(President Schulz read the statement below at the beginning of the public comment period at the Board of Regents meeting on Nov. 4, 2016.)
Good Morning. Thank you for coming out today to share your views with the Washington State University Regents and the rest of our leadership team.
One of the great strengths of our University is that we have passionate alumni, parents, students, faculty, and staff—they all care deeply about Washington State University. I’ve appreciated and valued that Cougar passion from day one—it drives us to greatness and it drives us to do the right thing.
An inclusive environment and ensuring the safety of students
During the five months I have served as your president, I am often asked what my highest priorities are. Two things come to mind immediately: One, that we maintain an inclusive environment on campus, and two, that we ensure the safety of our students.
As a university community, our efforts to build a more inclusive environment are constant. Our goal? To create a community in which everyone—regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation—is welcomed and supported.
We also are entrusted with the well-being and safety of more than 30,000 students at five campuses across the state. As you know, Cougs take care of Cougs—and it’s a responsibility we take to heart. Every student who comes to Washington State University must be able to pursue a college degree in a welcoming, safe environment—an environment free of fears about physical or mental harm or distress.
Despite our best intentions, unfortunate incidents do occur, as they do on many college campuses. On those occasions, we have internal student conduct processes and procedures that we follow. Let me be unequivocal: We are absolutely committed to the equitable and fair treatment of all Washington State University students. That commitment extends not only to the treatment of our students during student conduct proceedings, but also to each and every interaction our students have with WSU faculty, staff, and other students at all of our campuses.
Reviewing and improving our student conduct process
Since my arrival at Washington State in June, I have listened to comments and concerns expressed about our student conduct board processes. Both organizations and individuals have said that our process could be improved and represent the university’s values better. I concur that we should review our process and make sure we have nationally recognized “best-in-class” policies and procedures for student conduct issues at WSU. As a university community that embraces dialogue and as an organization constantly striving to improve itself, I welcome this opportunity. And, I have said many times that we would review the entire student conduct process at the end of the current calendar year when we have identified and hired a permanent Vice President for Student Affairs.
I also have been following the recent comments on social media and in the news, including the allegations about racial bias and discrimination in our processes. Let me be clear again—we take these allegations very seriously. And while we are confident that racial bias has not occurred, we recognize that a neutral reviewer can provide valuable insight. That’s why we have retained an independent third party, Marc Lyons, an attorney specializing in education law, to conduct a formal review of our conduct board processes and provide us with his findings and recommendations. If Mr. Lyons’ review identifies the need for changes, we will initiate the actions required to revise our student conduct procedures as quickly as possible. Mr. Lyons’ review started this week, and we expect it to conclude within 60 days.
Since announcement of this review, many WSU individuals and organizations have expressed interest in providing input about our student conduct process. To ensure that all voices are heard, we will soon launch a website through which anyone can submit comments, concerns, and suggestions about our conduct process.
In the last couple of weeks, many have suggested that we suspend the operations of our student conduct board during the 60-day review period. Theoretically, that sounds like a reasonable idea. But the reality is that our process has been upheld in the past. Moreover, the board deals with a multitude of incidents occurring on campus, including allegations of sexual assault and other significant and serious Title IX incidents. We cannot simply stop dealing with these issues during the review period.
Looking out for the welfare of all our students
As the leader of a nationally recognized public university, I want to be certain that we are providing appropriate and timely support for the victims in all assault cases on campus. In the incident from July that is currently the focus of attention, one of our students was hospitalized with a concussion. This individual was struck once while standing and a second time while on the ground. This has been clearly documented in a video. Again, as a university community, we must provide a safe environment for all of our students—both for alleged assailants and victims.
There has also been a tremendous amount of dialogue on social media questioning why the University has not been willing to discuss the particular issues surrounding the July incident. FERPA rules appropriately do not allow us to publically discuss the specifics of any student conduct case. We carefully abide by these rules to protect all of our students. But please know that we absolutely have given careful attention to the allegations made in the media.
Now that a lawsuit has been filed, additional details surrounding the incident are public. We filed the University’s response to the lawsuit in Superior Court in Whitman County Court yesterday. Going forward— although we are always open to ways we can improve our processes—we will vigorously defend policies and procedures in place to provide a safe environment for our students.
I know that many of you are here to express your views about the way in which the University has handled the student conduct process for Robert Barber—particularly given that Robert is a fifth-year senior, with only one credit to complete to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences. Our Provost, Dan Bernardo, and other academic affairs staff have developed a course of action by which Mr. Barber can complete the course work necessary to complete his Social Sciences degree and graduate in December 2016. This plan provides him the opportunity to complete the course needed for graduation while under suspension and without being present on campus.
Finally, I want to reiterate my strong personal support for Cougar Athletics. We are blessed at WSU to have a diverse and exceptional group of student-athletes. They excel in the classroom, perform at an elite level in pursuit of Pac 12 championships, and give back generously to communities throughout the Palouse. I am extremely proud of our football program—not just for their on-field performance—but also for the many positive ways they represent Washington State University.
Thank you for the opportunity to comment. I look forward to answering your questions following the conclusion of the comment period and the adjournment of the Board of Regents meeting.