WSU President Kirk Schulz, former Cougars quarterback Jack Thompson, Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins and WSU VP of Student Affairs Mary Jo Gonzales will visit Samoa next month on a goodwill trip

Share story

Next month, Washington State University President Kirk Schulz and former WSU quarterback Jack Thompson will lead a small delegation from Pullman to American Samoa on a goodwill trip that Thompson described as a “very magnanimous gesture by President Schulz.”

Schulz and Thompson, who is Samoan, will be joined by Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins and Mary Jo Gonzales, who was hired as WSU’s vice president of student affairs in December.

This first-of-its-kind trip to Samoa comes in the wake of a tumultuous fall at WSU which saw the university’s conduct board accused of ethnic bias against Samoan and Asian-Pacific Islanders after it penalized four Samoan football players before their cases had fully unfolded in the legal realm.

In March, a law firm WSU commissioned to perform an independent review ultimately found no evidence of racial-based discrimination in WSU’s conduct processes. However, Gonzales said at the time that even the perception of bias was troubling.

Gonzales’ goal, she says, is to “understand who our students are and how we can support them.”

This trip to Samoa in August is the first in a series of trips Gonzales and Schulz plan to take to build WSU’s relationships with diverse communities. It’s part of WSU’s Drive to 25 initiative to become one recognized as one of the nation’s top 25 public research universities by 2030, Gonzales said.

“When I interviewed with the president, it really was about what are we doing to become an inclusive community,” Gonzales said in an interview in Pullman last week. “During the interview process, we realized there were some key areas we hadn’t paid attention to. Our Asian-Pacific Islander population, in particular, maybe has not been paid attention to, just like our African-American population.”

This is an opportunity for WSU to “do some multicultural recruiting” and to learn about Samoan families and culture and understand how WSU can better support its Asian-Pacific Islander population, Gonzales says.

According to statistics from WSU, there were 99 students of native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander descent enrolled among its five campuses for the spring 2017 semester, making up 0.4 percent of the student body.

The WSU contingent will leave for Pago Pago on August 23, and stay for five days. They are still fine-tuning their itinerary, but hope to meet with the lieutenant-governor and governor, the director of education and the chief of police, among others.

Jenkins, whose police department was accused of targeting by WSU football coach Mike Leach, said he looks forward to developing relationships with people in Samoa and “maybe dispelling some concerns people have or some things they may have heard.”

“I think it’s important to put a face to that because it’s easy to vilify an organization or someone when they’re a distant entity,” Jenkins said. “But when they’re an actual person you can converse (with) and have a connection to, I think that changes the relationship.

“So I’m hoping, as a representative of the city, to provide a face and a person that someone can identify with the community, and hopefully help develop some positive relationships.”

In the year since two Samoan WSU football players were first accused of assault after a fight at an off-campus house party last July, WSU’s leadership has worked closely with city officials to improve town-gown relationships, Gonzales and Jenkins say.

Jenkins believes his department’s relationship with WSU is “better than it’s ever been.”

“Sometimes, situations cause us to really get together and examine the relationships we have,” Jenkins said. “(The party assault case) brought us together. And when you work through issues with people, you develop a much stronger relationship. I think that’s happened. … I think we have a lot of effort right now going into WSU and the community’s relationship, and I think we’re trying to meld into one seamless community as best we can.”

Gonzales says her department is also doing some new things to connect with the athletic department and help WSU’s student-athletes form ties to the Pullman community.

Instead of just sending staff from the Office of Student Conduct to visit with athletic teams this year, Gonzales says she and new Interim Dean of Students Kathy MacKay plan to attend these meetings and to be more involved.

“We’re going to talk about how you integrate into the community all together, so it’s not just “do this” and “don’t do this.” It’s going to be about “here’s what it means to be a member of the community” and “here are ways you can be involved” and “here are the philanthropic options that you have,” Gonzales said. “I have even met with the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and will meet with them regularly.”

In the meantime, WSU’s effort to reform its student conduct procedures continues. The conduct board task force Schulz assembled hopes to unveil their recommendations and open them up to public comment this fall.

Gonzales says she’s hopeful that a new set of conduct procedures will be officially implemented by the start of the 2018 school year.