Q&A with HSU’s New President Tom Jackson Jr.

Humboldt State University (HSU) announced on May 22, the hiring of its eighth president, Tom Jackson Jr. PhD, taking the place of Lisa A. Rossbacher, who retired in June. President Jackson not only became the eighth president to serve at HSU, he also became the first African American to serve in that role. President Jackson previously served as President of Black Hills State University (BHSU) in Spearfish, South Dakota since 2014.

Before that, President Jackson served as vice president for student affairs at the University of Louisville, as well as Texas A&M University in Kingsville. He has also worked at McMurry University, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, the University of Southern California and St. Mary’s University.

He received an honorary doctorate from BHSU for providing educational opportunities for Indigenous students.

President Jackson spoke to El Leñador on Sept. 3 to talk about diversity, protests, student safety, the future of HSU and more.

Editor’s note: The responses have been lightly shortened for size.

Q: Why Humboldt State University?

A: This is the second presidency for me and it came at a perfect time with many opportunities in front of me and the university, to come here at this particular point in time. It’s location, its profile as a university. The things that the university and the student body and the faculty and the staff were all seeking. It was just the right place at the right time. But I’ll give you a personal side to that. I didn’t wake up one day and think that I wanted to be a university president. It was never part of the equation. It’s, in a way, the last thing I would think of, I was just trying to finish the degree and find work, feed the family and do things as well as I could, but somewhere along the way I realized that I wanted to help students like I was helped as a student and that’s what led me as a career choice. Each step, each one leading to more complexity and so the opportunity to leave a very complex university in a remote, rural location. Having lived in remote rural locations is something that I’m willing to do, but it was also a place to really make a very positive difference. I think you’ll touch on this in a little bit. You could see that Humboldt is changing.

Q: What are your goals for HSU as president?

A: To have the most positive, meaningful educational experience for our students. Students come here for different reasons. But at the end of the day, our primary mission is to provide degrees and educate the students that are willing to come here and to provide some level of trust to the families that have sent their sons and daughters to this university. That’s really important to me, not only as a person of color but also as an administrator or an educator. And so if we have students who graduate from this university without understanding global society from an educational point of view then I think we’ve limited our graduates.

Q: As the first African American president at HSU, how will you work to bring more diversity and inclusion for underrepresented students and faculty?

A: For me it’s normal. I mean it’s normal in my skin and the people I see look the same, are the same, act the same, just as they always have. I know that it’s different from the other points of view. So I already acknowledged that the students know when there’s a person of color at the helm, and believe that certain things may be slightly different. Given our predecessor, my predecessor and the female point of view, which helped many other individuals recognize the subtle differences as a university that we can have. So I’d like to believe that because I’m a man of color, that I’ll have a greater appreciation from my own personal experiences and diversifying our campus. Recognizing that our students come in from urban areas or rural areas regardless of their skin color. Will seek out different experiences and opportunities and we have to find ways to support them in different ways. But to the HSI [Hispanic Serving Institution] question, this may be the fourth HSI I worked at. And so as we pull more Latinx students from throughout California, this university doesn’t realize yet how it’s changing, but it’s changing significantly and within the next decade, it will be extremely different just because of that, that dynamic that is happening in California.

Q: How can you make sure that there’s more diversity within faculty? The student population at BHSU was 81.6% white and faculty is 91.8% white, and here at HSU we have 4% African-American students, 34% Hispanic and Latinos and 43% white.

A: I’m of the camp that says it is less important what someone looks like more important, what they think and feel and how they may support one person. And what I mean by that is my father was African-American, my mother was Filipino, Native American and Irish. And so when I look at people, I see my family and they’re not just one color, nor did they all think the same. And when I’m around some of my friends, whether they are of one color or another, none of them think the same either, nor do our faculty, nor our student body. And so I’m really cognizant of the idea that while I may want to diversify our campus from a look point of view, it’s also a dangerous thing to simplify, overly simplify it in that context. I think the bigger challenge for this university is our political agendas across the board and our ability to hear different perspectives from different people so that we don’t fall into a trap of a singular mindset. But we’re willing to not only listen to conservative voices but progressive ones. Rural voices and urban ones. Out of state, in state, California, non-California, young, old transfer, non-transfer, military, non-military. Those voices all have to be heard on this campus. When we’re able to hear those voices, then I honestly believe that we’re able to embrace everyone and anyone because the color is somewhat less relevant when that time comes because we are already appreciative of the differences that come to this location.

Black Hills State had about 20% diversity as you pointed out, which is amazing for South Dakota is the most diverse in South Dakota. It had the highest percentage of native students, highest percentage of retention over 40% with our native students. One of the better ones in the United States.

Q: In 2015 at Black Hills State University, two academic programs were suspended due to a $1.5 million budget deficit due to fewer full-time students enrolled. After three years in 2018, those numbers were still fairly low. And so given the recent budget cuts here at HSU and a 13% decrease of students enrolled for the fall semester, how will you address these issues coming from a university that was also dealing with the same things and it seems like there wasn’t much progress made in those years?

A: That campus similar to here was very remote and very rural and we made some very unique changes on that campus to keep it somewhat flat when other things were going down, including local scholarships for students. The profile is very similar and when you think about some of the dynamics, that subtle difference though is there’s no Los Angeles, no San Diego, no San Francisco that you can ultimately pull from and there’s no impacted universities in South Dakota. And so Black Hill State, being about six hours away from the nearest major city with several other universities in between them, was always a challenge. I think this campus when it was big, spent like it was big. As a university, we had this tendency to see and listen to what was happening at the other CSU systems and watched as other universities grew thinking that dynamic was very similar to us here. Humboldt is very different. As a university, we’re one of only two universities in the CSU that actually have to recruit. We’re in a place that people aren’t just going to show up. 85% of our students that come to this campus, we have to house. We’re already creating scholarships in a way to be more attractive and helpful for our students. We’re trying to improve housing and lower the price point for our students in a significant way to help individuals choose this university from the locations that they are now presently living before coming here.

Q: On the subject on student enrollment, recruitment, and retention, as a first-generation college graduate yourself, as a university, how do you make sure that you’re not just recruiting students such as first-generation or underrepresented students, get them to HSU and leave them to just figure it out for themselves?

A: We are reaching out to every high school and every student knowing that we’re a very good option for individuals to choose a university. I need the student body’s help though when it comes to the campus culture. I think that as the student body matures and evolves and says, ‘we didn’t come here to have a protest every week. We didn’t come here to be angry. We didn’t necessarily come here to find discourse.’

‘We actually came here to learn, find friends, enjoying one another, and to have this positive experience.’ That’s what our families want too. And so I’m trying to align ourselves as a university in that respect with the student body’s help, we will be able to create a campus culture that is celebrating the unique qualities of all the different students that come to the university. Let’s celebrate that and create a culture that is centered around bringing people together and talking and learning from one another is really important. I think when we get that dynamic going, the student body, the
individuals within the student body will find their place. We’ll see that through a very simple but tangible number that is more clubs and organizations.

Q: On August 19, during your welcome speech, you said and I quote “..I also want us to celebrate, that’s not to say that we can’t do the opposite, we can protest. I actually ask us to do that a little less because in my mind it’s a start to a day that begins with a negative versus a positive but we’re free to do that….’ Can you elaborate more on that? 

A: As a parent, I sent my daughter and son to school, not necessarily to exercise their rights. They already have those. Those don’t go away. I actually need them to graduate. We’re paying a lot of money and I want them to have this really positive experience so that they can graduate and then do all the things that they can do. Because the worst thing I think could happen for my son or daughter is to not finish something that they started in the sense, or they can do all the things that you’re supposed to do in college, including protesting.

But that also means then that you’re angry or upset about something, that’s perfectly fine, but you’re also not steadying during that time. You’re not writing, you’re not in the library doing research. Those are important things as a parent. So I’m speaking on behalf of the parents and as an educator that the time is very, very precious when you’re in college. I have a whole lifetime to speak out against causes and issues and it’s a lot more meaningful now that I finished my degree. I could do that and have done that when I was a college student, but if I didn’t finish, that would’ve been worse. So my message is let’s celebrate and find our positive voices and then learn how to use those.

It’s another thing to say it’s not right and this is how we should evolve or improve it. So you can’t do one without the other. And I think that’s really important. So I’m one who came out of student affairs and one of the things
we used to do is teach organizations and teach students, if you’re going to raise a question in that kind of setting, then have a solution.
That’s what separates someone with a college degree sometimes, and one without. We need better water quality, well there’ll be a college-educated person that will figure out the science and probably find the way to do that. Raising the question didn’t solve the problem.

Q: In 2017, an African American student was murdered off-campus, Josiah Lawson. This raises concerns about safety. Can students go out in the community and feel safe?

A: Is that different than anything that happens in LA or San Francisco or other places? Loss of life. How’s this different?

Do students really feel unsafe in the community or just during parts of time in the community? And is that different than in other places students have lived? In other words, if I go out after 10 in Los Angeles, I feel unsafe.

I would hope that our student bod experiences Arcata, Eureka, Trinidad and Mckinleyville for all of those community’s attributes but also recognize that there are good people and less than good people in every community, big or small and coming here isn’t necessarily a cocoon. It’s an extension of every community that we’ve ever lived and some of the same rules still apply.

There are certain things you don’t do after hours and we’ve all been taught that we know right from wrong and we know that if we do certain things at certain times of the day, we will cause attention or less than positive reactions to them regardless of who we are. Having lived in a few small communities, that seems to be the norm as far as justice goes. This will always be an issue for this community until justice is served for all of those involved. I think it will become more meaningful over the coming years as law enforcement try to do what they have to do to bring resolution to this.

Q: What would you say to students that don’t feel safe in this community? 

A: I think overwhelmingly if we were to ask students if they’re free to walk in Arcata, probably better than 90% say ‘I’ll do that.’ And we’re not talking just the white students, we’re talking to students coming into town. I think there are some students who would feel uncomfortable, but I don’t even think it’s all Black students or Latinx students that could say that. Some of it’s very interesting, but the rules of the communities still apply and there are certain things you don’t do after 10 and I don’t know if I would feel necessarily comfortable walking in some areas after 10 in any community.

Q: Are you suggesting students don’t go out after 10 pm?

A: No. I use that as an example.

We’ve all been taught that certain things evolve as the night goes on. There are certain things that happen late at night and you’re looking for trouble. You’re doing certain things at night at certain places, at certain points in time. We’ve all learned that we know that. And so there’s a common-sense rule of thumb I use after 10 as the indicator as common sense.

Q: You’ve been visibly engaged with the community since you’ve been here. The community is still missing KHSU, and our football program is also gone. Moving forward, Is there any talk about bringing back community leaders to run KHSU and/or possibly even talking about football again in the near future or later on?

A: KHSU is part of Humboldt State University and it falls under the academic mission of the university. Our first priority is to our students and to our faculty and staff. And KHSU was less connected to the academic programs than it probably should’ve been. And so what we’re trying to do now is re-link it back to our academic programs. Probably the academic department that you’re in [Journalism]. If there’s interest within the faculty and students to do that, then there’ll be a stronger academic connection for that.

Any football program is dependent upon the student body and the student body has to be able to pay for football. The student body does not want to pay for football and there aren’t any football teams to play. I’ll give you a number that I learned upon becoming president. 14, we had 14 scholarships for football, at that point in time we were allowed 32. Now it’s 36, and so 14 scholarships available for 36 meaning we’re playing teams that could have 36 scholarship players. Now that doesn’t mean we have 36 full rides, that’s spreading out those scholarships. But the athlete and the size of athlete is very different when you do that. While it’s very important and popular fo the community and important for this university, until the student body is willing to raise the fees in such a way that supports it at its highest level, then it doesn’t make sense to have it because then you’re relegated to mediocrity and you’re losing or you’re not getting the student or the type of student that could succeed at Humboldt State University.

Q: Are you going to be accessible to students?

A: I am fairly accessible. Remember I came out of student affairs, which is about providing as much access to students as possible but I have to run a university also and I’m surrounded with people who I pass things on to make decisions and do the best things they can for the people that they’re primarily responsible for. And so if you ask me to do something, the first thing I will do is ask others, can I do this or what dynamic this will have with the other enterprises that may be in place.

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