University of Utah students sharply questioned President David Pershing on Wednesday as he denied talk that the school’s top diversity officer, Octavio Villalpando, had been asked to resign.
"The facts are Octavio is coming back [from a current leave] to be associate vice president for equity and diversity," Pershing told the group of about 50 students gathered outside his office for a sit-in style protest. "I’m sorry for the miscommunication and the challenges."
It’s an important issue for students who see Villalpando, who is now on research leave in Mexico and couldn’t be reached for comment, as a powerful advocate for minorities who don’t always feel welcome on campus.
"It’s not a safe place," said Cindy Huynh, a doctoral student in education, culture and society (ECS) and gender studies. "Safety does not exist when you’re a body of color, especially at a white institution."
Several students say Villalpando’s interim replacement, Edward Buendia, told them in a Dec. 5 meeting that Villalpando had been asked to resign due to unspecified human-resource issues.
"Why is [Pershing’s] administration saying these things?" asked Cindy Fierros, also an ECS doctoral student. "I think they’re just trying to cover this up."
Buendia didn’t return calls for comment. But Ruth Watkins, the U.’s senior vice president for academic affairs, has disputed that account.
Pershing told the students, "I cannot give you a good explanation" for how the talk began or why. He said Villalpando will return to campus in January.
In a 17-minute conversation with students and a subsequent official statement, Pershing said he wanted the campus to be a welcoming place. He reassured students that programs such as Diversity Scholars, a retention effort for students of color, wouldn’t change.
"I want you to feel proud to be here, and I want you to feel safe," he said. "I will commit to trying to make things better."
Another faculty member, Matthew Makomenaw, has submitted his resignation as director of the American Indian Resource Center to take a job at Montana State University.
"It does appear people who have advocated for us are leaving," Samantha Eldridge, a doctoral student in political science, said Monday.
Eldridge spoke out and started a 725-signature petition to phase out the university’s drum-and-feather symbol, and said she’s not sure where to turn after getting hate emails and tweets in response. "It’s been really sort of scary."
Master’s degree student Cinthia Cervantes-Castañeda presented a petition signed by 160 parents from Jackson Elementary in support of Villalpando and his wife, Dolores Delgado Bernal, who started the academic Adelante Partnership at the school.
"We’re thankful for you coming, but we’re really asking for some transparency from your office," she told Pershing.
After the meeting, she added: "If he had been up front two weeks ago, it would have been much easier for us as students."
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.