By Debra Leigh
The simple truth about St. Cloud State and the firing of Dr. Saffari [“Protest follows firing of a top SCSU administrator of color,” MSR, Oct. 13] is that we don’t have enough information to judge from the point of view of either the administration or from the point of view of the protesters.
What we do know is Dr. Saffari was responsible for the recruitment of all students. As vice president for enrollment management, his assignment was to increase net revenue, usually by increasing the proportion of entering students capable of paying most or all of their unsubsidized tuition. His assignment included increasing demographic diversity, improving retention rates, and increasing applicant pools.
Dr. Saffari’s responsibilities may have also included developing marketing, admission policies, retention programs, and financial aid awarding. His recruitment strategies and tactics were informed by data collection and analysis to predict successful outcomes.
Usually activities that produce measurable improvements in yields are continued and/or expanded, while those activities that do not are discontinued or restructured. Having a competitive edge is a necessity for all enrollment managers.
Until this fall, St. Cloud State University was the largest state university in the Minnesota State Colleges and University system — now it is the second-largest state university. This semester student enrollment dropped by some 800 students.
Some speculate that the enrollment dropped for several reasons including the country’s overall economic downturn, the university’s reorganization, more students enrolling in community and technical colleges, population changes, cutbacks in admission staff, and some miscalculations forecasting enrollment numbers.
SCSU administrators have committed to doing a thorough study to better understand why the enrollment numbers dropped so drastically, but regardless of the reasons, the bottom line is that the loss of 800 projected students resulted in thousands of dollars of lost tuition revenue. Examining the numbers, and especially the dollars, might at least lead to more sagacious speculations.
Personally, I can add my testimony to the list of those who have publicly recognized Dr. Saffari’s outstanding work and strong campus relationships, especially with people of color. I too am frustrated that I may never know exactly why Dr. Saffari was fired rather than grandfathered out like some of his counterparts.
However, I also understand when an administrator makes a decision to let a person go, there are usually unique and complex circumstances behind their decision — especially when the decision is as severe as firing. I don’t believe Dr. Saffari was fired because he identified as a person of color, as some speculators have asserted.
Neither do I believe Dr. Saffari was fired because he disagreed with Dr. Potter on various issues — Dr. Potter, president of SCSU, made it clear he appreciated and openly invited dissenting voices, and he heard plenty from a variety of people.
I don’t agree that Dr. Saffari was treated like a common criminal. When Dr. Saffari chose firing instead of resigning, he called into play a standard protocol that administrators are advised to follow, but there were no handcuffs, cops, and no campus security according to one observer. Dr. Saffari’s keys were taken and he was escorted to his car by a woman I consider my elder, and my age is over 55.
I believe the administration, faculty, students and staff at SCSU are committed to diversity, and there has been no backtracking, no unfunded, closed or discontinued diversity initiatives. I have witnessed significant change and improvements in the 22 years I have been employed at SCSU. Some changes include the voices of people of color (including voices from the Faculty and Staff of Color Caucus) at decision-making tables where people of color were previously excluded.
I have witnessed people of color’s voices positively impacting how policies, decisions and strategies are implemented. I have witnessed changes in our investigation processes, hiring policies, recruitment policies, retention practices, support networks, professional development, and the requirement for all new employees (administrators included) to participate in the anti-racism education initiative as part of their orientation, among others.
I have witnessed a number of White people on our campus speak out and stand in solidarity with people of color on issues related to diversity. In fact, I’ve witnessed some White people lead the charge.
I’ve witnessed students develop their intercultural communications skills and competently use them to transform conversations from controversial to transformational.
I’ve noticed faculty take seriously the responsibility to understand how racism and other social conditions have shaped the curriculum. Many have received support to do the needed research, rewrite syllabi and assessments, and continue studying pedagogy and teaching methodologies creating better educational experiences for all students.
I’ve witnessed students of color participating in St. Cloud community endeavors where they were not included before, like community theater, area churches, nonprofit organizations and in local businesses.
We have a responsibility to object to the idea that a single perspective can define reality, and I hope many other perspectives will come forward. There are multiple stories at SCSU that should be fully explored. St. Cloud is a place where White people and non-White people live and work together to find the common ground that shapes the university’s multicultural identity.
We open a space for all voices. I believe we can grieve the loss of all our friends and colleagues who over the past couple of years have lost their jobs due to budget cuts, resignations, retirements, termination and reorganization. We also have to acknowledge our lack of unity.
Debra Leigh is a professor at St. Cloud State University and lead organizer for the Community Anti-Racism Education Initiative. This commentary reflects her opinion only and not that of the CARE Leadership Team or the SCSU administration. She welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.