Editorial: Fresno State has work to do

Fresno State. (Larry Valenzuela)

Fresno State made local and national – maybe global – headlines after English professor Randa Jarrar tweeted fiery comments regarding former First Lady Barbara Bush. The comments caused social media users to fume. And they led to a debate over the professor’s conduct.

It appears that the debate has reached a point where angry community members are willing to purge the campus of funds because they disagree with the university’s official decision not to impose any penalties on the professor. That sentiment recently reached a personal level for us.

Last Thursday, a few Collegian editors were in the newsroom when we got a visit from a community member who said he had intended to earmark “several thousand” dollars to our organization, but that he was withdrawing that offer.

Not only did he voice his disapproval about the university’s official decision to not investigate Jarrar, but he also criticized our coverage of the matter.

He referenced a controversial 2016 editorial on President Donald Trump being compared to Adolf Hitler to say that this newspaper is capable of condemning Jarrar’s actions. Respectfully, we told him, as student journalists our goal is always to report objectively on the issues that matter to students, including the inevitable controversies.

Yes, lately we wrote two editorials focused on the complications of online controversies and the editorial board’s critical view of Jarrar’s actions. We try to make sense of things for readers when we share our personal, collected views on the opinion side of things. That’s no secret.

We do not take issue with the reader’s decision to rescind his “family donation,” nor do we take offense at his comments about our coverage. As journalists, we stand by our work. Our newsroom is open for anyone who wishes to engage in meaningful discussions regarding what we publish. And we know that even past actions out of this newsroom have consequences in today’s world and we must respond to them.

We would like to call attention to how Fresno State has handled the Jarrar controversy. With calls to “boycott Fresno State,” we know the sentiment touches all of us on this campus, regardless of what our roles are.

We understand that there is a team that sits in the Henry Madden Library’s fourth floor whose job it is to oversee the direction of this university. And that job surely includes overseeing how the campus responds to controversy.

Just hours after the controversy had reached a critical level, we first heard from Fresno State Provost Lynette Zelezny. Her orders were to answer questions from the press and to give a rundown of what steps the university would take to address the Bush comments released by Jarrar a night before, where Jarrar had called Bush a “racist,” “witch,” and said Bush had “raised a war criminal.” That happened hours after Bush died.

Judging from the tone of Zelezny’s response, it appeared the university had decided to take a firm approach to condemn Jarrar’s online conduct, yet state that her actions were made as a private citizen. We took her response to mean that a long process was ahead of us and that it would be long before we knew what would be of Jarrar come the fall semester.

But no. When civil rights groups lined up to convince Fresno State President Dr. Joseph Castro to discontinue any investigation and to reaffirm his support of free speech by professors, the university’s response was a fast one.

Still, there is pressure from the other side. Castro probably knows it too well at this point. He has weathered controversy brought on by three professors now in the last two years, not including when this newspaper became a topic of criticism in 2016.

Zelezny, in her comments to the news cameras, noted the “unusual climate in the nation” and said that the recent controversy offered something to learn from for not only the university but also everyone else.

But we question how much this university has actually learned. Sure, there may be policies and common practices in place that guide how the university responds to public outcry. But has Castro and his administration truly learned how to effectively respond directly when the public has concerns – on a mass scale as we have seen?

Perhaps it’s true, as Zelezny noted, that we are living in an unusual climate in the country. Perhaps more than ever, politics has driven us far apart. But in such climate, one question is to be asked.

Why does Fresno State not put its values to the test and take a more effective, aggressive approach to handling controversies?

The university needs to stop hiding behind news releases to the media and Twitter posts that further feed the online divide. Because let’s face it: Fresno State has become a political campus and that is thanks to a handful of people.

Fresno State cannot control what students, faculty, staff or its own administrators say. It is a fight it will not win, as we saw with Jarrar.

When donors are threatening to pull their millions and Fresno State becomes synonymous with “hate” and “communist,” it is on the university to stick its head out there and show everyone that it’s not scared to defend its value to the community. Enough trying to avoid humiliation through actions like posting the flag at half staff on social media as the university silently fought back public criticism. That does little to quell the attacks from any side. The damage is done.

Real damage control is for Castro to come out in a public setting and challenge those who say he could have done more to reprimand Jarrar. He needs to say it in his own words to a public of angry community members. They need to know what policies the university follows and what values it truly holds. He needs to be the one to reaffirm what free speech means and what it means to study and teach at a university growing by the day.

When there are calls to boycott Fresno State and threats to alter its course, it is the 25,000 students who may pay the price. The university must do its job to ensure that students have a place to study tomorrow and in the days, months and years that follow.

The Collegian editorial board understands Castro’s dilemma. We know what it feels like to face challenges head on. Castro is the president of a public university where lots and lots of ideas are shared. Ideas that are protected by laws older than this institution. It’s a matter of time before he has to face another similar situation to Jarrar’s and the other two professors.

It’s a difficult job, the one he has, but we have no doubt Castro is the right person for it. The Castro we know – the one who knows how to speak on a personal level with the community and who doesn’t shy away from engaging with the community in creative ways – has it in him to tackle this matter head on and not appear timid.

When students are studying at a university that is ridiculed and shamed by the online masses, Castro needs to be enthusiastic about challenging those views. So far, his actions – and that of the university’s – convey silence on the matter of free speech and expression.

It’s not enough to call Jarrar’s statements “embarrassing” and “inappropriate.” The university he leads will still be seen in poor light. Press statements, radio interviews and social media posts will not get the job done in this day and age. We need real people talking to each other in a real life setting. Let this university be the bigger person.

In fact, we ask that leaders organize a community forum in the biggest space around and invite anyone willing to share and listen. Let it be a renaissance moment in Fresno State’s history. Let it be the moment the university declares itself a bastion of critical thought and expression.

The recent visit we had in our newsroom serves to show that when we talk to each other, there is real progress that can be made. Both sides may stick to their argument and beliefs but whether we agree in the end, we still shared what we believe and know to be true with those we don’t always talk to.

In a series of tweets on Saturday, Castro boasted about the university’s greatness. He mentioned how the university is ranked No. 17 by Washington Monthly for educating and graduating students of all backgrounds, how it’s about to award degrees to 5,000 students where 80 percent of them will be employed in the Valley. He tweeted about how the majority of students here are first-generation and how more than 26,000 students applied to be here in the fall.

Those are achievements worthy of pride and celebration. But what does that all mean when the university has a credibility crisis in its hands that could literally change how it functions?

At this point, Fresno State leaders have a major responsibility as representatives of a university in California’s heartland. And that is to start speaking for their school on a much larger, and stronger, platform. Only they can define Fresno State’s legacy.

Get out there, President Castro. Be a Bulldog.

A previous version of this editorial stated a reader visited The Collegian newsroom on a Friday. In fact, it was a Thursday. Editorials represent the majority opinion of Collegian editors.

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