An evening gala may seem an unlikely place to address racism, but the bulk of Clark College President Bob Knight’s comments at a recent donor event centered on the school’s struggles with racial equity.

The annual Savoring Excellence event is one of the Vancouver-based community college’s biggest fundraisers. The November event was well attended, with guests like the mayor, city council members and local business leaders.

Halfway through the event, Knight addressed the crowd on stage.

“We’ve had multiple bias-based incidents, Patriot Prayer groups show up for a few appearances, and recently an article came out in a regional media platform that talked about people of color not being retained nor feeling safe at Clark College,” Knight said.

Clark College's Savoring Excellence gala is one of the Foundation's largest fundraisers. At the Nov. 15 event, President Bob Knight addressed ongoing racial equity challenges at the college.

Clark College’s Savoring Excellence gala is one of the Foundation’s largest fundraisers. At the Nov. 15 event, President Bob Knight addressed ongoing racial equity challenges at the college.

Molly Solomon/OPB

He went on to tell the room this was unacceptable  — to him and his board — and that they would make sure action was taken.

“Let me tell you, we’ve got long term plans in place that make sure everyone feels welcome and safe at Clark College,” Knight said. “I will assure you.”

Knight announced his retirement last week, a day after his annual State of the College address. School leaders say his departure has nothing to do with the equity issues, and point to his 15 years of service to the college.

But the change in leadership does come during a time of renewed focus on social equity and inclusion at the campus. The speech he gave at Savoring Excellence was one of several actions the college has taken to more publicly acknowledge the work the college needs to do.

A report from the president has included an update on these issues at every board meeting since October.

“We’ll continue to listen to our faculty, staff and students,” Knight said at a Nov. 14 board of trustee meeting. “We’re not going to sit back and just say we heard you and nothing’s going to happen.”

In October, OPB published an investigation into the college’s ongoing struggles around diversity and equity. Last year, a string of resignations revealed a campus climate that alienates people of color, even as top school officials say the campus is becoming more inclusive.

Former employees discussed a campus climate that felt unsafe and unwelcoming. They complained of microaggressions, supervisors monitoring them more harshly than their white peers, and a culture from the top that minimized their experiences and failed to advance people of color.

Knight responded immediately to the article by sending a campus-wide email saying he was taking these incidents seriously.

The college also did a survey to hear from current employees. The survey was anonymous, but respondents were asked if they identified as a person of color. Questions included what barriers existed for people of color on campus and ways different groups could address them.

The results of the survey have not been released publicly, but OPB obtained a copy. The responses from staff of color were especially critical of campus leadership and called for more representation and cultural competency training.

One person wrote “we are tired, and that’s a big reason why the college is losing us. I love Clark but I am becoming weary, and I am not the only one. A culture shift is needed.”

Others called for the administration to “stop hearing and start listening.” Another added, “I hope the college leadership doesn’t miss the opportunity to really walk the walk and not just talk the talk.”

Within the more than 60 survey responses, there were dozens of mentions of Knight’s leadership. Several questioned if he should be the person running Clark. As long as he remains at the head of the college, one person wrote, “nothing will change.”

Other records OPB obtained show that college leaders received questions and serious backlash from donors and board members of the Clark College Foundation, the fundraising arm of the school.

An email from Foundation Senior Vice President Joel Munson to CEO Lisa Gibert said one board leader suggested disconnecting from the college entirely. Another was a prospective donor who had informed the college they were no longer making a gift and did not want his or his company’s name affiliated with Clark.

The school told those donors that they were aware of the equity issues at the college and were following a multi-year plan they had previously developed to address the issues.

“We’re part of the public and of course they’re gonna ask questions,” Gibert told OPB in response to these concerns. “But we’ve addressed those questions and we have moved forward with those relationships.”

Four days after the OPB article was published, Clark spent $10,000 on a contract with Lane Finn Partners, a Portland-based public relations firm. According to the contract, the goal was crisis assessment and to develop a plan to communicate the school’s social equity plan achievements.

And in October, Clark decided to cancel campus activities when Patriot Prayer — a local group that has associated at times with white supremacists — tried to hold a pro-2nd Amendment rally there. The decision came after multiple faculty and staff pushed for the president to take a more active approach to shutting down activities that could feel threatening to students of color.

Since the fall, Knight has sent four emails to faculty outlining progress the school has made on its social equity plan: the addition of gender neutral bathrooms, growth in the number of students and faculty of color, and improved hiring practices.  

“We are proud of the areas in the plan where progress has been made and continue to challenge ourselves in areas where we fall short of our vision,” Knight told OPB in an email. “We appreciate and listen thoughtfully to all stakeholders along this journey including students, staff and community.”

But even as the school has been trying to more publicly address its issues, it has paid for alleged past misconduct. Earlier this month, the school paid an $80,000 settlement to an African American health occupations instructor who claimed racial discrimination in her tenure process.

Clark did not grant multiple requests for interviews with Knight and board of trustees chair Royce Pollard, but did answer questions sent by email.

“We will continue to hold college leadership accountable for progress toward goals set in the Social Equity Plan,” wrote Pollard in an emailed statement.

He reiterated that the board is taking concerns raised by students, faculty, staff and the community seriously.

“While sometimes uncomfortable and challenging, these conversations make the college stronger,” he wrote.

Clark College opened its diversity center in 2012. Recently, the center has experienced high staff turnover.

Clark College opened its diversity center in 2012. Recently, the center has experienced high staff turnover.

Molly Solomon/OPB

Knight’s executive cabinet members say equity has been a regular point of discussion and there is a committed effort to finding solutions.

“The article sparked really good conversation and that was good,” said Rashida Willard, the interim Associate Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. “But from that conversation we’re also moving into action, and that’s the most important thing.”

Willard said each cabinet member has gone back to their departments to develop a plan to improve diversity and equity outcomes. Willard has also been tasked with rebuilding a place of trust for both faculty and students of color on campus. The diversity center is still in transition after the previous director was let go in July. The administration is currently looking for a permanent replacement and has elevated the position to the Vice President level.

“My biggest thing is: let’s rebuild and let’s heal,” Willard said. “And so, it’s really about establishing a foundation of stability.”

Moving forward, the board of trustees will begin the process of finding a replacement for Knight. At a Jan. 23 meeting, the board appointed trustee Paul Speer to lead the search with assistance from trustee Jane Jacobsen.

“There needs to be a strong value for equity, especially racial equity,” said trustee Rekah Strong, speaking about key values in the next leader of Clark College.