Written by Donald A. Promnitz
Amidst the controversy surrounding Fresno State professor Randa Jarrar’s statements on Twitter celebrating the death of former First Lady Barbara Bush, the university has become embroiled in a crisis that has led to a potential loss of enrollment and donations.
While the University’s final determination was that it couldn’t fire Jarrar, an initial press conference with Provost Lynnette Zelezny questioned the professor’s assertion that she couldn’t be fired.
“Does tenure mean that you, technically, cannot be fired? The answer to that is no,” Zelezny said.
Holly Carter of Carter & Co. Communications, a company that specializes in crisis management, said this apparent “backtracking” on her termination was an error on the part of the university’s leadership.
“I think he maybe knew that it was a freedom of speech issue and they weren’t going to be able to fire her,” Carter said. “However, I wouldn’t have communicated that in my initial response because it set the tone for what was to come.”
The University held a town hall meeting last week at the Save Mart Center to let the community express its concerns.
“It is important for you to know that my wife Mary and I thought those comments were absolutely inappropriate and disgraceful,” Castro said at the town hall. “For the past five years, we’ve modeled leadership at Fresno State through respect, civility, understanding and transparency.”
Many community members, however, said that it has made them reconsider whether the university is one they wish to see their families attend. President Castro, however, maintains that he does not fear a loss of students.
“We received a record 26,000 applications this year for 5,000 spots,” he said. “I believe that students and families, when they really look at the quality and affordability, and overall value of education at Fresno State, that they will want to come and we’ve seen that while I’ve been president, and I believe that we’ll continue to see that.”
“My dad went to Fresno State, my children have gone to Fresno State,” said one of the people at the forum. “Although my whole family has gone, my grandchildren refuse.”
The man stated that he wished to remain anonymous when asked for his name by The Business Journal.
Another mother, Lisa Bertlesen, expressed her concerns about the professor and the university’s handling of the issue.
“I have two autistic kids, you guys have autistic program that is excellent. My son is about ready to transfer to Fresno State, he wants to be an English teacher,” Bertlesen said. “I felt that this isn’t a very safe place… and I’m sending my children to this environment and they’re going to be learning from these kind of professors.”
Bertlesen then noted the incident in which Jarrar posted a phone number on Twitter to call if they were opposed to her comments about Bush, only for it to be the suicide hotline for Arizona State University.
“My son tried to commit suicide a couple of years ago,” Bertlesen said. “Do you think that’s something I want to be sending my kid to school with when she’s doing that? No, I don’t.”
Another person at the forum, Holly Kirschner, mentioned the donations of her husband’s family and what this has meant for them.
“We have given thousands and thousands of dollars in athletic scholarships, just under 40 years of season tickets for football. And I get a little choked up when I tell you about this because this had put the family over the edge,” Kirschner said. “We just can’t put money in an institution that doesn’t align with our values.”
Kirschner estimated that the family has donated around $70,000 to Fresno State over the years. Other donors have pledged to back out of their donations. Like the Kirschners, many of them are in the agricultural community. One source, who wished to remain anonymous said that several boosters have cut back their financial aid to Fresno State, their funds adding up to approximately $200,000.
In a poll conducted by The Business Journal, 56 percent of voters said they would no longer support Fresno State, while 15 percent said they would pull support back.
Other donors, like P-R Farms President Pat Ricchiuti, are sticking by Fresno State. He added that in the future, he believes Fresno State will have to do more in terms of background checks when they hire and at the point of time when they might qualify for tenure, but he remains committed to supporting the university.
Ricchiuti declined to state how much he has donated. Nearly 15 years ago the Ricchiuti family donated $1 million toward an academic facility to support student athletes.
“I disagree with what was done, and I wish the university was able to do more with discipline,” he said. “However, knowing what the circumstances are, there’s not much more that the president can do.”