Thursday, April 15, 1999
On April 8, a swelling sentiment of dissatisfaction among California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB) students, staff and faculty with University President Peter Smith manifested itself when 25 Latino faculty members marched into Smith''s office demanding his resignation along with the resignation of Dell Felder, CSUMB vice president of academic affairs.
At the crux of their frustration is a perceived failure on the part of the CSUMB administration--and Smith in particular--to fulfill the school''s lofty vision statement characterized by an Ellis Island-esque call to serve the underserved and under-represented people of the surrounding community. The dream of diversity, they say, is dying.
The section of the seven-paragraph vision statement that Smith has failed to respect, say critics, states: "The campus will be distinctive in serving the diverse people of California, especially the working class and historically undereducated and low-income population...The identity of the University will be framed by substantive commitment to a multilingual, multicultural, intellectual community..."
It sounds good in theory. But whether or not that vision is guiding the university in practice is currently a matter of considerable controversy. At the root of the debate currently surrounding Smith is a long list of inexplicable reassignments, demotions and "forced" resignations of minority faculty and administrators.
Moreover, as employees of color continue to leave the university or are pushed to the side, community members are disturbed by what appears to be the administration''s "whitewashing" of the school.
"That vision statement is very significant," says William Melendez, president of the local LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) chapter that was involved in the creation of CSUMB. "The significance of the vision statement is one that goes to the very core of the university, to reach out to the underserved population. It was directed that staff would mirror that very population."
"What I see now is that Peter Smith is moving away from that vision statement," continues Melendez. "I suspect that the man is unable to understand the whole concept of diversity."
"There has been a pattern of replacing a very talented and diverse administrative team and faculty," agrees former CSUMB Provost Steve Arvizu, "with people who do not have the same degree of diversity.
"Peter Smith has overused his presidential prerogative," Arvizu adds.
The most recent staff change, last month''s sudden reassignment of Smith''s executive assistant Cecilia Burciaga, a Latina, and the subsequent loss of Director of Institutional Research Dr. Octavio Villalpondo, who resigned in protest to Burciaga''s reassignment, sent the campus into a tailspin.
"In the professional sense, [my reassignment] left me very surprised," says Burciaga, who came to CSUMB after 20 years of employment at Stanford University. "The president has never indicated dissatisfaction. His [decision] to reassign me came without context." Burciaga was reassigned out of her position, but is still awaiting a description of her new assignment. She is currently at home on medical leave.
As the news of Burciaga''s reassignment spread, a flurry of angry and sympathetic messages, mostly from Latino students and faculty, flooded the university''s e-mail system. One faculty e-mail message referred to "ethnic cleansing" by top administrators.
But Smith explains that Burciaga''s reassignment was based on the changing needs of his office. He says Burciaga, whom he calls "extremely talented," will have the opportunity to write her own job description when she returns.
Similarly, says Smith, the pattern of reassigning staff can be attributed to the dynamics of a constantly growing, changing university that was expected to be a functional institution while still developing. Any attrition of diversity, says Smith, was unintentional.
"I see a great deal of this as a function of growth," says Smith. "We battled our way through the first five years. We continually designed and redesigned jobs. Now [we''re seeing] the natural turbulence mixed in with the utterly unrealistic time frame [to build the university.] It raises the potential for restructuring and reassignments."
Smith says that, in spite of job shifts, the university continues to have a solid record of diversity, pointing out that 48 percent of faculty and 43 percent of students are people of color.
Nevertheless, CSUMB community members are concerned about what they see as a disturbing pattern. The attrition of people of color from top offices began, they say, with the loss of former Provost Steve Arvizu. Appointed in 1993, nearly two years before Smith was hired, Arvizu, a Latino, was a founding administrator and faculty member, and was instrumental in creating the university''s vision statement.
Arvizu, who earned credentials from Stanford, Harvard and the University of Michigan, was reassigned out of the provost position, and negotiated a reassignment as executive vice president in December of 1995, one year after Smith was hired.
"When I was reassigned, there was a very specific list of tasks and duties that were agreed to with the chancellor of the CSU system," say Arvizu, "and Peter Smith reneged on some of those agreements. Rather than create conflict, I cooperated."
In July 1997, Arvizu left to accept a position as president of Oxnard Community College in Southern California. Many ethnic students and faculty point to Arvizu''s departure as the first blow to campus diversity.
Other administrators of color have similar stories. For example, Jim May, a Native American, was chosen for his position as founding dean of the Center for Technology and Information Resources by a statewide selection committee. May holds degrees from Columbia, Stanford and Harvard universities, and was most recently employed with Chico State University.
But May was demoted by Smith in 1996 to a position of assistant to the president. After a year, May was again demoted to the position of professor and moved to an office on the edge of the campus with other Native American faculty. May says he has been given no budget, no clerical support, was thrust into teaching subjects that are not his specialty, and forced to return his university-owned computer equipment.
Smith attributes May''s discontent to the fact that May is president of the faculty union, which is preparing to stage a strike against the entire CSU system over salary issues.
Despite attacks on his leadership, Smith says he is equally concerned about losing sight of the vision statement, and plans to take steps to assure a rebuilding of lost diversity. It was the vision statement, says Smith, that attracted him to the university, and he continues to affirm his commitment to that vision.
"Can we do better? Sure we can," says Smith. "I hope and believe that we will. We''re going to take a hard look at what we aren''t doing and what we can do."
But so far, his record has been less than stellar. A lawsuit filed by former academic systems coordinator Sarah Brothers in October 1997 charged Smith and then-interim vice president for academic affairs Bert Rivas with racial discrimination. Brothers is an African-American recruited by Arvizu from California State University Bakersfield. She was fired from her position at CSUMB for her alleged inability to sustain positive employee relations.
Documents found in Brothers'' case file charge, among other things, that top administrators used the code word "Italians" when speaking of minorities. One example given was that administrators would say, "We don''t need to hire any more ''Italians,''" meaning minorities.
In an affidavit found in court records, Arvizu corroborated Brothers'' story, and specifically names Smith as using the term "Italians" to mean minorities. However, Burciaga, who worked in Smith''s office for over four years, says she never heard Smith use that terminology.
Brothers also claims she was replaced by a white woman making $30,000 more a year than she did. Brother''s case was settled out of court last December.
Brothers'' suit has raised questions of whether or not, in an overzealous effort to achieve diversity, ethnicity sometimes overruled experience in early hiring practices. For instance, court documents in the Brothers'' case also reveal that she had been denied performance reviews and had been passed up for promotions by CSU Bakersfield. While Brothers alleged racial discrimination, one insider says Brothers may not have been qualified for her position at CSUMB.
Nevertheless, there is growing sentiment that Smith''s culturally limited background hampers his ability to lead a diverse university.
Even Smith admits that his East Coast background differs from the West Coast experience. "California is a much more complex place culturally and historically," says Smith. "There is no doubt that the history of the west is fundamentally different from the history of the east."
But Smith refutes the argument that one must be from a particular community in order to serve that community. "It flies in the face of all history," he says.
Smith points to his accomplishment in starting a college in rural Vermont as evidence of his commitment to serving disadvantaged communities. "There are a lot of what I''d call an underserved population in rural Vermont," says Smith. "There was no college experience, no models, no traditions."
But his critics remain unconvinced. "Coming in as an outsider is not a fatal flaw," says Arvizu. "Ignoring the history and the needs of the population you''re serving is. [Smith] has not only ignored that, but imported people like himself."
"[Smith] is a very creative and courageous person. He has done some great things for the university," continues Arvizu. "But his leadership skills do have some serious limitations in dealing with people in the collegiate environment. Peter Smith appears to be uncomfortable around minority professionals unless he can control them." cw