Controversial diversity chief rescinds acceptance of Cal Poly position

Paulette Granberry Russell

Following backlash from faculty members, staff and students, the woman whom Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong hired to serve as the university’s  vice president of diversity and inclusivity rescinded her acceptance of the position on Wednesday.

Armstrong, who is continuing to defend Granberry Russell, said her decision to rescind her acceptance of the diversity chief position came after both he and she received hateful emails, including a death threat. 

“I must express how disappointed I am that Paulette’s decision comes after outcry from some campus community members that was, to be frank, ill-informed, misplaced and in some cases downright vile,” Armstrong stated. “Hateful and inhumane emails have also been sent to both Paulette and me, including a not-so-veiled death threat.”

Granberry Russell has been accused of engaging in a coverup of sexual assaults while working as the chief diversity officer at Michigan State University. She headed Michigan State’s Title IX office when it was rocked by a sex abuse scandal surrounding Larry Nassar, an MSU doctor, as well as team doctor of USA Gymnastics. 

Nassar allegedly sexually abused more than 250 young women and girls, including Olympic gold medalists and Michigan State students. Nassar has been convicted of numerous sex crimes and is currently serving a prison sentence of at least 100 years.

One aspect of Granberry Russell’s handling of the Nassar case that has drawn considerable rebuke was a request she made that sexual assault allegations against the doctor be sent to her personal email. During trial in the sexual assault case, Michigan Assistant Attorney General Scott Teter alleged Russell used her personal email to keep the records off of the university email system, which was subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. 

Armstrong, however, stated in his email to the Cal Poly community that Granberry Russell’s integrity and credibility are not in question.

Jeffrey Armstrong

“Several major investigations, including two separate investigations by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, as well as investigations by the NCAA, the state of Michigan Attorney General and Michigan State University looked thoroughly at the incidents of criminal misconduct that occurred on MSU’s campus,” Armstrong stated. “None of these investigations concluded Paulette had any part in wrongdoing or had any connection to misconduct or criminal activity.”

Armstrong conducted an emergency hire of Granberry Russell, which came as a surprise to many members of the campus community, when Cal Poly announced on July 1 that she was set to become the university’s new diversity chief.

The move prompted Cal Poly faculty and staff to send a letter to Armstrong criticizing the hiring process and demanding the university rescind its hire of Granberry Russell. Likewise, a petition also calling for rescinding the hire was circulated, and as of Wednesday night, it had received more than 11,000 signatures. 

University faculty and staff said they were disturbed by the irregularities in the process of hiring Granberry Russell, in their letter to Armstrong.

“The details and timing of this search were inexplicably kept confidential: faculty were never informed that this was an ‘emergency search’ nor provided with an explanation of the emergency search process; no public call went out for faculty participation or input; and, despite the ready availability of videoconferencing technology, no opportunity for public interaction with Russell was ever provided,” the letter states.

Armstrong countered in his email, saying he moved quickly to hire Granberry Russell to maintain leadership at a time it is demanded by both the campus community and the social justice movement in the United States.

“Given Paulette’s impressive qualifications and the fact that she was a known entity and had already been through the interview process on our campus, we moved forward with the emergency hire,” Armstrong stated. “While not typical, emergency hires are appropriate at Cal Poly and the CSU, and are written into our policies for these very situations — when there is an urgent need to make a quick hire.”

Armstrong’s full email statement:

Dear Campus Community:

I am writing to update you on our vice president for diversity and inclusion position. I am disappointed to share that Paulette Granberry Russell informed me today that she has rescinded her acceptance of the position with Cal Poly.

First, let me say that I am always open to criticism, questions and protest, and I acknowledge and understand the concerns that many have raised. However, I must express how disappointed I am that Paulette’s decision comes after outcry from some campus community members that was, to be frank, ill-informed, misplaced and in some cases downright vile. Hateful and inhumane emails have also been sent to both Paulette and me, including a not-so-veiled death threat.

Clearly many disagree with my decision to offer Paulette a position at Cal Poly. I consider and respect these perspectives. However, I am deeply troubled and disappointed that members of our community have posted false claims, assumptions and accusations about Paulette as though they were fact. Regardless of the topic, I ask every member of our community to take the time to research the facts before making judgments and posting conclusions based on something they may have read online or heard on social media or elsewhere. As we all know, media stories and postings online often lack the detail and accurate information necessary to understand complex events and a detailed chain of events, such as the issues that occurred at Michigan State University (MSU). For those interested in Paulette’s history and qualifications, I urge you to research the matter and read the investigation reports and other publicly available information issued by the U.S. Department of Education, the NCAA and the State of Michigan Attorney General among others.

I ask all of you to consider how you would feel if people who didn’t know you were posting inaccuracies about your character and contributing to a frenzy of undue negativity about you. Paulette, like all of us, is a human being and deserves to be treated fairly. I’m saddened to say that some members of our own Cal Poly community went so far as to publicly encourage others to make Paulette feel as unwelcome and uncomfortable as possible at Cal Poly. That is the antithesis of inclusion, love, empathy and respect. These values shouldn’t apply only some of the time or only to certain people. These are values that we espouse and live every day and that we seek to impart on our students.

I know Paulette to be a woman of character and integrity and I believe every member of our community would have come to the same conclusion if they had the opportunity to meet, work with and learn from her. Several major investigations, including two separate investigations by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, as well as investigations by the NCAA, the State of Michigan Attorney General, and Michigan State University looked thoroughly at the incidents of criminal misconduct that occurred on MSU’s campus. None of these investigations concluded Paulette had any part in wrongdoing or had any connection to misconduct or criminal activity. If Paulette’s integrity and credibility were in question, she likely would not have remained employed by MSU through the many investigations that were conducted, nor would she have been elected by the board of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE) to serve as the esteemed association’s current president — the first woman of color to hold that position.

I am disappointed that our campus will be deprived of more than two decades of expertise from a national leader in the field of higher education diversity, equity and inclusion — an area of significant and necessary focus for our university.

There have also been criticisms from some claiming the hiring process for Paulette was somehow secretive or nefarious. Let me address that by first clarifying that Paulette isn’t new to our campus. She was a finalist for the vice president for diversity and inclusion post in 2017, when Cal Poly first elevated the position to the President’s Cabinet level. Paulette was a strong candidate who was under serious consideration at that time. As a finalist, Paulette was fully vetted and her professional experience was viewed favorably by the search committee (which included representation from students, faculty and staff), as well as the campus community during a public campus forum (Jan. 23, 2017).

When we were informed this spring that Jozi De Leon intended to retire in June, we felt it was important to proceed quickly with an emergency hire to help maintain continuity of leadership and momentum for the Office of University Diversity and Inclusion (OUDI) at a time when the social justice movement in our country demands leadership for OUDI and our campus community. Given Paulette’s impressive qualifications and the fact that she was a known entity and had already been through the interview process on our campus, we moved forward with the emergency hire. While not typical, emergency hires are appropriate at Cal Poly and the CSU, and are written into our policies for these very situations — when there is an urgent need to make a quick hire.

Make no mistake, diversity, equity and inclusion will continue to be a primary focus for our university and this vice president role will continue to be a critical part of our campus’ senior leadership team. We will continue to work toward a campus community that values all of its members equally; that reflects the diversity of the state that we serve; that places all of its members on equal footing; and that fully prepares our students for success in today’s global society.

I recognize that we moved quickly to hire Paulette and I appreciate the calls for a greater degree of visibility and shared governance in the hiring process of this important position. Moving forward, we will slow down our efforts and conduct a full search, closely involving the campus community. I appreciate that Denise Isom, chair of our Ethnic Studies Department, has agreed to continue to lead the Office of University Diversity and Inclusion in the interim. Denise is a trusted and respected partner and I have full faith and confidence in her ability to help us move forward the many important initiatives related to diversity, equity and inclusion on our campus.

Sincerely,

Jeffrey D. Armstrong

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