

“It felt like a real slap in the face,” one student said.

“The disproportionate number of police there (during pro-Palestinian protests) is frightening, especially in the context of a community that has been continually monitored, continually stereotyped and labeled as violent,” added another student. .

The cancellation of apprenticeships, a major point of contention

Members of the group said that when they try to work within the university to bring Palestinian issues to the forefront – such as during classes on social justice – they are censored and when they protest, they clash with the police.

“There’s no both sides-ism talking about a country that exists,” one student said in response to the university’s decision to cancel the social justice course over issues of “balance” with Palestinian treaties. “If we had a session on Armenia, you wouldn’t go and schedule a series of sessions on Turkey and Azerbaijan – for some reason, whenever it comes to Palestine, there’s always a altercation (with) the school.”

President Armstrong said it was “not the university’s job” to teach students what to think, but rather to “think critically” about the university’s decision to cancel teaching.

“I’m not going to choose who speaks,” Armstrong said.

However, Armstrong clarified that at university-sponsored events, “you wouldn’t expect…to hear a political speech or a point of view on something in particular…you want to come and hear yourself be recognized, you don’t don’t want this to be hindered. »

One student found President Armstrong’s justification for canceling teaching hypocritical, given his comments in the follow-up conversation.

“He can choose who speaks because it was his office, President Armstrong’s office, that decided to postpone the CLA teaching session,” one student said. “Student censorship is far more important (to Armstrong) than any critical corporate censorship,” another student added.

One student said Armstrong brought up in the follow-up conversation that graduation would not feature “tone-deaf” politically charged speakers and a veiled threat.

“It feels like President Armstrong and his office expect something to happen at graduation and therefore want to talk about it before it happens,” the student added.

Armstrong also told the same student, who is a university representative, that there would be extra security during graduation at the Poly Reps breakfast on May 20.

“I found it incredibly strange,” the student said. “That he would pass this comment on to me, a SWANA student.”

Students also pressed President Armstrong on the university’s ties to defense contractors.

“Can you imagine?” » asked a student. “I’m from Gaza and I go to a school that has ties to companies that bomb my own family. »

Other students urged Armstrong to disengage and cut ties with defense contractors.

“I’m not going to choose which company comes to campus or not,” Armstrong told the group.

Some members of the group found Armstrong’s response unsatisfactory but not surprising, mentioning the presence of defense companies such as Lockheed Martin and Northup Grumman on campus.

“They are lining his pockets and we can’t say anything about it,” one student said.

“Do our students understand that when you work for Boeing… you’re going to work on… weapons that are going to be used against our countries, our homelands, our people? » said one student.

Another student pointed out the presence of people connected to the defense industry in positions of power at Cal Poly, such as Cal Poly Foundation board chair and former Raytheon CEO Bill Swanson and vice-president chairman of the board of directors of the Cal Poly Foundation and former CEO of Parsons Charles Harrington.

Erasure and Recognition of SWANA Students at Cal Poly

Other members felt like the group was being censored and erased by the school. Members highlighted the fact that OUDI did not send any emails for SWANA Heritage Month detailing SWANA student-organized events that took place that month, despite sending emails by OUDI for heritage months of other groups.

One student pointed out that the school avoided discussing the SWANA community as if it were an “insult.”

“We’ve done things for the SWANA community,” Armstrong said. “And do we need to do more? I would agree.”

However, Armstrong did not directly respond to students’ request for the school to send out an email for SWANA Heritage Month.

“I don’t want to judge every grade I’ve sent in the past and, frankly, in the future I’ll probably send fewer,” Armstrong said in response to calls for recognition from students in his emails. . “Because we go back to, ‘Well, what voice, what problem?’ » and I really want to take care of what we do here.

Student thoughts on the meeting

Members of the SWANA community that Mustang News spoke with were not happy with the way the university handled the meeting, nor with President Armstrong’s comments.

“The people are amazing,” one student said in reference to what they would say to a SWANA student considering coming to Cal Poly. “Just prepare yourself if getting recognition from the administration, having that sense of ownership from the administration and being properly recognized is really important to you, then maybe you just re-evaluate your options.”

Other students added that they felt they had to work “10 times harder” to have their identity recognized by the university.

President Armstrong’s office sent a two-page letter to students who attended the May 30 meeting, in which they reiterated what he said at the meeting. Armstrong added that OUDI will now send out a SWANA Heritage Month email after students asked Armstrong and Isom at the meeting why OUDI didn’t send one in April.