Editor's note: Headline on article has been changed to reflect uncertainty over the exact cause of Bolman's firing. Edits shown in story below.
Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT STATE – Native American science educator Jacquelyn Bolman was fired last fall by Humboldt State University President Lisa Rossbacher
for after allegedly discrediting one of the university’s minority support programs.
HSU officials considered Bolman’s criticism a serious threat to the university’s future grant funding and hastened to expel her.
Internal campus documents and email correspondence released under the California Public Records Act via a student government request establish that Bolman assailed the HSU administration of former President Rollin Richmond when she filed a status report to federal officials in Sacramento about LSAMP, shorthand for Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation. It takes its name from a former leading black member of Congress from Ohio.
Bolman, director since 2005 of the university’s Indian Natural Resource, Science and Engineering Program (INRSEP) and also LSAMP supervisor, reported in her status update that the Richmond administration had seriously undercut INRSEP by stripping it from the university’s College of Natural Resources and Sciences (CNRS) in July 2013. The college, one of three, is considered the most academically rigorous and reckoned to wield the most bureaucratic clout on campus.
INRSEP had been part of the college across some four decades and the college provided the program as much as $40,000 each year in discretionary funds, according to Bolman and her former students.
The federal evaluation form Bolman filled out for Sacramento officials expressly asked her to identify “any major obstacles/problems/issues” that had cropped up with minority support programs.
Bolman answered that INRSEP had been transferred to a new, unfunded and therefore less potent agency called Retention and Inclusive Student Success (RISS), part of a new Center for Academic Excellence conceived by Richmond in 2013 in his last year as president. At the time, Richmond readily conceded that his administration had failed to raise the retention and graduation rates of Native American and some other students of color, which he regretted remain HSU’s lowest. The restructuring he ordered was intended to shore up those rates.
But INRSEP’s shift into the new “academic excellence” structure cost it substantial funding with no acknowledgment by Richmond of the importance of maintaining INRSEP’s alignment with the university’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs and faculty, according to Bolman. INRSEP students were seriously and permanently undercut in her view.
Further, the administration acted unilaterally, leaving Bolman in the dark, she claims. “I was not informed of the change until approximately June 26, 2013,” despite the university’s official commitment to greater openness.
Numerous HSU employees have complained for years about poor top-down communication and lack of management transparency, as documented by the university’s Cabinet for Institutional Change, which wrapped up its final report in 2010. Its motto was Einstein’s maxim, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” In its exhaustive research, the cabinet found that institutionalized secrecy and management surreptitiousness were among Humboldt State’s gravest and most enduring flaws.
In a one-on-one interview last week, Bolman recalled that INRSEP students launched a letter-writing campaign in spring 2014 in a bid to reverse their program’s diminished standing and resources. Students appealed, to no avail, to CSU Chancellor Timothy White, CSU Trustees and the governor’s tribal advisor to reverse INRSEP’s demotion.
“It is clear the current [Richmond] administration and leadership do not support under-represented minority students, faculty or staff,” Bolman generalized – and grossly overstated, in the administration’s view – in her report to Sacramento. To make her case, she reeled off a series of statistics demonstrating that Humboldt State’s percentage of full-time faculty and staff of color falls far below statewide and CSU levels, as they have for years despite California’s fast-changing and historically-altered demographic makeup.
Bolman’s evaluation triggered internal objections that would culminate in her summary dismissal last October by the new Rossbacher administration, installed in July. The firing touched off a series of student protests and demonstrations that resumed Jan. 19 with the occupation of HSU’s Native American Forum, where advocates vow to remain until Rossbacher reinstates Bolman as INRSEP’s director. The standoff continued as the Mad River Union went to press.
Last Sept. 22, Rhea Williamson, dean of the Office of Research, emailed Jenny Zorn, interim provost, stating that Bolman’s report to LSAMP officials “makes very disparaging remarks against HSU and, for totally unclear reasons, against me.”
Williamson warned that Bolman’s criticism could jeopardize future and crucial financial support for Humboldt State’s STEM disciplines. “It is really unfortunate language used, in that this type of reporting can affect our ability for future funding [sic] for” STEM and other support for students, she said.
Williamson added, “[I] have no idea where Dr. Bolman got the idea that I am not in support of LSAMP, having supported it and her by providing funding opportunities, working with Sac State to complete reporting paperwork and the like. I also have recommended including her in every proposal that involves under-represented minority STEM students.”
However, Williamson did not address Bolman’s main point, the downgrade of INRSEP.
Williamson suggested Bolman’s report be revised, with the offending passages redacted. She then took aim at Bolman’s criticism of her: “My support for under-represented minority STEM students is well-documented, and I take offense at being referenced in the report in the manner done.”
What followed continues to reverberate on campus and dog Rossbacher and her executive associates. They have been denounced by faculty and students alike, not only for Bolman’s dismissal, but also for the manner in which it was carried out last October by three officials: Acting Provost Jenny Zorn, Interim Associate Vice President for Retention Radha Webley (students are calling for her immediate termination and the dismantling of RISS) and Senior Associate Vice President of Faculty Affairs and Human Resources Colleen Mullery.
Faculty and students roundly condemned the trio’s decision to lock down Bolman’s quarters, disrupt mid-term studies and exams and order changed locks and reprogrammed key card entrances. Students reportedly were crying, angry and distraught at Bolman’s summary ouster.
“All the administration will say is that that’s the ‘policy’ for handling firings,” a Native American student said. “It was totally unprofessional and it was done in our home; INRSEP is our home, our student home!” he exclaimed. “All of us felt crushed and helpless that day. We watched the woman who had inspired us and changed every single one of our lives get treated like dirt, right in front of our eyes. It was heartbreaking and all too reminiscent of things in the not-so-distant past that have happened to Indian people here.”
Another student commented that the administration’s treatment of Bolman “also shows real cultural insensitivity, for many reasons. One is a lack of understanding of inter-generational trauma among Native peoples. Another is the feeling of living in a state of duress on a regular basis, the fear of our education being lost because of a lack of funding. We’re constantly living with personal psychological stress.” She continued, “They did this [the firing] three days prior to Indigenous People’s Week. It was completely insensitive. These administrators just have no idea how to relate to students of color. Although Radha [Webley] is a woman of color, I think in a way she has been thrown under the bus by the administration, used as a scapegoat. At the same time she’s supposed to be serving students of color. She’s doing a bad job and she’s absolutely betrayed our trust. There needs to be a new person in that job.” The administration’s decision in a campus email to portray the handling of Bolman’s dismissal as “a departure,” not a firing, drew scathing criticism from faculty. In a private email last Oct. 14, long-time Chemistry Professor Robert Zoellner told Zorn, “Dr. Bolman did not voluntarily depart, she was fired. It seems to me that honesty in this regard would be of the utmost importance.”
Zoellner asked why no faculty members were consulted until after the fact. “This is a mess,” he charged, adding that Zorn’s solicitation of faculty advice on how to assist affected students “simply appears to be an attempt to assuage the anger that pervades the campus because of the poorly planned actions of the administrators responsible for Dr. Bolman’s firing. In my opinion, this is a case of ‘clean up your own mess’ for those administrators.”
Zoellner wrote separately to Rossbacher and Zorn in defense of Bolman, stating, “I cannot fathom why you would allow her firing.” He went on, “The shortsightedness of this decision will damage our university and damage our retention of Native American and minority student science majors. If we are serious about improving our student diversity, and if we are serious about improving the retention of our science majors, the firing of Jacquelyn Bolman is one of the worst things we could do.”
Amy Sprowles, assistant professor of Biological Sciences, rebuked the administration both for expelling Bolman and for reorganizing INRSEP. “Clearly something went wrong to rip her out in the middle of the semester, but the fact of the matter is... she built a program whose students were successful, by anyone’s standards. Not an under-represented [student] standard, but by my standard as a scientist,” Sprowles said.
Humanities faculty were equally distressed. Philosophy Professor John Powell suggested a solution, while also voicing pessimism about the chances for shoring up long-neglected Native American studies and retention. “The political allegiances are terribly tangled,” he cautioned in an email to Zorn last fall.
What is required for HSU’s Native American leadership, Powell asserted, “is an unquestionable elder who is politically savvy and a heavy academic hitter, with tenure and no debts to locals, to coordinate Indian programs. We have missed getting that so many times now that I am not sure it is still possible.”
Powell also had grim words for the leadership. “The provost and the president are going to have to be willing to be schooled regarding the dreadful needs and investment (including tolerance of eight-year graduation plans), and [regarding] what it means to be an Indian whose family means more than a degree,” he admonished.
“Native American Studies has been struggling to exist as a separate discipline ever since its inception,” laments Marlon Sherman, chair of the Department of Native American Studies and professor of Federal Indian Law. “Our class sections are full, but it’s disappointing to me personally because, as successful as that sounds, most of the classes are geared to general education. It looks as if Native American Studies is turning into a service organization. We’re serving everybody but indigenous students.”
Equally disturbing, the program’s faculty ranks remain depleted, Sherman says, which he considers a consequence of 70 years of history in which succeeding HSU administrations offered no recognition of the fact that the university occupies ancient tribal territory. There have been “spurts to augment and protect [the program] over the years, but they have failed to buttress it in a significant way as a long-term solution – which is for the university to kick in some funding for more faculty.”
In 1998 there were five full-time faculty in Native American Studies, according to Sherman. “Today there is the equivalent of one-and-a-half. We are way, way, way down.”
Paul Mann was an HSU press secretary from 2003 to 2014 – Ed.