Student Trustee Simon Fraser sent a scathing email to the Board of Trustees on Friday detailing his involvement in the commencement debacle and categorically denied that the formal invitation he sent to Academy Award winner and PCC alumnus Dustin Lance Black to be this year’s commencement speaker was unauthorized.
Fraser said he was distraught by what he described as the Board’s betrayal.
The invitation was allegedly rescinded by the Board because of sexually explicit images of Black with a former boyfriend that surfaced on the internet in 2009. Board of Trustees President Anthony Fellow expressed concerns that inviting Black would invite more focus on the college’s recent sex scandals.
“With the porno professor and the sex scandals we’ve had on campus this last year, it just didn’t seem like the right time for Mr. Black to be the speaker,” Fellow said. “We’ll be on the radio and on the television. We just don’t want to give PCC a bad name.”
Black, an LGBT equality advocate, described the Board’s actions as a “cruel act” and an attempt to “shame” him. Black sent an open letter to the Courier on Thursday addressing the issue directly to PCC students. His letter has garnered global attention in the media.
In his letter, Fraser was infuriated and said that Fellow used him as a scapegoat for the commencement fiasco. He argued that Fellow did not give proper information regarding the invitation process to those who inquired.
“The reason why I sent the email to the trustees in the first place was because I became aware, not an hour ago, [Friday night] that Dr. Fellow was using me as the blame guy for the whole debacle. I want to categorically state that Dr. Fellow’s assertions are not true…I can not fathom why the district has decided to blame me. Why Dr. Fellow decided to also blame one of his colleagues for this when it was clearly his decision to not invite Mr. Black,” Fraser said in an interview with the Courier Friday night.
Black’s assistant Neville Kiser released a statement to the Courier which seems to support Fraser’s characterizations of the events.
“This is so bizarre. Here is what we were told in an official email from PCC, from Simon who was acting on behalf of Heba [Griffiths, Interim Associate Dean of Student Life ] and Dr. Bell’s [ Senior Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs] command. This was language Heba specifically reviewed from Dr. Bell and told Simon to write not from Simon himself.. Note Heba was CC’d on this email and never once retracted or said this was not coming from [the] board. So [they] can not throw Simon under the bus. And [someone] is lying to students with his claims he never invited [Black],” Kiser wrote.
Kiser included in his statement an email, dated March 11, 2014, that the Black camp believed was the formal invitation for Black to be the commencement speaker at PCC.
“On behalf of Heba Griffiths, Interim Associate Dean of Student Life at Pasadena City College, we would like to formally invite Mr. Black to conduct the commencement address to the students as we celebrate our theme of “Proud Past, Global Future,” the email said.”
“The college apologizes for the lateness of the email but hopes that you will take our request into consideration. If you could let us know Mr. Black’s availability by Friday, March 28th, the college staff would be greatly appreciative. Please feel free to contact me, or Ms. Griffiths, via phone or email if there are any specific questions.”
Black believed this formal invitation was quite clear. “The invitation language is so clear to how NOT vague it is,” said Black in a separate statement.
Fraser’s email to Kiser extending the “formal invitation” to Black seems to contradict another email, obtained by the Courier through a public records request, and sent by Robert Bell on April 14, 2014 to Neville Kiser. Bell’s entire email can be read below:
“Good evening Neville,
By way of introduction, my name is Dr. Robert H. Bell and I serve as Senior Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs for Pasadena City College. I am contacting you to follow up on previous communications regarding Mr. Black appearing as commencement speaker for Pasadena City College on May 9, 2014.
First, allow me to apologize for the time it has taken to get back to you and Mr. Black. As you have undoubtedly discerned, there have been a number of discussions that have occurred within the college surrounding the decision of the commencement speaker, which have contributed to the delay in providing you and Mr. Black with a more timely response.
I wish to inform you that Mr. Black will not need to rearrange his busy schedule to appear as commencement speaker. I understand that Mr. Black’s time is valuable and important and, again, I apologize for the delay in finalizing this with you and him.
Please extend to Mr. Black my sincere appreciation for his gracious consideration. Should you have any questions, please feel free to contact me directly.
Best regards, Dr. Robert H. Bell,” the email read.
Board member Jeanette Mann release a brief statement. “The Board President is the spokesperson for the Board. I will not be making a comment,” Mann said.
Fraser’s email to PCC’s Board of Trustees was obtained by the Courier can be read in full below:
Pasadena Area Community College District
firstname.lastname@example.org| (626) 585-[XXXX]
From: Simon W. Fraser
Sent: Friday, April 18, 2014 5:58 PM
To: Ross S. Selvidge; Jeanette Mann; Berlinda Brown Offcampus; William E. Thomson; Linda Wah – Offcampus; John Martin; Anthony Fellow
Subject: On commencement
In reviewing articles online, I saw this comment posted:
“I wrote an email to Anthony Fellows – the Board President, who responded to my email by stating “The real reason Mr. Black is not the commencement speaker is that he was never invited to be the commencement speaker by the person who makes that decision–the president of the college, which is standard throughout the United States. The student trustee made the invitation without consulting the board or the president. That is not the process at PCC or any other college or university.”” As I was writing this, I received another email directly from [XXXX] stating The student member of the Board invited the speaker unbeknownst to anyone else. The commencement speaker is invited by the President with the support of the Board. No member of the Board can invite the commence speaker on their own. Ralph”
I feel the need to clarify precisely what happened, as I am afraid that the District is attempting to scapegoat me for being a messenger. I feel this is inappropriate, and absolutely not a reflection of the facts. Further, as a colleague of the Board, I am deeply distressed to find that I am being used as the fodder for the fallout of this decision without a single person from the Board or the administration talking to me.
To be very clear: after the CCLC conference in November, I reached out to DLB’s team, being very open about who I was and my status as a student hear, asking if he would be willing to come to speak to our Queer Alliance club, or the campus community in general, about his journey. Commencement was not mentioned. Separately, I put his name into consideration by attending the commencement committee meeting. It was well received.
I stayed completely out of the commencement committee discussions after that, and then voted in favour of the consent items during our March meeting, which included the shortlist. After that, I was informed that Dr. Bell and Dean Griffiths would split the list in half and send them all invites, and it was indicated that “whoever accepted first would be our speaker.” I do not have this in writing, but am certain of my recollection.
During spring break, while I was in New Orleans, I was asked to call Dean Griffiths. I did so, and she indicated that she had been given the direction to “use connections to make the invite.” As in, if there is someone with a connection to the person being invited, they should make the outreach. This was a point reiterated by a board member at a previous board meeting, even. I was the person with the closest contact to DLB, and so was asked. I asked for a template to use when sending the email. This was provided and, except for changing very basic terms to ensure that it read “he” or “she” instead of “I” or “you,” the email was sent, practically unchanged from the template. It read to me as a formal invitation, and it was indicated that it was indeed an invitation. I simply acted as the messenger.
DLB’s assistant responded a few days later saying that arrangements had been made and he would be able to show up. This was CCed directly to Dean Griffiths. I heard nothing more until the April 2nd board meeting where a new speaker was announced. If I appeared shocked, it’s because I was; the email that all of you had received detailing the “controversy” was never sent to me as it should have been. I met with Dr. Bell the next day. While that conversation was heated, I said several times that DLB had been invited and that this would be a disinvitation. There was no surprise indicated by Dr. Bell.
Now this issue has blown up, as I warned it would, privately, weeks ago. I have had no part in the explosion of this issue publicly, and I certainly did not act outside of my bounds to invite someone I shouldn’t have done. Rather, I acted at the direct instruction of the college with the college’s own template.
I am understandably concerned for my own reputation here, and cannot allow my name, my title or my actions to be used as the scapegoat for a decision that has caused the negative publicity that I said, many times, would occur. I would request that Dr. Fellow, and the Board, stop using my actions as directed by the college as an excuse for this situation. If the Board still feels I acted inappropriately, I would ask that we go through the ethics process outlined by Board policy and, if the Board feels it appropriate, conduct a discussion on censure of a board member in an open meeting. I stand by my assertion that I did absolutely nothing wrong, that I did not act independently when communicating with Black’s team, and that attempts to shift blame onto me are both wrong and disturbing.
It certainly is easy to blame a student leader who has very little backup from his colleagues, or his District administration. While I have often been in disagreement with the Board, or with administration, I have always acted with integrity and honesty. I certainly hope that this is recognized by my Board colleagues when considering this issue further.
I am currently away at the CCCT meeting as the student trustee representative to the League and continuing to represent what I believe the best of PACCD is. I however do welcome further emails or discussion on this topic, and if you wish to call please do so at [XXX-XXX-XXXX] (my temporary number while I’m in Sacramento.)
Pasadena Area Community College District
email@example.com<mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org> | (626) 585-[XXXX]