Western president under fire

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Capitol violence comments cause uproar

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  • Greg Salsbury
    Greg Salsbury

Western Colorado University President Greg Salsbury may face a vote of no confidence by faculty after a statement on the riot at the Capitol inflamed tensions between professors, trustees and the university head.

Faculty allege that Salsbury conflated the insurrection at the Capitol with the Black Lives Matter protests that happened over the summer in an email he sent to faculty and staff.

Salsbury sent his original message on Jan. 7, the day after supporters of President Donald Trump rampaged in the halls of Congress.

Salsbury has countered that the intentions of his message were to support free speech and to condemn violence.

While the responses from university employees to Salsbury’s statement have been mixed, Western’s faculty senate decided after about an hour of discussion on Monday to continue to take steps toward taking a vote on whether Salsbury should continue to lead the university. A vote by the senate would not force actions by Salsbury or his supervisors — the university’s Board of Trustees — but it is a mechanism the faculty senate has to voice its position on the university president.

Members of the faculty senate are drafting a document of grievances against Salsbury and aim to approve this document next week The grievances would then be sent to all university faculty before the senate would hold a vote of no confidence. Faculty members have said that they feel a sense of urgency in carrying out this process.

Salsbury issued the controversial message with the subject line “A Voice Against Violence.”

In the message, he condemned the violence that took place. He wrote, “Western strongly supports the first amendment and the right of the public to protest; but those rights do not extend to destruction and violence.”

Salsbury went on to write that in the past year “rioting, burning, looting and violence have emerged from protests across our country.’'

The comment led some professors to believe Salsbury was comparing the Capitol riots to the Black Lives Matter movement that reignited across the country last summer following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

Emails obtained by the Times show that professors pushed back against Salsbury’s statement and asked for clarification.

“Let us not conflate the violent domestic terrorism and insurrection of yesterday with the peaceful Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year. And let us not condemn those who would resort to violence without also condemning the instigator of that violence — Donald Trump,” wrote Director of Theatre Steven Cole Hughes in an email to Salsbury and faculty.

Professor for Recreation and Outdoor Education Brooke Moran wrote that she saw a “vast difference” in the Black Lives Matter protests and the Capitol riots due to the former being caused by centuries of “discrimination and unjust violence” against people of color. Moran credited the Capitol incidents to “uninformed, violent (mostly) angry white men” influenced by Trump.

Other professors shared similar sentiments to Moran’s. Some added that, as a university, they should represent truth and critical thinking, which they said Trump does not represent.

Professors said that a further conversation on campus on the subject could be a good alternative. Others asked who Salsbury was speaking for, as they felt the statements did not reflect the university’s identity.

Nearly 36 hours after Salsbury’s Jan. 7 message, the university’s executive cabinet issued its own statement on the violence at the Capitol after meeting to “discuss and respond to the troubling events earlier this week”

The executive cabinet consists of Chief Operating Officer Brad Baca, Vice President of Finance and Administration and Chief Financial Officer Julie Baca, Vice President for Enrollment and Student Success Abel Chavez, Vice President of Advancement Mike LaPlante and Vice President for Academic Affairs William Niemi.

The cabinet, in an email addressed to the campus community, said it “fully recognizes and appreciates that we are public servants for all the people of Colorado, regardless of gender, race/ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. A role we take seriously. Regardless, we trust we all hold one thing in common — our value for our great nation and the democratic responsibilities bestowed upon us as Americans.

“Our institutional mission states our deepest shared values as a community at Western — that we promote intellectual maturity and personal growth in our students and prepare them to assume constructive roles in local, national and global communities. We are outraged by the sharp contrast to those values with what transpired at our nation’s Capitol this week where an insurrection sought to cripple the very democratic ideals that ought to bind our nation. It will take us all to join together as one community to ensure that democracy and our Constitution endure. Let us recall and act according to our common commitments to the aspirations of freedom and justice for all; the cabinet’s statement read.

Salsbury sent a second email the following morning, Jan. 9. He said he received a “good deal” of positive and negative reactions to his original statement.

Salsbury said that he does see a connection between the Black Lives Matter events and what transpired at the Capitol, but he said he never mentioned subjects that professors brought up such as Trump, Black Lives Matter or rebellion, “regardless of how valid or invalid some of those passionately felt labels might be.'

“My purpose was to affirm support for freedom of peaceful expression/protest for all people, while simultaneously condemning in the strongest terms, any of those people who might use violence while doing so,” Salsbury said.

Faculty discuss in senate

But Salsbury’s clarification did not allay concerns of faculty members.

On Monday professors had a lengthy discussion on Salsbury’s comments at a faculty senate meeting. The representative body decided that it would issue its own statement on the violence at the Capitol, that it would pursue endorsing the executive cabinet’s statement and that it would consider holding a vote of no confidence on the president.

Faculty said in the senate meeting that students were disappointed there had not been a formal statement made to them.

Senators voted to go to their academic departments to determine whether other faculty members were in favor of the cabinet statement on the violence at the Capitol. On Wednesday the senate reconvened and approved the cabinet statement. Gary Pierson, Dean of Students, emailed the statement to students Wednesday evening.

Sociology professor Matthew Aronson spurred discussion of considering a vote of no confidence in Salsbury. Aronson said he heard from three or four professors who suggested he should bring up the issue at the meeting.

Aronson said he feels Salsbury is not “willing or able” to express the university’s values, part of which is responding to events through careful reasoning, scholarly accuracy and ethical deliberation.

“We don’t have that in this university president, and that troubles me hugely,” Aronson said.

Professor of politics and government Brian Bernhardt invited faculty with different viewpoints to give their opinions during the senate meeting. No faculty came forward with support for Salsbury’s Jan. 7 and Jan. 9 statements.

Board of Trustees Faculty Representative Anthony Miccoli during the senate meeting urged professors at the senate to confide in him as well to present to the board of trustees.

Miccoli said the board has been involved in the discussion as a separate group. Many faculty have reached out to them with their response, both for or against the comments.

“However you feel about this, on either side, if you have strong feelings they have to get through so you’re not spoken for,” Miccoli said.

Board of Trustees Chair Chris Blees responded to two faculty members’ concerns saying that in many of the negative responses he has received, the comments “mischaracterize, misquote or essentially rewrite the president’s statements.'

Blees said Salsbury “applauds” the protests of last summer but condemns acts of violence.

Blees said Salsbury’s statement of the “riots, burning looting and violence ... destruction of entire cities, properties, serious injuries, the public’s overall sense of security and death” were inaccurately connected to the protests.

“That you believe the president would callously equate an insurrection with peaceful (and righteous) protests. Perhaps your goal is to pretend that’s what he said,” Blees said.

Blees said faculty members who came to him in support of Salsbury’s letter felt they would not be able to speak up due to “judgement from their peers.'

Blees said all should “relish a good debate but stray from “cancelation or retribution culture.'

Bernhardt found this comment from Blees particularly upsetting, saying at the senate meeting it left him “speechless and dumbfounded.”

“To hear people concerned about cancel culture, I’m concerned with cancel culture,” Bernhardt said. “I just put my name behind something, publicly criticizing the leader of our organization. Don’t you think that makes me scared? Don’t you think I worry about my future here?”

Bernhardt continued to encourage thoughtful dialogue on the issue by providing clear reasons, evidence and arguments.

Miccoli referenced a separate email exchange from Blees and a faculty member voicing their concerns against Salsbury’s comments. Miccoli said Blees’ response was “angry and accusatory” in tone.

Other members of the board were reportedly upset with Blees’ response because it was not clear if his sentiments were his own opinion or if he was speaking for the board of trustees.

Miccoli said the topic of communication will be discussed among the trustees, but other faculty members found Blees’ responses troubling.

Chair of the Communication, Arts, Language and Literature Department Jack Lucido said Blees does not represent the “ethos of well-meaning faculty and staff who love Western and want Western to be the best it can be.”

Bernhardt volunteered to be the “point person” for all faculty looking to file grievances with Salsbury and Blees if the topic comes up.

The comments will be compiled in a document, shared with the faculty senate to receive feedback and then sent to all faculty.

“I don’t want this to be an uninformed conversation about why we’re doing this (the vote of no confidence). I want it to be an informed conversation,” Bernhardt said. “A lot of people have a lot of grievances over a lot of years.”

Senators plan on meeting next week to view Bernhardt’s draft.

Salsbury responds

In response to a request for comment from the Times, Western Communications Officer Chris Rourke wrote in an email that “Discussion of a vote of no confidence by select faculty sends a strong message about those faculty members’ viewpoint. However, there was no vote.

“From the beginning of this matter, President Salsbury has invited debate and discussion, seeking diverse viewpoints,” said Rourke. “Western Colorado University values its role as a safe haven for public debate, even if positions represented are not accepted by all. While some may perceive that this is an uncomfortable dialogue, Western embraces it. Only when our universities are places of open and robust discussion can we truly honor the First Amendment, a very bedrock of our Constitution.”

Salsbury issued a statement to the media on Tuesday afternoon, which read “It’s unfortunate that while we are navigating the challenges presented by a global pandemic, we must cope with the impacts of a national event at a local level. We are all feeling last week’s events on some level. I am hopeful that, particularly on a college campus, we can serve as the role models for the free exchange of ideas and disagreement without one party defaulting to the ‘cancellation’ of the other. As a university, we are committed to freedom of speech, even for those issues on which people passionately disagree.”

(Roberta Marquette can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at roberta@gunnisontimes.com.)

 

Western President Greg Salsbury’s Jan. 7 email regarding events at the Capitol

"By now most people are aware of the despicable acts of violence that took place at our nation's Capitol yesterday. Western strongly supports the first amendment and the right of the public to protest; but those rights do not extend to destruction and violence, and we condemn this in the strongest of terms. It not only offends and threatens all civilized existence and freedom of expression, but undermines our very republic. Over the last year, rioting, burning, looting, and violence have emerged from protests across our country – resulting in seemingly endless confrontations, destruction of entire cities, properties, serious injuries, the public's overall sense of security, and deaths. Most of us have watched these events unfold with a mixture of confusion, fear, disgust, anger, or sorrow. Many have openly questioned whether this is America any longer. The violence yesterday that interrupted the traditional, peaceful transfer of power punctuated these feelings.

Higher education has traditionally been a bulwark against censorship and authoritarianism and for civil discourse. Respectful exchange absent of hate and vitriol is a cornerstone of education. Western is proud to steadfastly support the first amendment, and as you know, we all worked very hard over the last year to execute a policy proclaiming this support, unanimously approved by our trustees. The recent violence taking place in our country threatens that very right. We call on all Americans who feel the need to express their grievances to pledge allegiance to peaceful expression – and to condemn and help hold responsible those that resort to violence. "