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Black Faculty Discuss Racism, Discrimination At Penn State In Washington Post Feature

In a new story published in the Washington Post Wednesday, Black faculty members discussed discrimination, racism, and hardships they’ve encountered at Penn State over the years.

In a nutshell, the Post‘s reporting reiterates that, like many schools, Penn State still has work to do to create a more equitable and diverse university. Interviewed faculty members pointed toward low representation and systemic obstacles as the biggest hurdles the university faces as a broader “racial reckoning” spreads through higher education.

Professor Gary King, a Black faculty member who came to Penn State in 1998, has attempted to shed light on these issues by developing a pair of reports alongside his colleagues. The first, published in 2020, dove into efforts to diversify faculty representation at University Park, while the second, published in March, highlighted systemic obstacles and “overt racism” Black Penn State professors face.

A survey of nearly 100 Black Penn State faculty members found slightly more than 80% reported experiencing racism at the university. Nearly two-thirds said they’d encountered it from students over the past three years, while about half said they experienced racism in contact with supervisors or other administrators.

Additionally, 59% of respondents said they sometimes felt uncomfortable discussing racial issues with colleagues in meetings. About 70% said they doubted Penn State would become equitable for Black students, faculty, and staff within the next decade.

Furthermore, more than 73% of respondents said they have at least once chosen not to report racism to administration for a number of reasons.

“Racism is normalized at Penn State so it’s futile to report to white administrators or people of color who uphold whiteness about my experiences,” one respondent said in the report.

Another Black professor offered comments in the report about not disclosing discrimination, saying, “I would not expect anything to be done about it. Further, racism is deeply ingrained into the Penn State system. It is part of the culture and climate. One complaint will not address institutionalized racism”

King, who commissioned the report alongside five professors, told the Post that “academic racism” reported by respondents was so difficult and intense that he couldn’t read them all in one sitting.

King and his colleagues reviewed respondents’ anecdotes as they developed the report. Some stories from anonymous faculty members included experiencing intimidation tactics in classrooms, getting put on “too many committees” because of race, and being told they “must be a genius” because working that job while Black would seem unlikely.

One Black female professor even told the Post that one student had anonymously called her the N-word in a student evaluation, questioning why she was even teaching her course. Although the incident was reported, the professor said she was told that students “have the right to say what they want to say.” Today, she no longer reads student evaluations.

According to the Post, Penn State did respond to King’s March report, saying it embraced its “spirit” but not pessimism. The university said no one at Penn State should need to put up with such treatment, and some administrators felt “considerable distress and disappointment” after reading it.

Penn State has also commissioned reports to examine its community and on-campus climate. Last year, a report found nearly 54% of Black faculty respondents “often” or “very often” experienced discrimination or harassment due to their race. About 53% said they weren’t satisfied with inclusion and belonging on campus.

As social justice movements spread following the police killing of George Floyd last summer, Penn State created a commission to examine racism, bias, and safety at the university. It made several recommendations, including implementing bias training for all employees and re-examining how faculty committees search for new hires.

Moving forward, Black faculty members like King and Clarence Lang, the first Black dean of the College of the Liberal Arts, say increasing diversity is one of the most important ways to achieve a more equitable university. In 2019, just 3.2% of University Park’s 2,939 full-time faculty members identified as Black, landing Penn State in the middle of the pack among Big Ten universities. Maryland leads the conference’s schools with a 6.2%-Black faculty.

Black faculty members told the Post that it’s hard to imagine Penn State developing lasting improvements on campus without growing representation. Furthermore, some argue the university needs to work on keeping faculty of color, too.

“Penn State is not doing well in recruiting and retaining faculty of color,” accounting professor Henock Louis told the paper. “Minority faculty face an uneven playing field. Like other universities in the country, Penn State is not exerting all the requisite efforts to address the challenge.”

In an email to Onward State Wednesday night, a Penn State spokesperson offered the following statement on behalf of the university in response to issues raised within the Post‘s reporting:

Penn State is deeply committed to recruiting and sustaining more faculty of color and has supported and engaged many people across Penn State, including Faculty Senate representatives, deans, chancellors and administrators, on the urgent need for more progress.  We don’t want any faculty to have the kinds of negative experiences that some have reported. 

As part of Penn State’s commitment, the University – led by those within our community – has undertaken a wide range of substantive and strategic initiatives to combat racism and hate, address the campus climate, improve University policies and processes, add new resources and provide the overarching support that will create a more inclusive and welcoming environment for all. 

Several major initiatives put forward by the Select Penn State Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias, and Community Safety have been fast-tracked as among the Penn State administration’s top priorities, including creation of a University-wide diversity, equity and inclusion position reporting directly to the president with a focus on accountability; required anti-bias training for all employees; and the formation of an anti-racism research center, to name just a few. 

In addition, Penn State has put in place new or improved supports and structures for hiring and retention, such as:

Multiple new resources to facilitate the professional development and career success of faculty from underrepresented groups, overseen by the Office for Educational Equity, which includes a mentoring program, a toolkit for professional advancement and other resources to support retention and career advancement. All are accessible via a Faculty Pathway website.

— Restructured and expanded annual training for faculty search committees with a focus on recognizing and responding to implicit bias within each stage of the search process. Trainings, under the purview of the Affirmative Action Office, have been expanded to include all who participate on search committees.

— Comprehensive reviews of every unit’s Affirmative Action Plans (which is a management tool to monitor hiring practices) to improve recruitment strategies and goals, as well as a tracking of every unit’s annual progress in hiring diverse faculty and staff.  

— Working with the University Faculty Senate to revise the University’s faculty hiring policy, (AC-13, (Recommended Procedure for Hiring Full-Time Faculty), with a focus on increasing diversity. This policy went into effect in September 2020. Also Penn State is in the process of revising a second policy, AC-22, (Search Procedures for Academic Administrative Positions) to strengthen and clarify guidance on inclusive hiring practices.

With regard to SRTEs, the process used to obtain evaluative input from students, the University has conducted an analysis and modified the SRTE process to improve them overall, and also do better at removing potential biases that may affect faculty of color.

In addition, the University has made significant progress in terms of diversity among our student population and has made a large impact in hiring diverse candidates within upper administration of the University and in general positions, as well.

Progress in diversifying faculty at Penn State is a critical part of fulfilling the promise of Penn State and living our values. We will remain unrelenting in our efforts to create an inviting and accepting culture that seeks out, supports, encourages and sustains outstanding faculty from underrepresented communities.  There are, indeed, more rivers to cross.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt proudly served as Onward State’s managing editor for two years until graduating from Penn State in May 2022. Now, he’s off in the real world doing real things. Send him an email ([email protected]) or follow him on Twitter (@mattdisanto_) to stay in touch.

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