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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Michael Baumgartner, Jack Thompson call on WSU officials to reinstate player Robert Barber and review student-conduct process

Washington State Cougars nose tackle Robert Barber was suspended from the football team by the university’s Student Conduct Board for his role in a fight at a fraternity this past summer. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – A state senator and one of the most decorated quarterbacks in Washington State University history are urging WSU’s president and regents to intervene in the case of suspended football player Robert Barber.

A news conference held in Seattle on Monday included Sen. Michael Baumgartner and Jack Thompson, the “Throwin’ Samoan,” as well as a representative from the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition (APIC), a statewide advocacy group, and Seattle attorney Arne Hedeen, who was present at a recent meeting between APIC and WSU President Kirk Schulz.

Barber has been suspended from WSU until July for his role in a fight off campus over the summer. The suspension means that his college football career is likely over and he’d have to return to school in mid-2017 to earn the one credit needed to finish his degree.

He was arrested on suspicion of felony assault, but he hasn’t been charged with a crime.

Baumgartner said after the news conference, “Even if Barber should be found to have assaulted someone, he’s innocent until proven guilty and it’s in the public’s interest for him to get a degree.”

The state senator is a WSU alumnus who grew up in Pullman and whose father was a WSU professor.

Barber has asked Schulz to review his case. On Friday, WSU announced it has hired an outside attorney to look at its student-conduct review process.

But Baumgartner said Monday, “We shouldn’t be outsourcing leadership” on the issue of student-conduct reviews.

Both Thompson and Baumgartner said that the late WSU President Elson Floyd tried to change the school’s student-conduct processes before he died in 2015, and called on Schulz to do the same. They also asked university regents to weigh in on Barber’s case.

“This system, this student body conduct board, this has been broken for a long time,” Thompson said. “It didn’t just happen with Robert Barber and the Polynesian boys.”

“Elson Floyd knew he had a problem and he was intent on fixing it,” Baumgartner said. “Universities are there to educate people. Unless there is a threat of ongoing harassment or criminal action, a student ought to remain in school while the criminal process plays out.”

In urging the WSU administration to intervene in Barber’s case, Baumgartner said, “If the university doesn’t want to fix it, we’ll fix it for them in the Legislature.”

Schulz declined to comment on Baumgartner’s statements. A WSU spokesman said the president hadn’t seen the news conference and hadn’t had a chance to review Baumgartner’s suggestions.

Rob Strenge, the spokesman, cited the university’s news release Friday in which Melynda Huskey, interim vice president for student affairs, described the conduct procedures as “fair, reasonable, clear, consistent and educational.” Courts had found them to meet “all legal due process requirements,” she said in the release.

APIC’s Diana Narasaki questioned why Barber, who is from American Samoa, was suspended for his conduct at the party last summer, while a white student received probation.

Tony Lee, the coalition’s co-chairman, said under the board’s procedures, Barber was not allowed to challenge the impartiality of board members or be represented by legal counsel. Rules required questions to be submitted in writing, and the board could choose whether to ask the questions, Lee said.

“Our biggest concern is that Mr. Barber did not get a fair hearing,” Lee said.

Thompson, the former WSU player, castigated the university conduct policy for not allowing Barber to have representation at his hearings. English is Barber’s second language.

“You see Robert Barber – big, Herculean guy – but he’s at a disadvantage when he’s sitting before a board, and does not have the right of counsel next to him and is trying to make sense of what is said to him,” Thompson said. “I just saw that it wasn’t right.”

The case is gathering momentum, with a #JusticeforBarber hashtag on Twitter and WSU football players wearing his number inked on their arms Saturday, the first game the Cougars played without their starting nose tackle since his suspension. Cougars coach Mike Leach said at the game in Corvallis, Oregon, on Saturday that the entire team stands behind Barber.

Baumgartner noted that if Barber’s suspension holds, he’ll offer the player a job as an aide in his Senate office that would make him a liaison with university officials.

Spokesman-Review staff writer Jim Camden contributed to this report.