The Lumberjack editors met with the president of Humboldt State University, Lisa Rossbacher, on March 23. The Q&A was largely centered around budget cuts and social issues that impact the local community, especially HSU students.
This is part II of the meeting which mostly concerns social issues. Part I, which focuses on HSU budget cuts, can be found HERE.
On social issues:
Lora Neshovska (managing editor): “There are students facing homelessness and discrimination. How can we address social justice issues of students beyond our financial worries?”
Rossbacher: “I think there are a number of things the university is doing to help with those basic needs that are really the underpinning to ensure student success. There’s a whole program happening here, many of them under the umbrella of Oh SNAP! Things like the food pantry that we have [or] students having access to EBT.
We were one of the first campuses in the country to provide that kind of access. That started in late 2016 [and] over seven million tons of food have been redistributed on campus that would otherwise have gone to waste, so that helps. Some of the community meals that are being prepared – that I know Wayne Brumfield always cooks for – that sort of thing, being able to redirect J-points that are left over to help other people. Those are some examples in terms of food security. We just got some money from the chancellor’s office that will help us do more in terms of just food security on campus.
In terms of housing, it’s a real issue because [of] where we’re located, the limited houses in stock that we have here. We’re doing some things with that, too. One of them is, I’m sure you know, Chante Catt has been hired as a homeless student advocate. She was involved in that organization of homeless student advocates, but she’s now officially working so that students who are in need of housing can contact her. I know right after she started doing that, immediately she placed four people. So that helps, too.
We’re looking at the possibility of building new student housing. The university is looking at new residence halls off campus, and then there’s this outside developer who’s looking at The Village. Whatever it takes to get affordable, safe [and] not-too-far-away housing for students is a good thing.
There’s also a program that we’re starting up in conjunction with some agencies within the area. I think it might be called the ‘nest program’ or ‘silver nest program,’ where there are seniors in the community who have a bedroom [and] extra space who would really like for company, for safety [and] a little bit of help around the house, who are willing to rent those spaces to students. That becomes a real collaboration with the larger community in a way that addresses multiple needs.
I know it’s incredibly frustrating. I mean, I’m incredibly frustrated by seeing all the basic needs that we have here at Humboldt that are not being met. It’s sort of good news and bad news that we’re ahead of the curve of the system. We get pointed to as a place where we’re doing a really good job of trying to address those needs, which is good that we’re being proactive about it and making change. But if we’re among the leaders, we look at our frustration and the problems we still have, it makes you worry about other campuses.”
Stella Stokes (life and arts editor): “I am an ITEPP student and my parents, who are HSU alumni, were also ITEPP students. There was an article about you in the Lost Coast Outpost on Feb. 7 that said ‘Rossbacher has been appointed to lead an initiative to increase the number of students from Tribal Nations who enroll and graduate from the California State University system.’ Why were you appointed over someone who is indigenous?”
Rossbacher: “That roll is for president in the Cal State system. In fact, some people saw that and said, ‘Wait a minute, we thought Leo Canez was doing this, because he’s our new Native Recruiter.’ This is part of an initiative that was an across-the-sea issue, and it has representatives from more than half of the campuses. Adrienne Colegrove-Raymond has been a representative at HSU to this group. I convene the meetings, but I’m not responsible for this alone. It’s with a whole group of people.
This statewide group will be meeting here on campus on April 4. The people can come to that. [People] from all over the state will be able to participate in the California Indian Conference, which is also here on campus [on April 5 and 6]. What we really hope is they stay until [April 7], which is when Big Time is. We actually have four days of Native American events happening.
Back to your question of why I was appointed. Ultimately, when the chancellor asked me to do that, it came down to the two presidents at the campuses that have the largest Native [American] communities around them. It was Humboldt State and San Marcus. Humboldt State has the highest percentage of Native American students of any campus in the system. It’s not the largest absolute number, but we have the highest percentage. We have strong connections with the Native [American] community. It came down to the two of us who were presidents of those two campuses. We talked together and both us said to the other, ‘If you want to do, I’ll be happy to help you.’ We were trying not to step on each other’s toes. She said, ‘I’m really overcommitted right now. I will be glad to help you, but I’d appreciate it if you would do it.’ I said, ‘Of course.’
Also, I didn’t know this before, but Rollin Richmond, who was the president before me, was in the same role for a number of years. So there’s a history of Humboldt State being in this role.”
Ahmed Al-Sakkaf (news editor): “Rumor has it you live in Kansas. For the record, where do you live?”
Rossbacher: “I live in McKinleyville.”
Megan Bender (opinion editor): “Around 2016, you had issued a statement that was taken badly by the HSU community. You also issued an apology statement afterward. How can we address that to [David Josiah Lawson‘s] situation. People are frustrated by the inadequate support of the community, as well as HSU. What are you doing to create change in the right direction, as far as racism is concerned?”
Rossbacher: “Let me back up just a minute to talk about when Josiah was killed. The university did everything we could to support his friends [and] his family. We worked closely with the police department to be sure that they were having access to witnesses or anyone who could help solve this murder. We’ve all been frustrated by what feels like a lack of progress.
I ask, and I know I’m not the only one, the people in the city of Arcata about what’s going on, where are we and is there anything we can do to help? It’s a terrible tragedy. It’s something that affects so many of us, myself included every day. I think about wishing there was something we could do. I sat through every preliminary hearing.
Ultimately, right now, it’s [on] law enforcement. It’s a criminal justice case. It’s something we can’t actually do anything about. It’s not in our hands. I asked as recently as last Friday, ‘When are we going to know something?’ It’s hung up in the process. You have as much information as I do. It’s highest priority for us. It’s not necessarily highest priority for the state to process the evidence, because there’s no one being held waiting for a trial. That’s what gives other cases a higher priority. We’re living with it every day. It’s just the way the process works.
I want to make another point. I believe deeply in justice for Josiah. I think about it in two different ways. Actually, it’s two forms of the same way.
One of them is resolving the case, figuring out what happened and just getting closure on that. Until that happens, it’s so hard for the community, for his family and for his friends. So there’s that aspect of justice. But I look at it from a bigger picture, too. I think what justice for Josiah should also mean to us is making sure that we have, as a larger community, a situation that is equitable, just and fair. [A situation that is] devoid of any discrimination – racial, ethnic, gender inequities or injustices. I think a piece of that, which is something I’ve been committed to involves some aspect of working with people on campus or in the city of Arcata. I see that as a long-term, systemic solution to the question of, ‘Where is the justice for Josiah?’
If we could create a just, equitable [and] fair community in this region together, that would be a fitting tribute to Josiah and what he would’ve done with his life. I see justice for Josiah in a couple of dimensions, but I think there’s a big picture where the world will continue well beyond when the case is actually resolved.”
Neshovska: “Do you think there’s racism in Humboldt County?”
Rossbacher: “I think that in any environment where we have such different demographics, it’s inevitable. No, it’s not. I take that back. It’s not inevitable. Yes, and I have seen evidence of that myself. Demographics of the student population of Humboldt mirrors the state of California. The student population of Humboldt is similar to the demographics of this state. The demographics of Arcata and Humboldt County are very different.”
Neshovska: “Isn’t there more than three percent of black people in California though? There’s only three percent here.”
Rossbacher: “I know, yes.”
Neshovska: “So it doesn’t exactly mirror the state of California.”
Rossbacher: “Yes, I take your point.”
Stokes: “One of the main problems about Josiah’s death is that students of color fear for their own lives or feel uncomfortable. They stop going to parties, some are just scared. How do you keep students of color safe?”
Kyra Skylark (science editor): “To add on to that question, you said that affordable and safe housing is one of your main goals. I personally know friends who went to that party [where Josiah was murdered] and left the school afterward. People don’t feel safe, specifically students of color, which is why they fought for the Arcata council meetings to talk about why they don’t feel safe. What do you think we should be doing as Humboldt State to better address this issue? Why haven’t you gone to more of those meetings to hear students?”
Matthew Hable (editor-in-chief): “The one-year vigil for Josiah is next month. Do you plan on attending?”
Rossbacher: “Yes. There are two parts – there’s on campus and off campus. What I hear is that students are more likely to feel safe on campus than they do off campus.”
Skylark: “Personally, as someone who has lived on campus during the last election, I got to hear ‘kill the fags’ and ‘reinstate Jim Crow.’ I did not feel safe on campus.”
Rossbacher: “I understand. And yet, we’re a campus where we have to protect free speech. You all know that more than most. One of the aspects of creating safer spaces has to do with lighting. I know Wayne Brumfield has been doing walks around campus to identify places that need better lighting. We installed some of those over the winter break. There’s an interesting conversation with the City of Arcata about that, because they have ordinances about – it’s a dark city – as a way to not create light pollution. But the negative affect of that means we have less lighting, therefore areas that feel less safe. The city is working through that.
There’s also an interesting set of conversations about surveillance cameras. There are a couple of dimensions to that. One of them is that if the police do it, particularly in Arcata, they have to maintain some of that tape for five years. And a lot of the businesses around the plaza, they particularly like to have surveillance cameras. The city sees real value in having the individual businesses, having their own cameras, because they can control them. They only have to keep them for a week or something. That’s enough time for the police to say, ‘We want to see what happened last night or even last week without having to keep the data for five years.’
Meanwhile, the staff on this campus do not want security cameras, because they think – and this is the unions – they think the surveillance footage is going to be used to see if they’re actually doing their jobs, [as a way] to spy on them. [We have] all of these different dynamics working. That’s not the only solution, but it’s an example of the kind of complexities we get into. That doesn’t fully answer your question?”
Skylark: “I don’t think that fully answers my question. There are issues on a social level that are making people feel unsafe. What is the school doing to make people feel safe on a social level? What are you doing to create change on an educational level?”
Hable: “Are you saying there’s a lack of engagement right now?”
Rossbacher: “We’ve had some events that addressed that. We had a day-long session last summer that really got into many of those issues.
Skylark: “But no one is here during the summer. Those events are missed by the majority of the people.”
Neshovska: “I think it’s also important to note that, not only as a president of our university, as a university as a whole, how do you make yourself available to these people who genuinely fear for their lives and want to be heard by somebody of power? They want somebody like you to hear them out and for you to say, ‘I’m here for you and I understand.”
Rossbacher: “I seek out those stories. I listen to them carefully. I’ve been doing a lot of reading. I can share my recent readings with you, both books and articles on it.
I made sure back in January, the leadership of the university went through micro-aggression workshops. It’s about awareness, how to counteract and keep that from happening. It started out [by] asking faculty and staff. I knew the way to bring credibility to that is to not only say that ‘I’ve done it,’ but that the senior leadership team, vice presidents and all the deans went through that. It was taught by Christine Mata and Roger Wang. It touched on micro-aggressions and white fragility. So I, as Lisa Rossbacher, also participate in the community dialogue on race. I learned a lot from those opportunities, too. I make it a point of going to sessions I know are going to make me feel uncomfortable. They say you should do it at least three times a week. You put yourself in uncomfortable situations.
In a larger context, we are a place that’s about education. One of the things I value most about the opportunity to work in the university is the chance to learn. I’m around smart people who have a lot to teach me. There’s a lot I can learn. If I’m not putting myself in the kind of position that you as students, where you’re being asked to put stuff out there and being evaluated on it – that’s why I write as much as I do. You write, you’re putting it out there and people are going to criticize it. It’s just a reminder of what students do every day. I’m a student, too.”
Bender: “Is there anything you think we missed that you would like to share with us?”
Rossbacher: “We have spent literally years building up to the visit that we had this week.”
Bender: “So that exit interview is a summary and they’ll be giving you another report later?”
Rossbacher: “It was an oral summary. They said we’ve got some things we want to – [they provided] accommodations and recommendations. There are some things we’re doing really well and some things that we need to work on. Diversity was one of those [things we need to work on].
Al-Sakkaf: “People were banging on the door at Siemens Hall during the WASC meeting. How did they feel about that?”
Rossbacher: “They were a little worried. They are all experienced people, and they work on campuses where student feel strongly about issues as well. They said, ‘We were surprised, but we weren’t surprised.’ They took it in stride.”
Bender: “Do you think some budget suggestions will come out of this report?”
Rossbacher: “I think what they will say is the university needs to have a sustainable budget. We need to balance our budget and figure out how we’re going to move forward. I’m sure they’re going to say that.
Neshovska: “How long can we go with this budget deficit? What happens if we don’t solve the budget?”
Rossbacher: “We will solve it.”
Gabe Rivera (sports editor): “Is there a person you normally contact to inquire about Josiah’s case? Who is that person?”
Rossbacher: “I talk to lots of people. I talk to Tom Chapman, the chief of police of Arcata.”
Neshovska: “In 20 years, is my degree going to be useless? What’s going to happen if the budgets cuts aren’t resolved?”
Rossbacher: “We’re going to solve this problem. One of the things we haven’t talked about is the need to increase enrollment. That’s not going to solve all of our problems. It’s going to help with a lot of them. I want to assure you that this is not a limited growth. I’ve done an analysis that’s still being worked on, that’s still very much a draft. I want to know what the carrying capacity is for the campus for enrollment, taking a lot of different dimensions. In the big picture, what that tells us is 8,000 is probably about the right number, [which] is a little bit more than what we have now. Our goal is to grow back up that size, but not way beyond that. The goal is to have 15,000 students, and that is not the case.”
Neshovska: “That sounds complex. We want to increase enrollment, but we don’t have student housing. We need more money to increase safe and affordable housing, but we need to increase enrollment to solve the budget crisis.”
Rossbacher: “Increasing retention rate is probably the most important thing you can do for enrollment right now. Partly, it’s bringing in new students. Even more important is keeping the students who are here.”