Following recent allegations of racism and discrimination, Cuesta College’s Board of Trustees met on Nov. 4 to hear public comment and discuss the proposed Resolution 14-20 Affirming a Commitment to Equity and Anti-Racism that was postponed from the October meeting.
Initially, the first 30 minutes were dedicated to public comment, but demand for more time by attending members of the community extended that time frame to approximately an hour. Much of the discussion revolved around the call for Peter Sysak, the president of Cuesta College’s Board of Trustees, to resign as more than a dozen speakers used Zoom to make their public comment in front of over 160 attendees.
Many cited Sysak’s negative Facebook posts regarding Muslims and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement as reasoning for his resignation.
Janet Florez, a Cuesta College academic counselor, read a statement on behalf of the Latina Leadership Network at Cuesta College, urging that the original resolution proposed by the academic senate be passed and asked for Sysak to step down.
“Members of the Latinx and Black community are outraged with the insensitivity and lack of prudence Mr. Sysak’s used when posting derogatory memes on social media,” the statement said. “The Latina Leadership Network demands Mr. Sysak make a public apology, step down from his position and submit his resignation immediately. Our community deserves a better representative. It is time for a more diverse board.”
Lara Baxley, a chemistry professor at Cuesta College, also made public comments expressing concern for the resolution, and asked the board to condemn the actions of Sysak.
“What is the action that you as the Board of Trustees—all members—will do on a daily basis to live the values that are in the resolution?” Baxley said. “How does this college heal from the pain that has been caused by its leadership? Being silent about a board member’s racist and homophobic views is not living up to this resolution. To not condemn racism is to condone it.”
As some Zoom attendees spoke, many used the chat to voice their concerns and opinions about the board, critiquing the creation of the resolution without the help of diverse members and criticizing Sysak.
“You cannot create a resolution about People of Color without People of Color,” wrote Jannet Rios publicly in the chat.
Lara Baxley’s husband Greg Baxley, a chemistry professor at Cuesta College, also added comments.
“The very act of a racist meme-posting white person using their privileged position on this board to deny the existence of systemic racism is a perfect example of systemic racism,” Greg said publicly in the chat.
After general public comment closed, the board transitioned to agenda items, which included the amended Resolution 14-20. The board opened the floor to public comment for the resolution specifically before making a motion to approve it.
Board member Angela Mitchell, who opposed the use of the term “systemic” within the resolution during the September meeting, explained her opposition and motioned to approve the resolution.
“On September second, I have to admit I was really confused about ‘systematic’ and ‘systemic’ and I really was not clear on that,” Mitchell said. “I didn’t have enough time to actually do adequate research and I am okay with either word now.”
Mitchell explained that she has since taken the 21 day racial equity challenge and she originally thought the word systemic meant that Cuesta College was racist.
Board member Barbara George, who was absent at the September meeting when the proposition was postponed, commented on the resolution, invoking the code of ethics and the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“I need to bring in Ruth Bader Gingsburg, because she lived her entire life in search of good for all Americans,” George said. “She was a force of justice and grounded by her sense of right. She challenged us to make our country a better, fairer place. This is our chance.”
George then explained that this was her last meeting as a board member and she wished to see an anti-racism resolution passed as part of the board’s commitment to students of color.
The Board of Trustees heard more public comment before affirming the amended Anti-racism and Equity resolution, though not unanimously. The student trustee, Jesus Cendejas, abstained from voting.
Jill Stearns, the superintendent of Cuesta College, released a statement on Friday, Nov. 6 following the meeting. She explained her responsibilities as superintendent and her dedication to the students and staff of Cuesta College. Stearns also commented on the controversial actions of Sysak.
“I do not condone racism or discrimination in any form,” Stearns said. “I believe that as educational leaders we have a social responsibility to hold ourselves accountable to address racism and inequity on our campus, even when it comes from another leader.”
Stearns ended her statement with a call to action, affirming her commitment to the students of Cuesta College.
“Let us boldly commit to anti-racism as we strive for equity of outcomes for all students,” Stearns said. “And let us relentlessly pursue excellence as a college that has no place for hate.”