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A Conversation With College Of The Liberal Arts Dean Clarence Lang

Clarence Lang is entering his second year as the Susan Welch Dean of Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts. On top of his responsibilities as a professor in the university’s African-American studies department, Lang oversees 24 different departments within the college.

In just his first year as the dean, Lang has made a concerted effort to increase staff retention and diversity. We sat down with Lang to discuss race relations, his goals, and his opinion on Penn State’s reactions to racial injustice and discrimination.

Onward State: You’ve been involved in some university-wide roundtable conversations about race relations. What do you hope folks take away from them?

Clarence Lang: I suppose my hopes are modest in that we first and foremost have to be able to talk candidly about issues of race and racism, as well as equity, inclusion, and a lot of other issues at Penn State. So, there is a value in and of itself to get into the regular habit of talking about these issues in the same way we’ve normalized talking about budgets, courses, and anything pertaining to the function of the university.

In addition to that, and perhaps more importantly, we need be able to creatively and directly address these matters. We don’t just want to have discourse, we want to make sure that discourse is translatable into concrete action to materially make Penn State into a more equitable, inclusive, and just community.

OS: What are some resources or plans that the College of the Liberal Arts has to combat racism within the Penn State community?

CL: One of the things I’m most interested in is not just how we recruit a diverse faculty, but how we retain a diverse faculty. How do we make sure that people have pathways to progress up the university chain? We know that a lot of faculty of color, female faculty, and female faculty of color, tend to get stuck at a certain rank and not progress to the status of a full professor.

So, one concrete thing that my college is piloting is a mid-career faculty advancement program. It is meant to target mid-career faculty of color, or mid-career faculty from historically under-represented domestic minority groups, as well as faculty who may not be apart of those groups, who have a demonstrated record of equity work in higher education. The idea is that through coaching, mentoring, and other kinds of support, we can help to better position these faculty for promotions in full.

Another thing that we have done is put on the job application for any new potential faculty and staff, a note that we expect candidates to be able to speak to how they have either contributed to creating an inclusive environment, or how they imagine doing so. We want job candidates in the College of the Liberal Arts to understand that they’re going to be expected to speak to issues of equity, inclusion, and diversity.

Launching in the fall, in partnership with the Office of Educational Equity, will be a series of cultural competency workshops for our staff. That was one of my goals last year in my first year on the job, to find ways to participate in these kinds of professional development opportunities. We want to develop their competency in terms of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexuality, all sorts of areas.

Equity means more than simply race, and it’s important to understand all of these groups, especially as there are other things that are going on in the world such as the government’s renewed attack on international students.

In that same vein, we hired a specialist in the undergraduate advising department whose sole role is to help students who are having issues that are not related to academics. What we were having was a situation where our advisors, given their volume, couldn’t manage advising their academic affairs as well as helping them with these other life issues. So that academic recovery specialist, which is the official title, will specifically help those students who’s needs and dilemmas are larger than academics.

OS: What would you like to see other departments do to address racial issues?

CL: A lot of the problems with micro-aggressions tend to happen at the department level. So even if a president, or a provost, or a dean lays out measures to create a safer and more equitable environment, you can’t see everything that is happening at one time in the various units.

The College of the Liberal Arts is one of the largest colleges, with over 20 units. So you can’t measure what’s happening in those at a micro-level. I would love it if at this university, we would have a system that, for example, every five years, every academic department would have to have some kind of assessment. So if you were a history department, you bring in history scholars from other schools in the Big Ten, and they would come in and do an assessment of the department in terms of curriculum, faculty productivity, climate, and environment.

This would allow us to get a read on units that have toxic cultures, because unfortunately across the entire university, there are a lot of toxic departments where the culture is not healthy.

OS: Do you believe Penn State is listening to concerns about experiences people are having with racial injustice and inequality on campus?

CL: As someone who studies social movements, any changes that we’ve seen in this country are very hard to occur without people mobilizing and organizing and protesting. I would say to the extent that change is achievable is going to rely on students doing as they have been doing, using their voice.

We should be very clear that the reason there is a commission on racism, bias, and community safety, of which I’m one of the three co-chairs, is because of how those concerns have been manifesting themselves here locally. The fact that people took to the streets, and have pretty much stayed in the streets, has helped bring about change.

The commission that President Barron created around the student code of conduct, that was a direct response to the people who were mobilizing. The announcement of educational equity scholarships, and the matching program, wasn’t something the president just came up with when he woke up in the morning. These programs and commissions are cause-and-effect. The people are making these issues known, and the university is having to respond. When people move into action, it sustains the movement.

When we look at the university, there is no doubt in my mind that the students, who aren’t even here physically, have nonetheless moved the needle on all sorts of issues.

Lang’s interview is part of an ongoing Onward State series of conversations with race relations, social justice, and diversity experts at Penn State. If you enjoyed this piece, consider reading interviews with social justice professor Ashley Patterson or race relations professor Sam Richards.

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About the Author

Owen Abbey

Owen Abbey was a Secondary Education major before he graduated from the wonderful institution known as Penn State. When he was not writing for the blog, he enjoyed rooting for the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens, supporting Penn State basketball and softball, dreaming of all of the ways he would win the TV show "Survivor," and yes mom, actually doing school work. All of this work prepared him to teach his own class of students, which was always his true passion. He still can be found on Twitter @theowenabbey and can be reached for questions and comments at [email protected]

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