Dr. Mahmoud Saffari: I am being scapegoated for St. Cloud State’s enrollment and retention failures


Last October 13, the MSR reported on protests by several hundred students and faculty at St. Cloud State University over the firing of a top administrator of color, Dr. Mahmoud Saffari, the SCSU former associate vice president for enrollment management. Hired in 2003, he brought significantly greater racial diversity to the admissions and recruitment office and to the university as a whole during his nearly nine-year stint until he was let go in September.

University officials have declined to comment on the reasons for his firing, citing the Data Privacy Act. Dr. Saffari has been equally silent — until now. In this story, we provide the essence of a February 17 three-hour conversation with Dr. Mahmoud Saffari and his colleague, Dr. Jack McKenna, an SCSU chemistry professor of long tenure. They shared their views on Saffari’s termination, on the campus climate at what was once MnSCU’s flagship school (but is now number two), and on whether St. Cloud is a good place to send your kids for an education.

“St. Cloud State University senior administration’s inconsistencies and lies about my dismissial” are what have led him to speak publicly about what happened, says Saffari. A top college or university administrator such as himself “has to be and must be an ethical person, a person who is critical and objective who needs to bring the reality and truth, whether good news or bad news, to the entire campus community.”

He “overhauled” the SCSU admissions office that had only one person of color on staff when he arrived and increased the number to four by the time he left last fall. “I turned that office into something which was very productive, efficient, and with positive outcomes. The makeup of the admissions staff changed, and a more diverse, competent group [was hired],” he points out.

Also, after a 22 percent drop in students of color a year before his arrival “because the reputation of the university was not good,” his efforts more than tripled the students of color population from 500 to over 1,800 and demonstrated five years of steady enrollment growth overall.

Yet now Saffari believes he is being blamed for a recent sharp decline in school enrollment, a convenient scapegoat for SCSU’s failure to achieve and maintain acceptable levels of student enrollment and retention. He says that the office he made productive and efficient has, since his removal, fallen into “total chaos… It is really bothersome to me that since I left, [the admissions office] has taken a nosedive down at a rapid speed.” He asserts that three recruiters have left the school and three others are “looking to leave soon.”  

Last fall, school officials initially said Saffari’s removal was not due to issues of competency and performance. Then, when required to provide written justification of the removal, SCSU Provost Devinder Malhotra cited leadership and performance concerns. McKenna says that Saffari had repeatedly been praised by his colleagues and superiors for his leadership, and he and other campus sources insist that the former chief enrollment officer’s competence cannot be challenged.

Saffari believes that a major factor in his termination was asking too many questions or disagreeing with top administrators, including President Earl Potter, on critical issues. “I have been raising issues especially in the past two years on the academic and non-academic organization restructuring at St. Cloud State University at various leadership meetings,” says Saffari.

During a two-day school leadership retreat last August, he questioned why the school hired an outside firm that hand-picked participants “who more likely were positive” rather than a random sampling for a marketing survey on whether students would recommend St. Cloud to others. “The question that I raised…made the president very angry,” recalls Saffari.

The former associate vice president also questioned Provost Malhotra’s decision to “suspend” the 30-person enrollment management committee last August. Twice during a planning meeting when asked a question, a school official told him, “We don’t have enough time — we need to move on.” Saffari then responded, “Now I’ve noticed that it is becoming common on this committee that anytime a person of color raises his or her hand to either ask a question or make a comment, there is a time limit. But for others, there is no time limit.”

Soon thereafter, Saffari was called to the provost’s office, he recalls. “That was September 20.” Earlier that day at a mid-morning meeting, he had expressed concerns about the “extremely low morale” among faculty and staff — “the lowest since I’ve been on campus,” says Saffari. “That [was] about 10:30 [am].

“At 3:15 that afternoon, the provost secretary called me and said the provost would like to speak with me,” continues Saffari. “I walked into his office at 4:00, and as I sat down, the legal assistant to the president walks in.” Then, in a meeting that “lasted about a minute and a half,” Malhotra fired Saffari, who was told, “This is your last day, but you are on payroll for 90 days. He hands me a letter in a sealed envelope and said the president explains everything in there,” says Saffari.

“At the same time [as he was escorted from the building], the vice president for administrative affairs is meeting with my staff, and the associate provost is meeting with the associate director of admissions,” says Saffari. Officials were “telling the admissions staff that my dismissal has nothing to do with my competence or performance.”

McKenna says the way Saffari’s termination was handled “is unprecedented — it hasn’t happened on our campus” in the 30 years he has been there and is certainly not “standard protocol.”

“All of a sudden,” as Saffari describes the experience, “that afternoon you are out of the office and escorted to your car to get out. Your keys are taken away and you can’t contact your staff.” Speculation on his firing continues among SCSU staff, faculty and students, and Saffari feels that the way in which it was carried out implied that he must have done something terribly wrong.

After Saffari formally requested in writing “honest reasons for my dismissal,” he was informed in an October 31, 2011 letter from Malhotra that “There has been a lack of continued confidence in your leadership and in your judgment in this role… You have not produced a satisfactory strategic enrollment management plan.”

McKenna, who was a co-chair with Saffari on the now-disbanded enrollment management committee, counters that the group had worked on a plan for over a year and was to present it to SCSU faculty for approval last fall. “But [the provost] cut the legs from under the committee and then blamed it for not having done the work.” He agrees that the reasons given for Saffari’s firing are “bogus.”  

Saffari also points out that SCSU officials avoid answering such questions as why enrollment declined last fall by approximately 1,100 students. Saffari attributes the decline, among other things, to 18 months of “organizational restructuring,” the elimination of 32 majors, and cuts in staff and faculty while hiring consultants, including a marketing firm and another firm to study enrollment management and admissions, spending almost a million dollars in this area.   

The administration keeps “a lot of things hidden they don’t want people to know,” including actual graduation rates of Blacks, “which are usually lower than” other students of color at SCSU. “I really doubt if the university has seriously taken retention and graduation [into consideration],” says the school’s former chief enrollment officer.

Saffari and McKenna concur that Potter’s confrontational, “militaristic,” top-down leadership style has not been helpful. Saffari says it includes a “divide and conquer” approach that has created among staff and faculty of color “about 6-8 different camps, pitting this person against that person.

“There are a lot of people on campus that feel extremely angry and upset, but they are scared to come out because of retaliation. They saw what happened to [me],” notes Saffari. “Speak out and you’re gone!”

Saffari says that senior administration’s idea of diversity is to “keep hiring and firing until they find a person of color who is ashamed to be a person of color and therefore becomes a yes person who does not oppose or speak out. The way the administration deals with diversity is nothing but a public image” rather than taking substantive measures to improve the racial climate on and off campus.  

Saffari says he asked four years ago that “an in-house survey [be] created and administered once every two or three years to all students, staff and faculty of color, and a random sampling of White students. Then I can tell you if the university is getting better, less hostile, and less discrimination, etc. It hasn’t been done yet.”

He considers current anti-racism efforts inadequate and too closely allied with the administration, although McKenna acknowledges that the school’s CARE’s diversity training was the best he has received.

Saffari has heard “many horror stories” about encounters with racism in St. Cloud and surrounding communities. While he has not personally had such encounters, he says it stands to reason that if students experience such hostility and animosity off campus, it would have an impact on their decision to stay at SCSU or to recommend the school to others.

When he first came to St. Cloud, Saffari says he was skeptical about the things said about the city and SCSU in the MSR and in letters sent out to churches and school counselors that warned prospective students of color about conditions there. MSR stories and editorials, and the letters sent by retired SCSU professor Myrle Cooper and current SCSU professor Michael Davis, were obstacles to Saffari’s recruitment efforts and hurt the university’s image “local and nationally,” he admits.

Now, “I’ve found out that those things are true,” he sadly admits, saying he admires the perseverance of those who have continued speaking out against the problems there.

McKenna believes the campus and community have made enormous progress in the last 20-25 years and the present diversity on campus is far better than it once was, much to Saffari’s credit. But Saffari also suspects that the growing level of campus diversity creates a fear among senior administrators that their divide-and-conquer strategy could fail and they might not be able to stay in control — as demonstrated by the 450 students who protested his firing last fall: “Students, faculty and staff want answers.”  

As critical as they are of the state of things at St. Cloud State, both men express enduring affection for and loyalty to the institution. Asked if he would consider staying at SCSU in spite of all that has happened, Saffari said yes: “I would like to be reinstated.”

He encourages any youth of color or their parents considering enrollment in SCSU to use the Internet to investigate the school and its history, and to talk with other students or their parents who have attended the school. “Do your research, then make your decision,” he recommends.

For more on this issue, see Dr. Saffari’s response to previous commentary on his firing.