They came one by one.
Fresno State students, faculty, staff, alumni, community members and parents lined up to finally face President Dr. Joseph Castro about an online controversy that, two weeks in, was still fresh in their minds.
In the span of two forums held last week there were tears, fear, obscene language, cries for tougher discipline and many, many questions. But final answers, it appeared, were in short supply.
It was the first time Castro met face-to-face with campus and community members after the chaos brought on by English professor Randa Jarrar, who tweeted inflammatory messages about former U.S. First Lady Barbara Bush after she died on April 17.
Jarrar called Bush a “racist” who “raised a war criminal” along with other messages against the Bush family, which angered people on and offline. Those words on social media spurred national headlines and public calls for donors to drop their support of the university. Nearly three weeks in, the outrage has not appeared to have ended.
Despite some heated comments hurled at the university and insults tossed at Castro in the span of more than two weeks, the first group Castro met with showed a calmer response to the events that had transpired in the days following Jarrar’s comments.
As he spoke to more than 500 students, staff and faculty at a forum held on campus last Wednesday, Castro said the university had gotten “tens of thousands” of calls about the polemic tweets.
Amy Luna, manager for emergency operations and business continuity, said police are investigating an email that was sent to the university regarding Jarrar. University police reported that incident as a “criminal threat.”
Students, staff and faculty lined up to share their thoughts on precisely that backlash. From students fearing that the value in their degrees would lessen with employers, to faculty asking that the campus community remain resilient in the face of mounting pressure and threats, Castro assured all that he was listening.
Up to that point, it appeared Castro’s handling of the situation had earned him more praise than judgement by the campus audience. On the same Wednesday, the Fresno State College Republicans organized a peaceful vigil for Bush in the Free Speech Area.
Castro faced a much different, angrier group during an evening forum the following day. More than 250 Fresno area residents turned out for a two-hour public forum held at the Save Mart Center. The frustration was obvious among those who spoke out.
By the end of the night, those who attended got a clearer picture of the toll of Jarrar’s comments on the university.
A woman, who identified herself as a wife of a farmer and Fresno State alum, told Castro that her family had provided “thousands and thousands” of dollars in athletic scholarships but the support would likely end there.
“We also have to put our heart and soul with our purses, our pocket books, our wallets and we can’t spend money where our values don’t align,” she told Castro.
Castro responded to her. “I was offended as well, I’m the first Valley native to be president here, so I felt the some way. I get it,” he told the woman. “But are we going to let her determine whether we support the next generation of leaders?”
There was also a tense moment when a man hurled obscenities at Castro, calling him a “pompous ass” and said it was “bull****” that the university could not fire or sue Jarrar.
That man, who said he is a farmer, accused Castro of making excuses for Jarrar’s actions and defied requests to wrap up his public comments. He was removed from the arena floor by Fresno State police after a short confrontation with a student.
There was concern among other parents who spoke that their children’s education at the university would be affected if the university kept Jarrar. Parents demanded that Castro fire her.
“What you’re asking me to do is break the law,” Castro responded to one man with that demand. That same man later retreated and told Castro he understood Castro’s inability to impose further penalties on Jarrar. But the sentiment to have Jarrar removed didn’t go away.
In contrast to calls to further penalize Jarrar, one man who took the microphone said that, if fired, Jarrar would have legal grounds to sue Fresno State. Some agreed that those events would only benefit Jarrar.
Several community members who spoke said that their children would no longer attend Fresno State. A few said they are refusing to wear any Fresno State gear from now on. Others said their donations would no longer go to the university.
Some community members reminded Castro that Jarrar had called farmers in the central San Joaquin Valley “stupid.” When one woman spoke, she sarcastically introduced herself as such.
The conclusion not to discipline Jarrar for her online actions had come just one week after the tweets were sent out and just one day before a deadline set by several civil rights groups that called for the university to drop the investigation. In the announcement, Castro said Jarrar did not violate any university or California State University policies when she tweeted the comments against Bush.
CSU legal counsel looked into the allegations, Castro repeatedly said. In its first public statement, the university said Jarrar’s comments were made as a private individual on her own time. Jarrar had arranged a leave of absence for the spring and but is scheduled to teach English courses in the fall.
When tenure was brought up, community members attacked it as something that allows professors to get away with doing and saying whatever they want. Academic Senate chair Thomas Holyoke defended tenure, which he also has, and said it is in place at universities so professors can freely study and teach topics that may be controversial but in the public’s interest.
One woman at the forum repeatedly asked Castro “what’s getting fixed?” referring to policies that could keep the university from facing controversy over professor conduct in the future.
Castro said university policies would be reviewed. His parting words at the Thursday forum were “we will learn from this.”
Holyoke stated at both forums that the university’s Academic Senate had a policy review plan in the works to figure out how Fresno State faculty and staff should conduct themselves in public as well as online.
The crowd booed Castro when he said that operations were not severely affected at Arizona State University after Jarrar tweeted out a crisis hotline there and passed it off as her own number as she fought back comments on Twitter. Castro told the campus and community groups that the university has apologized to ASU. Whether the legal system in Arizona will attempt to penalize Jarrar for her actions is unclear.
Castro repeatedly called Jarrar’s conduct “disgraceful” and “embarrassing” for the university. He stated on several occasions leading up the forums that Jarrar’s actions failed to reflect the university’s values.
One woman who spoke and identified herself as the wife of a U.S. diplomat said that the controversy at Fresno State had moved to a different level. “This is no longer a local matter. The world is watching,” she said. Several others echoed her remarks.
Castro was also told that it was a defining moment for the university. One man likened the climate to that of “the ‘60s” while another told Castro “this isn’t Berkeley, California. You need to take care of your people.”
Castro told the community that, as the first Central San Joaquin Valley native to be president at Fresno State, he understood the pain many have felt.
But some community members, as well as some from the campus, said they believe the controversy is not the university’s fault, but that they intend to hold the leaders accountable to prevent another similar controversy from happening.
Castro reminded the audience that he has always been committed to protecting individual free speech rights as well as abiding by the law. He said that, in the past, he has stepped in to make sure pro-life and religious preachers also voiced their messages on the campus. Those in the audience had accused him of suppressing conservative speech.
Cody Sedano, a political science student and U.S. Marine Corps veteran, told Castro that he has been impressed with Castro’s leadership throughout the storm. Though he did not agree with Jarrar’s words or actions, Sedano drew cheers and applause when he said, “I’d fight all over again so she could have the right to do it.”
There were fewer students at the Save Mart Center forum compared with the campus forum. Of those who spoke, they expressed pride in Fresno State in front of an audience seething with frustration at the university.
Fresno State officials said the forums held last week were a continuation of forums Castro holds throughout the year to teach the university community about free speech and individual rights. More events are planned.