President Erickson Engages Campus On Diversity

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While the lot of your were preparing for Thirsty Thursday last night, the Student Black Caucus, Latino Caucus, and Asian Pacific American Caucus held an open forum, where members of the public could lob questions and comments to President Rodney Erickson. Although the questions could have been about anything, they hinged on the university efforts to promote tolerance and diversity.

Student Black Caucus president Ryan Brown welcomed the crowd of fifty guests. Audience members could directly ask President Erickson questions, or they could write on a card and an executive of the caucuses would ask in their place. Over the past three months, Brown said the minority caucuses have been working diligently with Erickson and Damon Sims with issues in the academic realm. At the recent Faculty Senate meeting, they introduced curriculum changes, which the university is in the process of passing.

Then, Rodney Erickson gave, what I thought, was the most impressive lecture he has ever spoken. For ten minutes, he addressed race relations on campus. Not just for the past three months, but from years ago and for years into the future.

President Erickson knows “we have homework to do,” and that we need to confront these issues at Penn State, and in wider aspects of society. He wants to enlist our help to make Penn State the kind of welcoming and inclusive environment we want to see at our university.

“We had some incidents last fall. One in particular,” he said, although he never mentioned Chi Omega’s name through the evening. “One happened at another university just a few days ago that widened the concern about these kinds of issues. Most of us know, most college students are coming out of high school experiences that are more segregated than” when they were two generations ago. He noted that Penn State is not a static face. There are fifteen thousand new students each year across the Commonwealth system. Eighteen percent are students of different ethnic backgrounds, and there are more international undergraduates than graduate students. “Diversity becomes one of our strength,” said Erikson. Indeed, a much needed strength, as graduates will enter a global, multicultural society.

“We’ve had a number of meetings with student leaders in the past three months since these issues developed,” he continued. The president and students met with Faculty Senate leadership last Tuesday. The university will take a close look at international cultures or US cultures. According to Erickson, these are “things that will help us live together, learn together.” He explained that students of color felt they were being stereotyped in classes, “inadvertently or unintentionally,” but we need to do a better job working with our instructors so they know how to interact with a multicultural group.

There is a task force that will work between students and faculty to address these kinds of issues. “I don’t have all the answers. My colleagues don’t have all the answers. But if you have any good ideas, we need to continue the dialogue.” We must make the university the most welcoming and supportive institution it can be that thrives on its diversity.

At the conclusion of his monologue, Ryan Brown invited guests to share their stories on student diversity. He said, “Your time is now. Get direct answers.”

Some of the questions and comments concerned instructors’ behaviors in the classrooms. One anonymous student wrote professors have stepped out of line when they have used derogatory terms like “colored.”

Erickson said that anytime someone finds a stituation that’s uncomfortable or bigoted, he or she ought to go to the head of the department. They should not suffer in silence, since the only way it can be addressed is if the instructor is reported. President Erickson emphasizes race relations with new faculty at his welcoming forum in the fall.

When a gentleman asked if there was a plan to increase the number of minorities in graduate school, Erickson responded that there is framework to foster diversity. The university will start the plan when a new president comes to Penn State. Meanwhile, the administration will help evaluate the plan.

As for undergraduate programs, there was much talk about reforming general educations (GenEd) requirements. One individual petitioned for more culturally-based courses that would expose freshmen to diversity. Another person voiced concern that most diversity-related classes were held in the College of the Liberal Arts. Thus, many students were unaware of their existence. The President replied that these are courses students ought to take, but then there are a “smorgasbord” of class offerings.

Where do we find the middle? He gave the example of the ever popular SOC 119, at the helm of Sam Richards. With seven thousand new freshmen every fall, the university can’t say, “all of you will take that course.” There needs to be a reasonable number of well-focused courses. Currently, “international courses don’t get us to live in an international society.”

Damon Sims added that the second day of FTCAP would include a session about diversity. Sims also mentioned that the university could convey its expectations to parents.

An anonymous member of the audience asked Damon Sims what Penn State is doing to protect students on a day-to-day basis on freely expressing their cultures. Sims returned that expressing yourself is something we want to offer, and it is a central theme. Expressions can be offensive, or difficult, and people need to find ways to bridge their differences. We have a fundamental expectation to treat each other well. “Despite the First Amendment being alive and well, which we must protect, that doesn’t stop us from having conversations with students that don’t meet our expectations.”

The thorny issue of the First Amendment came up multiple times during the night. One woman said that “we are not the United States government. We need to be much more forceful. These types of things will not be tolerated.” President Erickson said people need to face the reality of Constitutional law. “Is there some sort of punishment? NO!” The courts, including the Supreme Court of the United States, have been clear. Damon Sims concurred. Penn State is a public institution. However, this did not assuage the woman’s anger: “Yes, they have rights. I don’t care what your rights are. What you did was wrong.” To this, Damon Sims stated the university is stuck in the middle. “We would like to go that far.” Erickson added, “We are constrained by the Constitution for legitimate reasons.”

Marcus Whitehurst, Assistant Vice Provost for Educational Equity addressed recent vandalism in East Halls. He called the perpetrators cowards who undermined the mission and character of the institution. He directed the crowd to the equity.psu.edu/reporthate website. Anyone who is interested in Penn State can see what kinds of incidents happen on campus. His office will continue to work with ResLife staff.

Another woman asked about good ways to build relationships with such a large number of activities on campus. “What should be done to increase diversity in student government and Greek Life?” she asked, including LGBT and international students as parts of her question. Sims reminded leaders of student organizations that they need to reach out beyond who they have. Leaders must welcome people who want to join.

Photo By: Steve Osborn
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About Author

I am a staff writer for Onward State. I graduated as a Nittany Lion with Honors in 2013. After spending one year in exile in suburban Philadelphia, I return to Happy Valley to earn a degree at the Dickinson School of Law. Outside of politics and government, my interests include college football, soccer, Irish history, astronomy and advocating the elimination of the Oxford comma.

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