The commentary below from Debra Leigh, a professor at St. Cloud State University and lead organizer for the Community Anti-Racism Education Initiative, was published in the MSR November 10 issue. Dr. Mahmoud Saffari believes the commentary is filled with “inaccuracies and false accusations” and requested an opportunity to respond. Below this commentary is his line-by-line response to Leigh’s commentary. In Dr. Saffari’s words, “Let your readers make their own judgment.”
SCSU campus has shown a commitment to diversity
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.
This commentary reflects the author’s opinion only and not that of the CARE Leadership Team or the SCSU administration.
Dr. Saffari’s response:
SCSU has shown a commitment to disunity among students, staff and faculty of color
By Dr. Mahmoud Saffari
These are my responses to specific statements and allegations in Debra Leigh’s commentary “SCSU has shown a commitment to diversity”:
Debra Leigh: “We don’t have enough information to judge from the point of view of either the administration or from the view point of the protestors…”
Dr. Saffari’s response: It’s ironic that Debra Leigh makes the above statement but goes on stating her own judgments about me in defense of the President Potter and his administration.
Debra Leigh: “As Vice President for Enrollment Management…”
Dr. Saffari’s response: My job title was Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management.
Debra Leigh: “Is responsible for the recruitment of all students…”
Dr. Saffari’s response: I was responsible only for domestic undergraduate students and not graduate, international, continuing studies, and senior-to-sophomore students.
Debra Leigh: “His assignment was to increase net revenue…”
Dr. Saffari’s response: There was nothing in my job description about increasing net revenue. As a matter of fact, the current administration had failed to have an up-to-date job description on file in the Human Resources Office for years. The job description belonged to someone else who had a different job title (dated 2002). It was not until August 2011 that the provost asked me to update that job description. Nothing in that update stated that increasing the net revenue was my job responsibility.
Debra Leigh: “His assignment was to increase student retention…”
Dr. Saffari’s response: I was not responsible for student retention — that is the responsibility of other offices. The former Office of Undergraduate Studies was created over six years ago and its mission was to focus on student success, retention and graduation rates.
Debra Leigh: He “is responsible for developing marketing plans/initiatives…”
Dr. Saffari’s response: There is an assistant vice president for university marketing and communication who is principally responsible for developing marketing plans/initiatives. For the second time, the administration continues to spend significantly to hire external consultants to do what that office must be able to achieve, a practice that is becoming more common at SCSU. The hiring of California Earthbound Marketing Firm (one of several recently hired consultants, costing the university about $500,000) is just an example, especially during tough budget cuts and scarce resources.
Debra Leigh: He “is responsible for financial aid awards…”
Dr. Saffari’s response: The Office of Financial Aid is responsible for financial aid awards.
Debra Leigh: “Fall 2011 enrollment dropped by 800 students…”
Dr. Saffari’s response: Fall 2011 enrollment dropped by 1,088 students (SCSU 30th day official enrollment data for fall 2011) after five years of consecutive enrollment growth.
Debra Leigh: “Miscalculation of enrollment projections…”
Dr. Saffari’s response: A subcommittee of the Enrollment Management Committee was responsible for the enrollment projections, consisting of about 10 people including the Enrollment Management Committee’s two co-chairs (myself and Dr. McKenna). The subcommittee’s projection for Fiscal Year 2011 was very accurate.
Looking at fiscal year 2012, however, I had to report unwelcome news to the administration, warning them of the factors that were likely to have a negative impact on enrollment. Specifically, with all of the major academic and non-academic organizational restructuring going on during the past almost two years (elimination of 32 majors and in minors as well), I and Dr. McKenna doubted very much if there was any enrollment management statistical model that could have accurately projected the fall 2011 enrollment — especially with all the negative media and poor SCSU public perceptions both internally/externally.
In spring 2011, after reviewing all of the available data, the subcommittee submitted a projection to the Enrollment Management Committee which predicted 14,770 FYEs (full-year equivalent), a decrease of 100 FYE for Fiscal Year 2012. After the Enrollment Management Committee submitted its projection, the provost chose to increase the projection numbers submitted to 14,870, making the projected decline appear smaller — change that made the members of the Enrollment Management Committee very uncomfortable.
Debra Leigh: “SCSU administrators have committed to doing a thorough study to better understand why enrollment numbers dropped so drastically…”
Dr. Saffari’s response: The university has never taken the issues of student retention, attrition, and graduation rates very seriously — not at least in practice. Actually, the average previous six year fall-to-fall freshman retention yields an average retention rate of 71.5 percent, which is lower than prior to the creation of Office of Undergraduate Studies (as previously called) and millions of dollars spent in both human and fiscal resources.
I have always been asking the effectiveness of SCSU’s retention-related initiatives, interventions, strategies and the financial investment they have made in this area. In return, the administration has been consistently undermining me for the past several years.
The university is not committed to a thorough study to better understand the enrollment drop. Rather, it seems that the only thing that has been done is to look for someone to blame, and to disconnect and discredit anyone who had previously been involved in the successful enrollment planning and development of concerns leading up to Fall 2011.
The university still has no control on why students leave — an issue that I have brought up many times publicly.
Debra Leigh: “Until this fall, St. Cloud State University was the largest state university in the Minnesota State Colleges and University system…”
Dr. Saffari’s response: For the past two years, I have been warning the administration both privately and publicly about the possibility of SCSU losing its flagship status within the MnSCU (Minnesota State Colleges and Universities) system. The response every time from President Potter and Provost Malhotra was “we don’t care,” “it does not matter,” “size is not important.” and “being the flagship is what the previous President (referring to Dr. Roy Saigo) wanted.”
This enrollment drop means loss of millions of dollars in revenue, tuition, hundreds of empty dorm rooms (about 500 fewer students living on campus), cafeteria revenue, books and other items, less money for faculty, equipment, staff, etc. In addition, there is also significant economic loss to St. Cloud shopping, restaurants, housing, entertainment, gas, and other services, a concern that has been cited and expressed by the City of St. Cloud businesses.
Debra Leigh: “I [Leigh] 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)…”
Dr. Saffari’s response: I worked for over eight years at SCSU. I saw improvements related to what Debra Leigh claims above during former Dr. Roy Saigo’s presidency. However, for the past four-plus years, I have seen the administration creating “divisions,” using the “divide and conquer” approach to minimize the unity amongst its students, faculty, staff and administrators of color.
Debra Leigh: “He was not fired because of disagreement with the president…”
Dr. Saffari’s response: On numerous occasions, I tried to bring information and concerns to the attention of the administration about enrollment, organizational restructuring, budget cuts, enrollment data sharing, international students, international travels, graduate enrollment, student retention and graduation rates and especially for the students of color retention and graduation rates, consultants, and lack of proactive marketing and communication in a timely manner with the various publics, etc. The reaction was always one of a displeasure and anger.
I believe that one of the reasons I was dismissed is that I have been consistently vocal to bring facts to the attention of the administration through constructive criticisms and suggestions. I believed it to be part of my professional responsibility (as a chief enrollment officer) to report honestly, objectively and proactively on factors that were likely to have positive or negative impacts on enrollment. On several occasions I expressed concern about a potential enrollment drop for fall 2011 after five consecutive years of enrollment growth. Every time, the senior administration reaction was very confrontational.
When it became obvious that there would indeed be a significant decline in fall 2011 enrollment, the senior administration discouraged me from expressing reasons for the enrollment decline to the faculty. I believe they did not want the SCSU community and the St. Cloud community to hear these concerns. The fact that the SCSU administration did not give specific detailed reasons for the 2011 enrollment drop this fall supports my belief.
Readers are invited to visit our Facebook page to comment and vote in our MSR/Facebook poll on whose argument is most convincing.