The president of Western Colorado University in Gunnison will remain in his position despite a majority of the faculty calling for his firing, according to a statement from the school's board of trustees.
On Jan. 7, the day after the attack on the U.S. Capitol building, Greg Salsbury wrote a message to all staff, titled “Voice Against Violence,” in which he condemned the violent attempt to overturn then President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral win over Donald Trump.
But after denouncing the Capitol attack “in the strongest of terms,” Salsbury’s message appeared to turn to the social justice protests of 2020.
In part, Salsbury wrote, “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.”
Many faculty members inferred this as a direct comparison between the Capitol riot -- which resulted in six deaths and included people chanting in support of killing Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi -- and protests against the killing of unarmed people of color by police, most notably George Floyd in Minneapolis.
In response to Salsbury’s message, the university’s faculty senate on Feb. 22 submitted a statement requesting new leadership at the college to a faculty-wide referendum. The request won support from 56 percent of the faculty members approved to vote.
Faculty members took particular issue with Salsbury’s assertion in his Jan. 7 message that the 2020 social justice protests resulted in the “destruction of entire cities,” saying that while the protests caused millions of dollars in property damage, the contention that entire cities were destroyed was false and indicative of the perceived leadership deficiency that led them to call for his ouster.
The faculty senate’s statement acknowledged Salsbury’s contributions to the university since assuming leadership in 2014, but accused him of being “deficient” in his leadership on social issues in general and race relations in particular, saying the president lacked “a strong understanding of and commitment to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Internationalization (DEII) work at Western” and had demonstrated an “inability to put personal views aside in order to represent the University’s values.”
The statement also referenced a 2016 letter from Salsbury to The Chronicle of Higher Education, in which the president wondered if acceptance of students’ self-identification of gender would begin a slippery slope that would lead to schools being required to accept self-identifications of race as well –- the implication being that some students might attempt to gain acceptance by lying about their ethnic backgrounds.
The decision to retain or fire Salsbury rested with the board of trustees, which voted in support of the president in a public meeting Tuesday night.
“I wasn’t surprised, but I was pleased," Salsbury said about the board's decision to retain him.
Salsbury on Thursday told the Gazette that while he wishes he had used different phraseology in certain parts of his message, he stands by the intent of his statement.
“The goal of my statement was to give full-throated support for the 1st Amendment while simultaneously condemning any use of violence in that process, which I don’t think has a place in a free and civilized society,” he said. “My hope was that, in a year that was rocked by violence, discontent, and the coronavirus, this would be a universally shared belief behind which people could rally.”
He said he was not comparing social justice protests with an attack on the capitol, but was issuing an across-the-board denunciation of the violence involved in each case.
“I would hope that we could all agree that such violence is equally bad,” he said.
The level of backlash from faculty members came as a surprise, Salsbury said.
He took issue with the contention that he lacked a commitment to diversity, pointing to the university’s increased enrollment of minority students during his tenure.
“We have escalated that quite significantly during my tenure,” he said, adding he has spearheaded an increased recruitment effort in the Front Range, where more diverse communities reside. “Our diverse student enrollment growth, by percentage, has been among the highest -- and sometimes the highest -- in the state.”
From 2013 to 2019, Western saw a 45% increase in degree-seeking minority enrollment, and the minority graduation rate rose 26 points to 47%, according to a university spokeswoman.
Salsbury said minority retention rates have also increased during his tenure at the university. He credited the school’s Epic Mentors Program and its multicultural center for creating a welcoming environment in which young people of color can pursue their education.
He stood by the sentiments expressed in his letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education, saying he was not condemning the acceptance of students who self-identify as a gender (or race) other than the one they were born with; he was simply wondering if such acceptance might lead to students falsifying certain parts of their applications.
Salsbury said he hopes the controversy will lead to opening communication channels between himself and university stakeholders, and that some of that dialogue has already begun to take place. In recent weeks he has met with many faculty members, including some of his more outspoken critics, he said.
“There has been some constructive dialogue, I think,” he said. “I’m not saying I’ve reversed anyone’s opinions yet, but we’re having conversations, they seem to be going well, and I’m hopeful they will continue.”