Penn State leaders discuss work ahead as University tackles issues of race, bias

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As the country continues to grapple with the killing of George Floyd and the nationwide protests that have erupted as a result, Penn State President Eric Barron, along with co-chairs of a new racism, bias and community safety commission and other University leaders discussed the enormous task of fighting ignorance and intolerance, being more inclusive and embracing diversity during a virtual Town Hall event today (June 29). 

“In the wake of George Floyd, and ugly incidents at Penn State and elsewhere, the need for real and tangible change has never been more critical,” Barron said in opening the conversation.

Joining Barron for the Town Hall were the co-chairs of the Select Penn State Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias and Community Safety, including:

  • Danielle M. Conway, dean and Donald J. Farage Professor of Law at Dickinson Law;
  • Clarence E. Lang, Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts and professor of African American studies; and
  • Elizabeth Seymour, chair of the University Faculty Senate and associate professor of anthropology, communications, history and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Penn State Altoona.

Also joining were:

  • Brandon Short, member of the Penn State Board of Trustees and chair for the Board of Trustees oversight group on racism, bias and community safety; and 
  • Marcus Whitehurst, vice provost for educational equity.

The president reviewed seven objectives for change initiatives that he announced on June 10 to the Penn State community. 

“It is important to me that these new initiatives be guided by wide faculty and student participation, and the co-chairs represent independence and integrity,” he said. “There is no administrative agenda, other than to share the goals for these critical efforts.”

Barron said there is universal support for the financial success of Penn State students and announced three University commitments toward the effort:

  • The creation of the George Floyd Memorial Scholarship in Educational Equity with a $50,000 commitment;
  • The commitment of an additional $50,000 to the Osaze Olufemi Osagie Memorial Scholarship for Educational Equity; and
  • The creation of a matching fund for diversity and equity scholarships, with Penn State matching $10 million as an incentive to donors.

During the town hall, each panelist talked about their professional and personal experience, and how those would inform their roles and the work ahead.

“As a person of color, I can understand why people are skeptical when we say we are forming a committee to fight racism. In the past, we received lip service and some broken promises,” Short said. “But I had an opportunity to get to know President Barron, who was a part of the civil rights movement. And I know the issue of race and equality is important to him on a personal level. I can assure you the administration, my committee and the board [of trustees] are not about lip service. We’re about results that are going to make the lives of not only African American Penn Staters, but all Penn Staters better.”

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A number of the panelists talked about the role education can play in combating racism.

“I represent a profession that has long reified inequality,” Conway said. “I want to be part of change — not just in the legal profession, but in how we prepare our next generation of service providers, to recognize inequity and to act against it. I want to prepare pathways for those who are our future so that we actually can eradicate the scourge that is racism, that is bias and create communities that are safe — safe for learning, safe for living, safe for progressing.”

As chair of the Faculty Senate, Seymour discussed five items she has charged various senate committees to examine with an eye towards racism and bias, including teaching; diversity training and support; existing senate policies; and the consideration of adding or refining a curricular requirement for social and racial justice.

“It’s going to be tough work, but I’m really committed to us trying to look at this deeply,” she said.

Lang said, “I think what’s important is to try and think critically and creatively about what the university, as a point of entry, as a part of this broader community — how do we create an environment of learning, a working environment that is more equitable, more inclusive, as well as diverse, and put aside the question of what Penn State has done over the past 25 years, so we don’t have conversations that don’t begin and end with, ‘We don’t do things this way.’ It’s about thinking systematically about policies, processes and procedures, but always keeping in front the question, ‘What needs to be done?’ For me that’s the primary place setter or place mark — however you want to term it — from which we should begin.” 

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Whitehurst said, “This work is really about education — educating everyone about the importance of one community. And it’s about equity — equality and being fair and impartial. There’s still a lot to be done to enhance this work, particularly around gender equity, LGBTQ equity, religion, socioeconomics and other areas. But there’s clearly one area that we need to work on the most, and that’s racial equity.” 

As part of the University’s continuing efforts, Penn State established a new website — Action Together: Advancing Diversity, Equality and Inclusion at Penn State at actiontogether.psu.edu — for the community to nominate individuals and share ideas and input. The site will also provide updates for the community on the progress of these efforts.

Whitehurst will kick off a new three-part series of diversity roundtable discussions titled, “Toward Racial Equity at Penn State: Social Difference, Social Equity and Social Change.” The first part, “Race, Our Campus Climate and Workplace,” will take place from 3 to 5 p.m. on June 30 at https://watch.psu.edu/toward-racial-equity/. The other parts will take place on Sept. 8 and Nov. 5.

“I really believe this is a profound moment. We have to make sure we take this moment and take the action steps that we need to do to make sure that we have a significant impact on systemic racism,” Barron said. “We’re listening. And that’s because I recognize — we recognize — we don’t have all of the answers.”

He continued, “I’m so pleased we have co-chairs and other groups that care deeply and have personal perspective here that will make sure we take the steps that we need to create significant change. There are some things that we can do, that I think we can respond quickly to. There are other things that will take some time because what we’re looking for is a lasting impact, to take this moment in time — what I believe is a historic moment in time — and make sure we’re changing Penn State, and we’re changing the world around us. I look forward to your input — we can’t do without the community.”

The virtual Town Hall will be archived and available for online viewing at https://LiveEvents.psu.edu/



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