Photo by Davis BarberCritics are hopeful that two high-profile changes on Chapman University's board of trustees will lead to a new era of diversity—in thought and physical appearance—at a private liberal-arts institution known for its hostility to anything but the most conservative ideas.
Shortly after announcing that Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) had won long-awaited confirmation as a trustee at her alma mater, the university revealed that Republican Party fund-raising cog George Argyros was stepping down as the board's chairman.
The official line was that Argyros, who remains a trustee, gave up the chairmanship because of his duties as the Bush administration's ambassador to Spain. But some insiders on the Orange campus suggest it was no coincidence that Sanchez finally got in only after Argyros left.
Chapman President James L. Doti, who has long and effusively praised Argyros, sidestepped any notion of a quid pro quo when it came to the board changes. He focused instead on the appointment of Sanchez, a 1982 Chapman College graduate, as proof that one need not be "a rich, white Republican to be a part of Chapman."
But Doti himself actively opposed a recent student-led movement to construct a multicultural center on campus. Meanwhile, at Chapman's inaugural Global Citizen Gala two years ago, Doti eagerly unveiled the George Bush Conference Room and the adjoining Barbara Bush Patio in Chapman's business and information-technology building.
"Loretta is a congresswoman who can do a lot for us," said Fred Smoller, faculty seante president, who has advocated for at least five years that a place on the board be made for Sanchez. "But this confirmation extends far beyond even that. This is emblematic of how Orange County is changing and how Chapman is changing along with it. We are now moving into the 21st century, and Doti has a lot to do with that."
Faculty members have lobbied for years for the appointment of Sanchez, the first woman and the first Latina elected to Congress from Orange County.
"There certainly has been informal support of Loretta in the past—and of her taking a more active and visible role in the life of this university," said Marv Meyer, professor of religious studies and last year's faculty senate president. "I think a lot of us were waiting and hoping that the time would come when the university would offer formal support of her. Frankly, I am embarrassed that we haven't done more in the past to honor and acknowledge her."
Chapman insiders suggest that Doti has always favored putting Sanchez on the board. They note that Doti has declared her one of his best students while he was a professor of economics and that he boldly broke with Republican allies to support Sanchez in her 1996 upset of congressional fixture Robert Dornan. Those sources say trustees kept Doti from letting Sanchez into the club because of politics. One university professor speculated last week that Argyros—whose business depends upon alliances with Republican officials—cannot be seen as friendly to a Democrat who snared a key congressional seat in a key state.
Chapman has been roundly criticized for its lack of diversity at all levels of the university community, including by the accrediting Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) in its most recent evaluation of the school. But Sanchez thinks it was her political affiliation that kept her off the board for so long.
"I'd say that being a Democrat was more problematic than anything," said Sanchez. "I have known that there have been many faculty members who have been pushing for this in the past, so I have known it was afoot for some time. But it is very exciting for it to actually happen now."
Now that Sanchez's place at Chapman has been secured, some hope she'll move the school away from what several professors characterized as Chapman's growing reputation within academia as a minority-unfriendly place.
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"Up until the mid-1940s, the Orange Unified School District practiced racial segregation," said Smoller, a member of Orange County's Human Relations Commission. "Anglos went to one set of schools, and Latinos went to another. For Loretta to have been denied a place on the board as an alum, whereas Representative Chris Cox [R-Newport Beach], who is not an alum, is on the board was perceived, though not intentional, by many as a powerful message to the Latino community that no matter what you do, the door to Chapman University's board of trustees would not be opened."
"If they give me the opportunity, I'd love the chance to try and communicate to the Latino community why the Chapman experience can be great for them, just as it was great for me," Sanchez said. "I would hope that I could bring to the board a better understanding of the process that Latino families and students go through trying to get into the school and then trying to fit in and feel at home there, which I know can sometimes be difficult."
Meyer hoped Sanchez's appointment marks "a defining moment in the life of this university."
"We are in a county with a great deal of diversity, diversity that continues to increase," he said. "I would hope that this would indicate a commitment on the part of the university to being increasingly diverse, not only on the board of trustees, but within the faculty and among the students as well. The trustees are to be commended for this move."