Image from the “Pocnormhsu” Facebook page, which was created in the wake of comments made in an Oct. 4 statement from HSU President Dr. Lisa Rossbacher.

Humboldt State University President Dr. Lisa Rossbacher has issued an apology to students, staff and faculty for a message she sent out early this month that inadvertently sparked indignation, leading to protests over the administration’s perceived attitude toward racism on campus.


That original message, ironically, was intended to have the opposite effect. Titled “Standing Together for an Inclusive Community,” Rossbacher’s statement acknowledged the presence of racial bias and racially motivated violence both inside and outside the university community.

But one sentence managed to undercut the gist of Rossbacher’s message.

“I know that racism is not the norm on our campus or in our neighboring communities,” she wrote. Many interpreted this as an attempt to downplay or even dismiss the racism experienced by people of color in Humboldt County and on the HSU campus, and a protest soon took root through social media under the hashtag #pocnormhsu.

In the weeks since, many on campus have come together both online and in public fora to share their experiences and call on university administrators to do more to address racial bias and discrimination. In an Oct. 12 editorial the HSU Lumberjack said, “Rossbacher failed to interpret and address the problem of racialized violence and discrimination in its entirety, which does a complete disservice to the experiences of students and faculty of color.”

It should be noted that Rossbacher’s Oct. 4 statement did note, “[W]e hear too many stories about HSU students, staff, and faculty experiencing acts of overt racism and enduring on-going bias.” And it called for members of the university community to “re-dedicate ourselves to creating a more welcoming and inclusive community for our Students of Color and for all People of Color in Humboldt County.” (Read the full statement here.)

Regardless, many on campus read Rossbacher’s phrase “not the norm” to mean “not prevalent,” and they began sharing their own experiences as a way to prove otherwise. Some examples:

And this one referring to last year’s racist assault in downtown Arcata:

Yesterday, in a follow-up message to the campus community, Rossbacher said she used the word “norm” to mean “a standard of accepted behavior,” and she added that she is “deeply sorry” for creating harm.

Her full statement is below. 

Apology and a Shared Commitment for an Inclusive Campus

Dear HSU community,

I am writing to offer my heartfelt apology to the students, staff, and faculty who were hurt by my recent message to the campus about standing together for an inclusive community. In that letter, I used the word “norm” to describe “a standard of accepted behavior” and to reiterate that racism in any form is intolerable and unacceptable, but I now understand that in the context of ongoing racism the word created other offensive and hurtful meanings. I also realize that your concern is about more than words. For creating harm, I am deeply sorry.

I recognize that many members of the HSU community experience racism, both overtly and subtly through microaggressions, nearly every day. Many of you have taken the time to write to me and talk with me about your experiences; I value your insights and share your concerns. I am committed to working with all of you to eliminate the barriers to creating a truly inclusive campus.

Much work is needed to create deep and enduring change. The upcoming Campus Dialogue on Race (October 31 – November 4) will be an important opportunity to consider how we can move forward together. These dialogues will serve as a springboard for additional action as we focus on the individual and institutional transformations needed to make clear that the lives and experiences of people of color really matter at HSU.

Sincerely yours,
Lisa A. Rossbacher, Ph.D.