A slew of stakeholders committed to seeing suspended WSU football player Robert Barber reinstated pledged to make their voices heard during the public comment portion of Friday’s WSU Board of Regents meeting, and boy oh boy did they do that.
These gatherings are typically tame, snooze-worthy affairs, but this one bordered on resembling a three-ring circus.
Jacob Thorpe of the Spokesman-Review does an excellent job of running down the event here, and you should go read that if you want a detailed account of the event. Here are some of the highlights, not necessarily in order:
WSU President Kirk Schulz finally broke his silence, announcing that a compromise had been worked out by which Barber would be allowed to complete his degree this semester online while under suspension. While this was presumably designed to appease all parties involved, Schulz appears to have miscalculated badly on this one — it was all downhill from there, as the point of contention has moved from Barber merely getting his degree to an effort to reform the entire process itself, which is viewed as having been unjust.
State Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-Spokane) has taken up Barber’s cause, accusing the Student Conduct Board of racial bias. At one point, he stormed out of the room, saying, “If you don’t fix this, I goddamn will.”
One of the more pointed — and perhaps salient — comments from Baumgartner was this, via Stefanie Loh of The Seattle Times:
“Robert Barber is not a threat to this university,” Baumgartner said. “They said in their filing last night that he’s a monster. The amount of blatant racism going on in this situation is outrageous. They talk about Robert Barber like he’s a savage animal. He’s a 300-pound football player.
Gabe Marks spoke on Barber’s behalf, saying student athletes are sometimes targets. He also got into an interesting conversation with regent Ron Sims.
This exchange between Gabe Marks and WSU regent Ron Sims during today's public comment period was bizarre. pic.twitter.com/yZ1MVHclnB— Jacob Thorpe (@JacobThorpeSR) November 5, 2016
Jill Osur and Tracy Cracraft — mothers of Noah Osur-Myers and River (and Skyler) Cracraft and the founders of CougFam, which connects athlete families — also spoke out against the process, wondering if their sons (who are white) would be treated the same as Barber:
“The student conduct board thinks their role is to punish and not to educate. That’s not what their role is,” Osur said. “This could be my son sitting where Robert is. But I actually think it wouldn’t be my son, for reasons of race.
“This isn’t about Robert Barber. This is about human rights for all. Let’s fix this for Robert. He’s no threat to the community. Let’s let him finish out his football season and get his degree.”
Additionally, sophomore Stella Anderson came to the meeting, claiming that she was a witness to the fight, that Barber (and others) were provoked by the alleged “victims” in the fight ... and that the SCB didn’t allow her to testify about what she observed.
The board, for its part, seemed not to anticipate what was walking into its meeting. Regent Mike Worthy said, “I’m 10 years a regent of WSU and I’m not convinced the system is broken. ... I served eight years with Elson Floyd, and he never spoke to me once about dysfunction in this area of campus. It doesn’t seem appropriate for our board to abandon decades of process from one session today.”
To which Baumgartner responded:
Total bullshit and not true. https://t.co/0GO29nGesl— Michael Baumgartner (@VoteBaumgartner) November 4, 2016
Okie dokie then!
As you might have guessed, the board did not take any action on any of the requests — which clearly bothered everyone speaking on behalf of Barber — and said it would hold an executive session on Monday to discuss potential legal action against the university.
Lost in the shuffle, to some degree, is that WSU filed court documents to counter the claims of Barber’s attorney which sought for Whitman County Superior Court to issue a stay of Barber’s suspension.
In it, the school’s attorney said the SCB “determined that expulsion was the proper sanction because Mr. Barber was a risk to other members of the community. Because of the seriousness of Mr. Barber’s violations, allowing him to return to WSU could … pose a threat to other students.”
It’s a claim that Baumgartner and Barber’s attorney portrayed as ludicrous, given that WSU didn’t pursue Barber’s immediate removal from campus, for which there are processes in place when a student is truly a danger.
Interestingly, the board said in its original ruling that it rejected Barber’s claim of self defense because “the man you struck was not even looking toward you when you struck him. And certainly, after he was on the ground and unconcious, he was no threat to you, but you still struck him again.”
(I’m certainly no expert on human behavior, and I’m certainly not condoning punching someone — on the ground or otherwise — but I’ve been around enough altercations that I’m willing to bet nobody on that board who consented to the writing of that paragraph has ever felt seriously physically threatened.)
Through all of this, Schulz has taken a lot of heat for his seeming inaction on the issue. Up until today, his only public comment on the matter was a tweet affirming WSU’s statement on reviewing potential bias in process. It’s been puzzling to watch from afar, especially in contrast to the proactive leadership style of Elson Floyd.
It’s tough for most of us to know the specific and unique challenges faced by a university president. One Cougar fan who works in higher education — not at WSU — offered up a number of excellent thoughts in a tweetstorm following Friday’s meeting. Here they are, for your consideration (note — it appears not all tweets are loading on the screen for some, so you might want to click the “slideshow” link at the top to see them all):
One thing is certain: This is not over.
Appendix: If you’d like to watch this entire thing, Thorpe — who did some tremendous work today — broadcast it via Periscope, which you can watch below.