A recently released email exchange sheds light on the offensive comments that Foothill-De Anza board member Gilbert Wong allegedly made to De Anza College President Lloyd Holmes about his skin color — comments that led to an investigation and Wong's censure.
The board censured Wong on March 28 after a panel of board members and administrators found probable cause that he subjected Holmes, who is Black, "to unlawful harassment and discrimination on the basis of race or color." The board at the time didn't detail what those comments entailed.
In response to a public records request from this news organization, the community college district released an email that Holmes sent to Wong on Dec. 9 recapping comments that he said Wong made at a meeting between the two men that day.
In the email, Holmes alleges that Wong made various statements relating to Holmes' race, including that Holmes "would have been a better fit for Foothill since there are more Whites at Foothill."
Wong responded with a brief message the following day, writing that "I do not remember a conversation with you the way that you have described it below."
Holmes and Wong both didn't respond to requests for comment on this article.
While the initial email exchange shows Wong denying making the statements that Holmes described, he later apologized for his conduct.
"I sincerely apologize to Dr. Lloyd Holmes for the language I used during my conversation with him on December 9. I also promise never to do it again," Wong said in a statement released at the time of the censure vote. Wong went on to say that he would accept "reasonable consequences" but felt the censure wasn't warranted.
The board voted 4-1 for the censure, with Wong dissenting, at a special meeting. The resolution that the board passed came with additional sanctions, including removing Wong from his committee assignments and roles representing the district, telling Wong to refrain from meeting with Holmes without another board member present and directing him to participate in anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training.
Holmes was hired as De Anza College's president in 2020. In his Dec. 9 email to Wong, Holmes described problems he was facing in his role and implied he was questioning his future in the district.
Holmes wrote to Wong that their meeting "certainly left quite a bit for me to think about, particularly as it relates to my future at De Anza and the district.
"I really appreciate your acknowledgement that many of the issues I'm dealing with relate to my skin color," Holmes wrote.
According to Holmes, Wong told him that "Asian Americans tend to have issues with folks whose skin is darker than theirs" and that APASA (an apparent reference to De Anza College's Asian Pacific American Staff Association) didn't support Holmes "from the beginning" because he is African American. Holmes wrote that he appreciated Wong's offer to "navigate that situation with me."
Holmes also wrote that he appreciated Wong's apology for allegedly saying at an APASA event that he hoped the next chancellor of the district is Asian American.
"Again, as I told you, it certainly made me feel that I didn't have your support because of my skin color," Holmes said.
APASA, in a letter to Palo Alto Online, disputed Holmes' statement about Wong's alleged comment about APASA.
"We have welcomed and worked with President Holmes since 2020 such as: onboarding support in his first year, relationship building through participation in APASA events, continuing collegial work through shared governance committees, and collaborating to support all our students, staff and faculty," APASA wrote in a letter signed by "members of the De Anza College Asian Pacific American Staff/Faculty Association and retirees and former members of APASA."
"APASA does not support or tolerate any form of racial discrimination. Moreover, we continue to engage colleagues and President Holmes to build a campus culture that puts the practice of mutual understanding and equity at the core of our diverse multiracial college community," the letter stated.
Current Foothill-De Anza Chancellor Judy Miner plans to retire later this year and the board is in the process of finding her replacement. Board President Ahrens confirmed that the board plans to name finalists by the end of the month. Ahrens declined to comment further on the email exchange.
When the board censured Wong last month, one of the listed reasons was that he "divulged information about the District's pending search for a Chancellor without explicit authorization from the Board" during a meeting with Holmes. The censure resolution also directs the district to contact the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office to investigate "the unauthorized disclosure of confidential closed session discussions and information" and tells Wong to recuse himself from decisions about the new chancellor.
Holmes' email to Wong summarizing their meeting includes multiple references to discussions they had about the chancellor search process. Holmes wrote to Wong that he "was still asking myself whether I would be a viable candidate for the Chancellor position."
According to Holmes, Wong told him that he would be considered an internal candidate, while another candidate (who isn't named in the message) would be considered external. Holmes also wrote that Wong told him that board members "are split in terms of who they'd like." The district chancellor reports to the board, which will ultimately vote on who to hire.
While the district released the emails between Holmes and Wong, it declined to release a report written by Parker & Covert LLP, a law firm that the district hired to investigate the matter, citing attorney-client privilege.
The law firm found the allegation that Wong subjected Holmes to "unlawful harassment and discrimination on the basis of race or color" due to his comments regarding skin color to be substantiated, but found a second allegation that comments regarding the chancellor position amounted to unlawful harassment and discrimination based on race or color to be unsubstantiated, according to the determination panel's report, which summarized the law firm's finding.
The determination panel objected to that second conclusion, writing that it believed there was probable cause to find that Wong's comments "would pose a significant and detrimental impact on a reasonable applicant for the Chancellor position" and that there was sufficient evidence available for Wong to conclude that Holmes "was a foreseeable candidate for future employment in the Chancellor position."
Read the email exchange: