‘Learn By Doing,’ but don’t disrupt: Cal Poly protesters still under investigation

May 31, 2018

San Luis Obispo’s California Polytechnic State University, more commonly known as Cal Poly, has recently entered into a debate over "disruption." The university is heralded for its science, technology, engineering and math programs, as well as its "Learn By Doing" approach to education. Disruption is a term often tied to innovation and technological advancement in recent years, but the disruption campus officials are currently investigating is tied to how the First Amendment is being interpreted on campus.

“Free speech rights do not include the right to disrupt university events,” Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong said in a letter this week. He was responding to the California Faculty Association (CFA) San Luis Obispo Chapter, and the association’s request to Armstrong Tuesday asking him to drop a university investigation into what they described as "a peaceful, lawful student protest" that occurred earlier this spring.

In April, a small group of students staged an anti-war demonstration during a school career fair. The students sat on the ground and sang, a cappella, a reworked version of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The U.S.A.” They held a banner that read, “DIVEST FROM WAR / STOP THE WAR MACHINE / SLO PEACE COALITION.”

Students sit and sing in front the Raytheon booth at a Cal Poly career fair.
Credit SLO Peace Coalition Facebook video

A few weeks later, Cal Poly’s Office of Student Rights & Responsibilities (OSSR) opened up an investigation into the students involved in the protest. The students were told the office is looking into whether they “willfully and substantially disrupted and obstructed the event.” The students could face “sanctions” if the university determines there’s evidence of a violation. But students haven’t been informed what disciplinary actions the university might take. According to to the OSSR, sanctions may range from a slap on the wrist to loss of financial aid. There’s also the possibility probation and even expulsion.

“These students were clearly exercising their constitutionally protected free speech rights,” Lewis Call wrote in the CFA’s letter to Armstrong. Call is a history professor at Cal Poly and president of the CFA San Luis Obispo (SLO) Chapter. “They did not break any laws or violate any campus policies.”

“The truth is, that has not been determined.” Armstrong said in his letter. “The university is working directly with the students involved, and the incident continues to be reviewed — no conclusions or determinations have been made at this point. For CFA to make such claims — without having the facts — is irresponsible and inappropriate.”

The California Faculty Association San Luis Obispo Chapter's open letter to Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong asking him to drop the investigation into the career fair student protesters.
Credit CFA SLO Chapter

Armstrong and university officials reference Campus Administrative Policy 140 when discussing the investigation. It’s a lengthy section of the Cal Poly rule book covering, “free expression, sponsorship, commercialism and use of buildings and grounds.” Specifically, they point to the section, “Time, Place and Manner Guidelines,” which states, “the university may impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on exercise of the right of free expression, to preserve the safe and orderly operation of the campus.”

Mick Brucker was one of the students involved in the career fair protest. He’s about to graduate from Cal Poly and has been a campus activist and organizer for four years. Bruckner estimates he has participated in at least 25 campus protests.

“I'm really, really aware of the time, place, and manner policies on my campus,” Bruckner said. “I've developed relationships with many folks on this campus, particularly in the university police department. [University Police] Chief Hughes and I are on a first name basis. We have worked to develop a relationship between protesters and police on this campus where we understand the limits that we have on our protests within the university. [We] were prepared to respond to any orders received by university police officers in a cooperative manner, and those police officers never asked us to leave and they know very well that all they had to do was ask us to leave.”

But according to Armstrong, what the university is looking into is whether the students’ actions “may have interfered with other students’ ability to engage with a potential employer.”

That employer is the U.S. aerospace and defense contractor Raytheon.

The students involved take issue with Cal Poly’s connections to Raytheon, a career fair sponsor. According to the company, it earned $25 billion last year and has 64,000 employees worldwide. A Raytheon senior manager sits on Cal Poly’s Career Services Advisory Council. William Swanson, the former chairman and CEO of Raytheon Company, is a board member of the Cal Poly Foundation, Cal Poly’s fundraising arm. Swanson is a Cal Poly alum and he and his wife have donated more than $10 million to the university’s golf program.

Raytheon had a spot at the April career fair. In a video posted on Facebook, you can see the students singing in front of the Raytheon booth at the career fair.

“Let's back up on the word protest,” said Jodie Evans, the co-founder and director of the women-led anti-war organization Code Pink. Evans spoke at a Cal Poly-hosted event earlier in the school year.

“They went to bring information to a job fair,” Evans said. “To bring counter-information to what was being sold at the job fair. And they did it beautifully. They had a beautiful banner. They sat and sang. They got in no one's way.”

Prior to the student’s protest, Evans had been invited to speak by the Women’s and Gender Studies department at Cal Poly in September of 2017. The public lecture, attended by both students and the community--including San Luis Obispo’s mayor--was held in the university’s Business Building.

“We supply tools for those who want to be engaged locally,” Evans said. “So we were able to give them information about who might be be invested in their university and what the story was around that.”

“My biggest takeaway I had from the Jodie Evans talk is that the war economy is huge,” Matt Klepfer said. Klepfer, who graduated last winter, helped organize the student protest. “Trying to understand all the ways the military-industrial complex manifests itself on our campus and in our world is incredibly complex. She really inspired us to do our best, while still taking action, particularly, in our own community.

“I think many of the students were inspired, motivated and guided by the evidence that was shared with us,” said Jane Lehr, who helped organize the Jodie Evans talks. Lehr, currently on sabbatical, is chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies department at Cal Poly. “I think it's really important to recognize and value the connection between learning and doing.”

'Learn By Doing' is the core of Cal Poly’s educational philosophy. Students are encouraged to apply both a theoretical approach and hands-on practice to solve real-world problems. According to the university, "'Learn By Doing' is the single biggest factor that differentiates Cal Poly from its competitors and its peer institutions.”

“The student protest was an excellent example of 'Learn By Doing,’” CFA SLO Chapter president Lewis Call said. “This is exactly the kind of thing that we teach our students throughout the university. Here in the College of Liberal Arts, we teach them critical thinking. We teach them to be engaged with important social and political issues. I know at least one of the students who is graduating is a political science major, so you know someone like that is simply taking the things that they've learned in political science and putting those into practice, so to me that's the very essence of learning by doing.”

“It’s a new form of ‘Learn By Doing,’” Matt Klepfer said. “As activists and Women’s and Gender Studies minors at Cal Poly, [we] really view our activism as a form of 'Learn By Doing.' Klepfer said. “I think a lot of the 'Learn By Doing' we see at Cal Poly is [done by] engineering students-- engineering students doing research for defense contractors and [other] things I might not necessarily agree with. So what we are doing here is reimagining here what 'Learn By Doing' can mean.”

“In Women's and Gender Studies, we're committed to scholarly inquiry in education, but also activism,” Jane Lehr said. “You can't separate Women's and Gender Studies as an academic discipline from on-the-ground social change efforts. I'm always excited when I see students working together both locally and in connection with state and national organizations to envision a better world and then to take steps to move us in that direction.”

In his letter to President Armstrong, Lewis Call noted that California’s university systems have a storied history of campus anti-war activism.

“Students at California's public universities have been protesting the presence of military contractors on their campuses since the 1960s,” Call wrote. “Fifty years of constitutional jurisprudence has established that they are entirely within their rights to do so. Formal university investigations of peaceful student demonstrations have a serious chilling effect on student free speech.”

A large protest took place at Cal Poly during its annual Open House in mid-April. Hundreds of student protesters paraded loudly across campus with chants and signs aimed at bringing attention to a medley of issues at the university. That protest, spawned by student anger at a string of racist incidents, was outdoors and didn’t launch a university investigation.

“There's been an increase in the frequency of protests, and there have been more people participating in protests [at Cal Poly],” Call said. “To me that says that we need to pay especially careful attention to the free speech rights of the protesters. It's important that the university not use a double standard with regards to free speech. So, for example, when a white student appeared in blackface recently, there was a great outcry among students, faculty and staff, and particularly students, faculty and staff of color. But the university's position was that protected free speech. We can't do anything about that. Twice, the university has hosted Milo Yiannopoulos, a far right speaker who doesn't have any connection to Cal Poly, and the university grants him maximum free speech rights, but then it turns around and tries to deny free speech rights to our own students.”

The total cost for Cal Poly and the California State University system for the Milo Yiannopoulos visits totaled over $100,000 for security, which caused the closure of campus pathways and buildings. Both visits were hosted by Cal Poly Republicans, a student group known for erecting a ‘free speech wall’ that has become a medium for racist, homophobic, and xenophobic comments.

The blackface incident Call referenced was a fraternity member who donned blackface at a party in April where white members dressed up in stereotypical gang apparel. The incident occurred just a couple of weeks before the career fair protest. The campus was lit up with emotional town halls, media attention, and the indefinite shutdown of Greek fraternity and sorority activities, all while many in the university community called for the expulsion of those involved. President Armstrong repeatedly stated that he didn't condone the racist acts–and subsequent racist actions that followed–but free expression prevented him from taking disciplinary action.

Over the past two months, Armstrong has maintained that he supports free speech and freedom of expression on campus. But when the First Amendment seems to offers protection for one kind of free speech and not for another, many Cal Poly community members–like professor Jane Lehr–say it raises questions.

“Free speech is complicated because it requires us to treat all speech in the same way,” Lehr said. “We have a situation [on campus] where speech that I find to be some of the worst speech and actions that’s directly connected with racism and oppression. It seems absolutely critical that we utilize those same lenses and frameworks to think about the many different types of speech in which our students are participating.”

For now, no action has been taken by Cal Poly’s OSSR other than initiating the investigation. According to the OSSR student conduct process, the next step is either dismissing the investigation or launching an “informal disposition,” which could lead to disciplinary action.

President Armstrong wrote in his letter to the CFA that he expects the investigation to wrap up soon and is focused on “education and resolution, not sanctions or charges.”

But for students involved, some already feel like they have been punished.

Mick Bruckner said he failed a midterm on the day of his first investigative hearing because he was so nervous. Cal Poly third year Dominic Scialabba, another student who participated in the career fair protest, hasn’t found out if he will be investigated yet, which makes him anxious.

“These students are being punished with the kind of preemptive notion that they will be punished,” Scialabba said. “I am just waiting to receive [a letter of investigation], and not knowing if I'm going to or not puts such a damper on my education. I can't focus on my classes. I try to, but all of us are dealing with this when we're just trying to stand up for what we believe in under a protected amendment right. Cal Poly wants to protect a [certain] demographic of students that I guess does not include us at this moment.”

Of the seven students involved with the career fair protest, four are officially being investigated. The students, six of whom were seen in the video and one of whom was filming, wonder why only some of them were chosen to be investigated.

Even if the students involved don’t face any disciplinary actions and are allowed to walk at graduation, Lewis Call doesn’t think this is the end of free speech issues on the Cal Poly campus.

“The university is currently in the process of revising its policy on the use of campus facilities and time, place and manner.” Lewis said. “And the aim of the draft policy that they're considering is much more restrictive. But I think it's important to remember that the U.S. Constitution trumps any university policies.”