The publicity firestorm over a Fresno State professor’s inflammatory Twitter outburst following the death of former first lady Barbara Bush has some donors rethinking their financial support for the Valley’s largest university.
But others say that while they consider English professor Randa Jarrar’s social media declarations on Tuesday that Bush was “a generous and smart and amazing racist” to be an embarrassment to the university, they remain steadfast in their commitment to Fresno State.
Given the hot-button nature of the controversy, communications specialists say the university is doing the best it can to limit the public-relations damage and sooth tempers. Still, on social media, on radio airwaves and elsewhere, people have voiced the opinion that donors should stop making donations to the university and demanded that Jarrar be fired.
Fresno State President Joseph Castro said he’s been inundated with calls from community leaders expressing their outrage over Jarrar’s tweets, but as of Thursday none had threatened to close up their checkbooks if Jarrar isn’t terminated.
“I’ve seen some things on social media, but no one has said that to me directly,” Castro told The Bee. “The conversations I’m having are more about their concern, and I share that concern. I understand where they’re coming from. I’m asking them for understanding here as we work through the complexities of this issue.”
“They’re outraged, and I’m outraged as well,” he added. “This is behavior that is unacceptable as a university that models the development of leaders; we just cannot tolerate it.”
Several prominent Fresno State donors, including members of the university’s President’s Circle of Excellence recognizing substantial contributions, said they’re standing with the university, describing Jarrar’s controversy as an aberration.
Los Banos farmer Joe Del Bosque, a 1975 Fresno State graduate, said the professor’s tweetstorm won’t dissuade him from donating to university projects, the student cupboard and scholarship funds. “I did read her comments, and I was rather dismayed by that,” Del Bosque said. “I’m a big fan of Mrs. Bush, and I’m just a person who doesn’t talk about things that way, but I don’t see that as a reflection of the university.”
Jarrar “may temporarily give the university a little embarrassment, but I don’t think it’s any more than that,” Del Bosque added. “I’m not one of those who would demand her termination … We’ve been through this with another professor, and we put that behind us. It’s just a little annoyance; that’s all it is.”
Ed Dunkel Jr., a second-generation engineering graduate from Fresno State and president of Precision Civil Engineering in Fresno, is taking a wait-and-see position. “But candidly, I have a lot of friends that I’ve been talking to, and these are people who donate now and talking about holding back, and some are even questioning whether to send their kids to Fresno State,” said Dunkel, who has been recognized for his financial contributions as a member of the university’s President’s Circle for Excellence.
“I admire and have a lot of respect for President (Joseph) Castro and huge affection for Fresno State,” Dunkel said. “But I have huge concerns. This represents such an embarrassment to the university and the community. It’s hard to believe this is an isolated thing that just happened. I have to imagine people previously knew of this person’s character and what she’s about.”
“I have to wait and see how it’s going to be handled,” Dunkel added. “I’m a huge supporter of Fresno State, but at the end of the day we have to take a look at this and see who’s teaching our kids, and what the university is all about.”
But other donors say they trust Castro to handle things appropriately.
“I’m not going to let one person affect my attitude toward Fresno State,” said Peter Weber, a longtime Fresno businessman and community leader. “I appreciate the work President Castro and his staff and the faculty are doing to try to educate our kids.” Weber added that he’s been a supporter of the university for more than 20 years and that his daughters are both Fresno State graduates.
Coke Hallowell described Jarra’s tweets as “very terrible remarks,” but said she and her husband, James, “are loyal Fresno State supporters, and just one professor doing one thing wrong is not enough to disengage us.”
“We will still continue to support the programs we like a lot, such as the humanities,” she added. “We’re not going to back down, and I honestly don’t think many people will.”
Former Fresno County Superior Court and appellate court judge Robert Oliver, who served as chairman of the CSU Fresno Foundation for 17 years, said the Jarrar situation was “on the face of it, simply ranting, so I don’t give the ranter the credence to get involved.”
“The actions of an individual professor, while embarrassing to the university and that professor, have no impact on the value that this university brings to the community and its students,” Oliver said. “It does not in any way alter my support for the university and, more importantly, the value of our university.”
“I have great confidence in Dr. Castro and those with whom he is in consultation that they will go forward in a way that is legally appropriate,” the former judge added.
As of Thursday afternoon, a telephone message line established by the university to field calls related to Jarrar’s tweets had received about 1,300 calls and was getting more. Castro said he’d not gotten an official tally of the comments, but “I can guess that many of them are expressing concern because I’m hearing about that directly from people and on social media.”
Some communication professionals said they believe the university is doing a good job of limiting the damage to Fresno State’s reputation, despite the rhetoric raging in the politically and socially divisive climate of social media.
The minute someone says something, you have to absolutely respond swiftly if you disagree with it, said Cary Catalano, owner and founder of Catalano Fenske & Associates, a public relations and marketing firm in Fresno.
“Situations like this happen. It gets hyper-political and I think the university did a good job responding swiftly and separating itself from the comments of the professor,” Catalano said. He added that the response from Blake Zante, president of Fresno State Associated Students, helped to protect the university’s brand.
Zante said Wednesday that Jarrar’s comments did not reflect Fresno State’s values. “As president of the student body, I will work with the university to ensure that the student voice is heard and that appropriate action is taken,” Zante said.
Now, Catalano said, Fresno State needs to reinforce that it believes in individual rights, but can disagree with those statements.
As for donors, people and businesses should not let one situation be a snapshot of the university’s reputation, said Catalano, whose clients include many nonprofits that rely on the charity of others. Donors “need to look at the longstanding tradition and history of this university and the magnitude of their contributions.”
Holly Carter, of Carter & Co. Communications, said Fresno State needs to send a stronger message to the public about what has happened and the consequences. There hasn’t been enough trust building and reputation building, she said, following a rash of incidents at the university involving free speech and a recent data breach at the school.
Absent that, Carter said, the university “is leaving a lot of people ... feeling, ‘OK, well, maybe this is the real Fresno State.’” Parents who send their kids to the school need to hear what’s happening, along with the students who are deciding whether to attend Fresno State, the athletes, and the donors, Carter said.
Castro said he wasn’t surprised that the controversy blew up to become a national sensation. “With social media, it’s another example of how quickly bad things can travel,” he said. “I think it’s another lesson for us as a university and a community: how do we use social media in the most appropriate way. Clearly the behavior we saw the other night was outrageous.”
But, Castro noted, some of the blowback has been just as toxic as Jarrar’s tweets. “The level of discourse has been, I think, very unfortuate in that way,” he said. “But when I receive calls from community leaders, it is a dialogue that is at a level that we would all appreciate and understand.”
Castro reiterated that the university is taking the situation, and its eventual resolution, seriously. “We’re going to deal with it as quickly and as thoughtfully as we can,” he said. “It’s really important that we have all the facts and look at that carefully and expeditiously. I’ve said this to our friends directly as well, that we will do that as quickly as we can.”