Mad River Union
HSU – Students occupying Humboldt State University’s Native American Forum say they are entirely willing to be arrested in their bid to force President Lisa Rossbacher to reinstate the Native American director of an Indian science program, Jacquelyn Bolman, who was fired last semester.
The students are also demanding the dismissal of a student retention administrator, Radha Webley, whom they accuse of failing to uphold under-represented student rights when she joined in firing Bolman. In one student’s words, “Webley must go and she must be replaced.”
Campus police, including the chief, met several times last week with the occupying students. “The officers have been very respectful,” a male student reported, but he and his colleagues are unhappy that the chief is serving as the go-between with Rossbacher.
Officers have informed the protesters of the legal consequences if their sit-in goes on indefinitely. Activists say they have been told they can be arrested, for example, on trespassing charges. They may also face academic penalties.
Asked if he and his fellow students are prepared to be arrested if it comes to that, the male student answered, “Absolutely. We’re all in this 100 percent with our hearts.”
But another student of Lakota ancestry was more measured, saying personally he knew of three students who would be willing to face charges.
A female student of Irish/Jewish descent, a junior, said she and her colleagues categorically reject Rossbacher’s decision to use the University Police Chief, Donn Peterson, as the principal contact to date with the protesters.
“We don’t plan on using him to relay any further information,” she stated. “When you see what has happened in Ferguson [Missouri] recently, and across the country, to the Native American and Latino and black and brown communities – all of these people have had negative experiences with the police throughout their lives and for generations prior. It’s very triggering [sic] and traumatizing to see the university treat us in a kind of criminalized way, with armed, uniformed officers coming in here.”
Rossbacher visited the forum briefly Friday afternoon, Jan. 23, five days after the sit-in began, thanking the students “for your willingness to work with Chief Peterson over the last week,” according to a university news release. “Your discussions with him have been enormously helpful,” the president was quoted as saying.
In a hand-delivered letter she presented to the students when she dropped by (see accompanying story above, read the letter on page A6), Rossbacher repeated the administration’s stance since Bolman’s termination four months ago that by law, personnel issues cannot be discussed publicly. “My doing so would violate the Constitutionally protected privacy rights of the employees involved, as well as university policy and state and federal law,” she restated.
Rossbacher did not address strong student and faculty objections to how Bolman’s firing was carried out (see story on page A1).
The possible reason for Bolman’s dismissal and the background that led to it are publicly available in internal campus e-mails obtained under a California Public Records Act request filed by students and reportedly posted on Facebook last Dec. 24. The Mad River Union obtained copies of the records.
Students again rejected Rossbacher’s entreaties Friday to yield to the administration’s request that they leave the forum, which they have renamed the Jacquelyn Bolman Forum.
“Perhaps you are unaware,” the president wrote, “but your staying in that space after the official closure of the building [the students hold sleepovers] is against university policy. More importantly, I know you are aware that your prolonged presence in that space during other scheduled events is disrupting the university’s instructional program, and this interferes with the academic experience and success of other students.”
Rossbacher held out olive branches, saying she would like to work collaboratively on current and future budget and programming issues for Native American and other students of color, based on what she called “a shared plan.” She also offered to discuss multiple-use objectives for the forum other than ongoing instruction.
The president suggested scheduling a joint meeting on the afternoon of Wednesday, Feb. 4, “to discuss next steps.” From her point of view, she stated, “The ideal outcome is that we have a productive discussion and can develop plans to move forward in our conversation and planning.”
Protesting under the banner of The Unified Students of Humboldt, advocates are demanding not only Bolman’s reappointment and Webley’s termination, but also:
• Restoration of $40,000 to HSU’s Indian science program and full funding of all diversity programs
• “Full and effective” student participation in transparent hiring practices of all HSU staff, faculty and administrators.“We as students demand equal voting power on hiring, promotion, tenure committees and dismissal procedures in selecting and dismissing HSU staff, faculty and administrators, to ensure greater diversity at HSU.”
• Dissolution of RISS (Retention and Inclusion of Student Success), led by Webley, and return of the programs it supports to their respective colleges. “Faculty, staff and students who operate and participate in these programs should [have] the ultimate say in the fate of their programs.”
These are revised demands, issued late last week, that omit a prior ultimatum to rename the Native American Forum the Bolman Forum.
The protesters adamantly deny the administration’s contention that their occupation is blocking instruction and classes in the facility. They insist classes can continue to take place (and have) in their presence, that they are respectful and quiet when teaching is in progress. The administration moved multiple classes to other buildings last week, however, which the students argue is unnecessary.
Although the protestors are aware that the administration hopes to wait out the occupation until it fizzles, they express confidence they can go the distance. Only a dozen or so students – out of a student population of some 8,000 – are present in the forum at any given hour of the day.
But the occupiers claim wider support. One of them said, “We are being approached by many students, students of every color, who are very supportive of us. They’re considering ways independently to stand in solidarity with us. How that happens is really up to them. Already they have been bringing us food here [in the forum] and asking us what we need.”
Note: Paul Mann served as a Humboldt State University press secretary from 2003 to 2014. – Ed.