Equitable representation and fair treatment have become a recurring theme at Clark College as people of color and their allies voice concerns regarding the work environment some have described as “unwelcoming,” “toxic” and like “being pecked to death by smiling ducks.”
Clark President Bob Knight’s announcement in January that he would retire came amid campus-wide discussions about race and inequity, following the departure of several high-ranking employees of color in 2018.
New documents the Indy obtained through a public records request also show that the announcement came after employees leveled substantial criticism at Knight in an anonymous survey.
In a statement to the Indy on Knight’s behalf, Director of Communications and Marketing Hannah Erickson said the survey results did not play a role in Knight’s decision to retire.
The week after Oregon Public Broadcasting released its investigation into Clark’s ongoing culture of institutional racism and inequity in October 2018, Clark administration sent a survey to faculty and staff, asking them to anonymously identify barriers that prevent Clark from being an inclusive environment.
Below are some of the recurring themes and most illuminating quotes that the Indy found while reviewing the over 250 employee answers.
Over 20 comments were directed toward President Knight, criticizing his leadership decisions.
Many comments questioned Knight’s ability to make the necessary changes to create a more inclusive environment at Clark, while six comments indicated that Knight should step away from his position in favor of new leadership better suited to address inequity.
“I like and respect President Knight, and I also believe his leadership style isn’t what can move Clark College forward at this time,” one comment reads. “We desperately need a leader who is already experienced and well-versed in creating dynamic, innovative, inclusive institution with social justice at its heart.”
Other responses criticized Knight’s comments to OPB, claiming that his words perpetuated existing barriers.
“…President Knight is in profound denial about the state of the college, and is unwilling, in his role as campus leader, to make the necessary changes that would create a culture of inclusion here at Clark,” another comment reads. “His minimization of the experiences shared in the [OPB] article by our colleagues and former colleagues of color sets a tone that upholds the white supremacist status quo that pervades the campus.”
“Our president has a strong pattern of behavior that is harmful to systemically non-dominant people. It is no longer acceptable to “be learning” or “not know” that his comments are offensive,” another comment reads. “I have been at Clark for several years and he still says the same problematic things. This cannot be counted as a “misstep” any longer; it is a lack of care and unwillingness to change… I believe it is time for President Knight to retire. If there was a safe option to express this in public or to EC without fear of losing my job, I would provide my vote of “no confidence.” We can no longer have his actions and words defeat the hard work and growth we are working for.”
Erickson gave the following statement to the Indy about Knight’s retirement on his behalf:
“President Knight has made clear that he and his wife, Paula, have been considering his retirement since before the academic year began. Once he had led the college through a successful financial audit and accreditation survey—completed in December and January, respectively—he felt the time was right to make his announcement public.”
Over 25 comments criticized the Executive Cabinet for being “out of touch” with the state of college affairs. Last summer, weeks before the survey, Clark appointed two women of color to the Executive Cabinet.
Many responses cited a lack of diversity among cabinet members as the reason for this disconnect.
“This is a small, not very diverse group, making decisions for a campus community that it doesn’t match,” one comment reads. “Listen to what people are saying. Listen to staff and student voices. Quit being dismissive and thinking that you always know better.”
“Does Clark College want to become the Trump administration, where it is nothing but a board of older, white men, making decisions and adjustments for a minority group that they don’t even listen to?” another comment reads.
Further comments addressed how disconnected the Executive Cabinet from day to day college operations the college appears to be.
“…the executive cabinet is so far removed from the workings of the college and people who are outside their circle,” another comment reads. “I suggest they get out of spending every day, all day in meetings with each other and start having some genuine conversations with students and staff.”
“They are privileged and sheltered to the point of not recognizing that they are out of touch and making harmful decisions. They are actively doing harm to the college community and just do not see it or accept it.”
A number of responses criticized how the anonymous survey requested employees to provide identifying information.
The responses were broken into two sections: responses from employees identifying as people of color and responses from employees who did not. Five separate responses addressed this distinction as another form of barrier.
“Anonymous surveys should not have race or employment classification listed,” one comment reads. “It’s VERY obvious that the anonymity is compromised when you can easily pinpoint a person based on those indicators.”
A number of responses addressed the current lack of representation of employees of color at Clark.
A few responses reflected on the importance of having employees with whom students can identify.
“Hire employees who look like students, who speak the languages students speak, who have cultural similarities with our student populations,” one comment reads.
According to data collected by the Office of Planning and Effectiveness during the Winter 2019 Census Day, 39 percent of Clark’s just over 10 12 thousand students identify as students of color.
During Knight’s annual State of the College address in January, he shared the current percentages of representation of employees of color at Clark, compared to the start of the current Social Equity Plan in 2015.
“When we started the Social Equity Plan, we had 12 percent employees of color, today we have 16 percent. We had one person of color on Executive Cabinet — today we have four who are industry leaders with proven experience advancing social equity,” he said. We had one African American tenured faculty member — today we have five. Those aren’t huge numbers, but we are making progress. Our students want to see people on campus who look like them.”
Over 30 responses indicated the need for increased training for a variety of race-related issues.
Many responses reflected a lack of adequate training on racial issues for Clark community members, due to the prevalence of microaggressions and tokenism.
“A culture shift is needed,” one comment reads. “We work in a place where well-meaning people are comfortable in an environment where they can remain oblivious to perpetuating microaggressions and minimization, even through our leadership ranks. I recently heard it described as being pecked to death by smiling ducks. Please take a moment to think about what this means and what it looks like here on campus.”
Additional comments asked for more integration of power, privilege and inequity (PPI) training into college curriculum. Clark employees are required to complete annual PPI training, which aims to increase comprehension about systems and actions that perpetuate inequality. Clark’s goal is to incorporate PPI into all academic programs.
Along with an increase in PPI training, responses from the survey specified that college leadership should show evidence of their own PPI training.
“I would like to know which of these learning and listening opportunities President Knight and the Executive Cabinet [are] attending,” another comment reads. “I would like to know how he and the Executive Cabinet are fulfilling their [PPI] requirements. I would like college leadership to share back with the campus about what they are learning and to whom they are listening.”
“Some EC members are resistant to PPI and as a result have hired detrimental ODE directors, avoided meaningful professional development for themselves, made harmful decisions and blamed competent women of color for Clark’s shortcomings instead of taking accountability,” another comment reads.
A few comments also addressed the manner in which actions perceived as racist are addressed by campus leadership.
“Executive Cabinet needs to care about diversity in a COMPASSIONATE way. They need to model both giving, ‘Hey you probably didn’t mean to, but when you did X, it was a slight to people of color,’ and receiving that feedback,” one comment reads. “I’ve watched EC members give feedback compassionately, and I’ve watched EC members eviscerate someone they perceive to be racist.”
Other comments called for Clark community members to educate themselves, rather than relying on employees of color to carry the responsibility of education.
In regards to training initiatives, nine comments observed that this burden is often placed upon employees of color, who find themselves spending time outside of work educating their white peers about race-related subjects without compensation.
“…[W]e are asking our employees of color to do a lot of emotional work, that they may or may not want to give but feel that they are required,” one comment reads. “For those who are doing the heavy lifting and even just doing their jobs as people of color in an environment that isn’t always welcoming or inclusive, this takes a toll.”
“Find ways to learn that do not put the burden of teaching on People of Color,” another comment reads. “Find opportunities for people to self-discover their ways of thinking and learning to challenge themselves.”
“People of color cannot be expected to do all the work in training, providing representation, and furthering our diversity initiatives on campus,” another comment reads. “Yet, when white allies provide options to step up and provide this type of assistance/leadership, they are often set up to fail or told that they have no business doing these things because they are not persons of color.”
“Constant messages that white people must be allowed and invited to employee resource groups, campus events, students of color luncheons… etc,” another comment reads. “It is not being an ally or accomplice to take up space or demand the white privilege of being invited to everything.”
Other comments expressed concern that Clark’s focus on race could result in the minimization of other systemically non-dominant groups.
Nine comments also observed that Clark’s focus on employees of color limits inclusivity by giving the appearance of ignoring other systemically non-dominant groups.
“We as a campus need to stop saying that systemically non-dominant means only one thing – a person of color – and instead realize that this encompasses so many more identities that are minimized, invisible or forgotten,” one comment reads.
“It seems that our diversity plan has become more about just race rather than all systematically discriminated against groups,” another comment reads. “There are complex issues that trigger a lot of emotions.”
However, a handful of comments also showed resistance to the college’s attempts to forward inclusion at Clark.
“What is necessary is for action to be taken to make white people feel like they are as valued as people of color are on this campus,” one comment reads. “The use of terms such as “white privilege, white fragility” etc., and the position that white people are somehow have more power and privilege than anyone else on this campus is racist and offensive.”
Overall, the survey carries an undertone of frustration and a desire for change.
Many responses criticize the lack of significant action being taken to address equity issues, indicating that Clark’s current trajectory is not enough.
“Holding hands and making jokes during icebreakers isn’t going to solve systemic racism. Put down your free coffee and free snacks, and start putting your hands to use. Pick up a book and brush up on the current issues that are plaguing the nation and the world. Step outside your perfectly constructed bubble and start to feel uncomfortable, because not all of us get to live in a world that makes us feel comfortable.”
The Indy reached out to college representatives for comment on the findings of the employee survey.
In a separate statement from Erickson on behalf of Royce Pollard, Board of Trustees chair, Pollard offered the following comments on Knight’s achievements:
“President Knight is ultimately responsible for the performance of the college across the totality of metrics a college is measured by. Over more than a decade, he has led the college through significant reductions in state budgets, introduction of new degree programs, significant facility expansion, and challenging large-scale process and cultural-change initiatives such as the current work underway to implement Guided Pathways and the college’s Social Equity Plan. President Knight is committed to Clark College, its students, and its staff — and is also recognized for state-level leadership amongst his community college peers. Important work is underway across a range of initiatives at Clark College, including Social Equity; the Board supports President Knight in this work.”
In an additional statement from Erickson on the president’s behalf, Knight made the following comments:
“The Executive Cabinet and I are committed to providing the conditions that improve educational outcomes and eliminate systemic disparities among all groups at the college, guided by our multiyear Social Equity Plan. We are proud of the areas in the plan where progress has been made and continue to challenge ourselves in areas where we fall short of our vision. We appreciate and listen thoughtfully to all stakeholders along this journey including students, staff and community.
“On a personal note, hearing and accepting criticism is an inevitable part of leadership—and is certainly part of a college presidency. Over the years, I have come to understand its important role in helping stakeholders communicate their needs, feelings, and observations; my job is to take that feedback, synthesize it, and continue leading the college forward toward its mission and vision.”