By Charles Hallman
The recent firing of a longtime St. Cloud State University (SCSU) top administrator has created a hostile climate for faculty and staff of color, some believe. Associate Vice President of Enrollment Management Mahmoud Saffari was dismissed on September 20.
“He was fired out of the blue,” Dr. Semya Hakim, a human relations and multicultural education associate professor, told the MSR last week. She said that Saffari was called to Provost and Academic Affairs Vice President Devinder Malhotra’s office, and was gone almost 45 minutes later.
“[The firing] was effective December 20, but for the next three months he was told not to communicate with his staff, his email [address] was terminated, and he was not allowed to get any of his things and turn in his keys,” Hakim said. “He was escorted to his car like a common street criminal rather than a well-respected member of our community.”
Hakim said that under Saffari’s leadership, the number of students of color on campus has increased to now comprise nearly 11 percent of the total school population. He formed university-wide committees to help address recruiting and retention of students of color as well as hiring and retaining a diverse staff in his office.
“He has made a great difference on our campus,” said Hakim, adding that Saffari’s firing “has really increased the hostility to all of us.”
The 37-member SCSU Faculty and Staff of Color Caucus requested in an October 4 letter to SCSU President Earl Potter that Saffari be reinstated. The MSR received both a copy of that letter and a copy of Potter’s written response, dated on the same day.
Potter’s response was firm: “My response to each of the demands made in your letter is ‘no.’ I will not take, or direct others to take, any of the actions you suggest.”
A group of Black students, several faculty and staff members, and others held a protest October 6 outside of the school’s administration building. The 50-plus students, faculty and staff expressed their concerns over Saffari’s dismissal.
Ninety minutes later, the protest developed into an apparently unplanned march, first to the administration building doors, which were locked, then to the school’s student center.
“Hell no, we won’t go, we want Mahmoud back,” was the repeated chant as they approached and entered the student center, where SCSU student government was in session. Inside, the protesters convinced the student governing board to allow “an open gallery” and listen to their concerns.
Hakim, SCSU Associate Human Relations and Multicultural Education Professor Tamrat Tademe, and other students of color, including several White students, spoke to the assembled body asking for their support.
“Did Dr. Saffari fail in his work? Then what happened to due process?” asked Tademe.
“I am ashamed,” said a White female student.
Two hours later, a student association resolution was drafted and unanimously passed requesting that Potter attend the next meeting on October 20 to listen and address the concerns raised by the group.
“I’m very proud of my student association right now,” said the group’s president, Samantha Ivey, afterwards. “I am going to work to provide a better voice for all the students here at St. Cloud State — all students.”
The Council of African American Students was among 13 student organizations that signed the resolution. “We have our meetings on Wednesday,” said Council Co-President MarQueda Ratliff, a third-year student from Brooklyn Center.
“We were told [of Saffari’s firing] during our meeting. We heard our members’ voices and we came down here to support [him],” Ratliff said. “We knew that there was some injustice. It moved me. I needed to be here.
“If he can get fired,” she continued, “what can happen to student organizations? We can get threats of losing our offices or losing money.”
Despite the resolution, there are those who believe that the Saffari’s firing is a sign of things to come. “I think some students are scared… I am scared that my professors — the people who encouraged me to come here — are being threatened [with being fired],” admitted SCSU third-year student Marisha Randle of Brooklyn Park.
“I don’t want ending up dropping out of college because I don’t have some type of connection with someone who looks like me, who acts like me, who I can relate to.”
Another Black female student, a senior who asked not to have her name published, added that Saffari’s firing is typical when it comes to Blacks and other persons of color. “I’ve been a student at St. Cloud for four years, and I have seen some real bad things here on campus,” she noted of past on-campus racial incidents.
“It’s something that we [Black students] don’t want to talk about because we are afraid to lose our financial aid. Some of us are afraid that the university will find a way to make it seem like we did something wrong. But something needs to be done to stop this,” the student said. “If they eliminate [faculty and staff of color], they will eliminate us.”
SCSU has had a bad reputation over the years, and Saffari had helped to create a better campus environment for students of color, said Ethnic and Women Studies Professor Margaret Villanueva.
“Up to now I thought we were doing better, and then this happens,” she said of Saffari’s firing, which she believes has created unrest among the school’s faculty and staff of color.
“We don’t know what the next step is,” Tademe told the MSR afterwards. “He [Potter] claims that he is committed to creating a kind and caring community. But removing a person of color the way they did was extremely grievous and not consistent in the declared mission of Dr. Potter.
“We are confused on which one is the real Dr. Potter — the one we’ve come to respect, or the Dr. Potter that signed that paper to promote that kind of racial injustice. They are two different [persons].”
Tademe said he believes that what ultimately got the former administrator dismissed was that he asked too many questions. “In the 22 years that I have been here, if you are a person of color and you are not a ‘yes’ man, you always are in trouble with administration. [Saffari] was not a yes man.”
The MSR attempted to reach Potter for comment last week but learned he was out of the country.
However, both VP Malhotra and Assistant Marketing and Communications VP Loren Boone did speak with us by phone.
“We are committed to increasing diversity on campus [and] committed to…increasing the diversity among faculty and staff,” said Malhotra, adding that if any SCSU faculty member or student is discriminated against, “We are committed to facilitate their access” to address it.
“Our communities of color, students of color, have grown significantly over the last decade,” said Boone, reiterating that diversity at SCSU “is a top priority.”
“We encourage Dr. Potter to make a quick and expedient decision so that we won’t have to engage in [further] action,” said Hakim. Otherwise, she pledged, last week’s protest would be “the first of a series of actions that we will be announcing.”
Asked if she thought the president will reverse his decision, Ratliff said, “I hope President Potter does. A good leader can say when they’re wrong, they can say sorry, and they can do the right thing.
“But at this point, by him saying no, he is trying to show that he is a good leader by sticking to his word.
Right now it is not looking like he will change his mind.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
The headline is erroneous. Devinder Malhotra, who is quoted in the story, is the top administrator of color. Remarks by students are not grounded in reality. St. Cloud State doesn’t take financial aid away from students nor withdraw student organization funding.