CORED symposium highlights diversity dynamics, potential improvements

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — While Penn State has made strides in promoting diversity and inclusion on its campuses, “there’s always more to do,” Vice Provost for Educational Equity Terrell Jones said as he opened the Commission on Racial/Ethnic Diversity (CORED) spring symposium and open house held Tuesday (March 4) at the Pasquerilla Spiritual Center.

“We think we’ve got our eye on all of the big issues, but we think there are a lot of issues,” Jones noted. “Now that we’ve identified many of those, we’re going to focus on getting down into the weeds, if you will, and start working on the process.”

Students, faculty and staff came together to talk about the dynamics of diversity at the University as part of the symposium, which included Yale researcher John F. Dovidio’s keynote presentation, smaller breakout sessions and a student panel.

“We think we’ve got our eye on all of the big issues, but we think there are a lot of issues. Now that we’ve identified many of those, we’re going to focus on getting down into the weeds, if you will, and start working on the process.”

—Terrell Jones, vice provost for Educational Equity

Dovidio, the Carl Iver Hovland Professor of Psychology at Yale University, is a well-renowned stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination researcher with more than 300 articles, chapters and books published. He spoke about “The Challenges and Promise of Diversity: Realizing its Potential,” noting research-based evidence to explore the idea that while it’s not always any one person or group’s fault or intention, black faculty and students and others from underrepresented groups still face cultural stereotyping and racism on college campuses.

He said that while there may be less blatant “old-time racism” exhibited today, a more subtle version persists. Dovidio explained the psychology behind this contemporary form of racism, influenced by cultural stereotypes and expressed unconsciously through unspoken actions. Simply put, people’s conscious beliefs and behaviors may reflect their personal values, but their unconscious attitudes and actions, developed through socialization, often reflect racial bias. “What we have is both positive and negative feelings existing side by side, creating a psychological tension,” he said.

“The dominant issue is trust,” he said. “Whites and blacks have very different psychological experiences even in the same interactions. They have different world views,” which means they are likely to approach and interpret situations differently.

Dovidio discussed several study examples including one assessing the U.S. Army’s promotion practices. At the time, the number of minorities being promoted into high-ranking positions was not reflective of the entirety of Army personnel. Once accountability to diversity was made a priority, and those making promotion decisions were tasked with justifying their decisions if they did not recommend a qualified minority candidate for advancement, rank promotions rose among underrepresented populations. Following a cyclical leadership change, the Army reverted to prior hiring practices, and the proportion of minorities elevated to higher-ranking positions dropped.

Dovidio said that one of the best strategies the University can use to improve the diversity and inclusion environment on campus is to follow the same practice and make diversity the default. In other words, the fact that all people have different experiences and backgrounds should be recognized and appreciated universally and predominantly as part of the curriculum and common discussion.

“We have to recognize difference to get rid of disparity,” he said.

Dovidio said this change starts with a clear message from the top and trickles down through actions, images and messages that convey diversity appreciation. He also said that universities need to persist in diversifying senior faculty and administration, not just junior-level faculty, adding that often the proportion of minority students in a major is directly proportional to minority faculty members working in that department. Research supports the benefits of this practice as well as structural changes, such as forming diversity committees and hiring active minority candidates into senior-level administrative positions, to effect transformational potential.

“We have to recognize difference to get rid of disparity."

— John. F. Dovidio, Yale University professor and CORED keynote speaker

Symposium participants dispersed into three breakout sessions to discuss “Advancing Inclusivity in Penn State Classrooms,” “Empowering Students” and “Fostering Diversity at Penn State: What’s Next?” before coming back together for a panel titled “Student Perspectives on Stereotype Threat and Social Identity at Penn State.”

Panelists Alice Gyamfi, Melissa Creely and Chelsea Spruell reiterated many of the things Dovidio said when sharing their experiences as Penn State students.

“As a student of color, I felt issues of inclusion through my tenure here at Penn State,” Spruell, a junior, said. “I felt nervous and fearful about stereotypes about me,” she recalled, as one of two minority students in her first class. “Overall, my experiences as a student of color have been difficult, but that’s helped me to become a stronger student.”

Creely, a senior who began her studies at Penn State Brandywine, said the diversity and campus environment was different there than at University Park. Similar to Spruell, Creely was the only person of color in her biology lab at University Park, making for a different experience than she was accustomed. “It’s awkward because you feel like you can’t say certain things,” she said. She added that sometimes she felt that she had to represent the voice of her cultural group rather than her own voice as an individual.

Gyamfi, also a senior, echoed Creely’s sentiment, saying that even though some of her interactions with professors and other students have had no negative intent, it becomes frustrating and exhausting to feel the need to represent more than herself. “At some part of that, you lose Alice, and if there comes a time where I just want to exist, I don’t have that luxury.”

Having studied at the DuBois and Altoona campuses before coming to University Park, Gyamfi acknowledged that great campus resources, like the Multicultural Resource Center, provide a place for students to talk about these occurrences. “The resources that are being offered here, if you know about them, are powerful,” she said. However, she noted, they’re not always being used by the students who need them.

In addition to the CORED symposium, Penn State’s administration has had a nearly 25-year history of studying the structure and environment of diversity and inclusion on its campuses, including commissioning an unprecedented external assessment of its efforts. In December, the University received the assessment’s results, which indicated Penn State ranked among the top 20 higher education institutions in the nation.

“The report shows that we’re a leader among higher education institutions in diversity and inclusion initiatives, but that doesn’t mean any of us are where we need to be,” Jones said at the time. “Now we need to push beyond our goals with increased emphasis on assessing outcomes and impact. We’ve already turned the corner to start heading in that direction.”

At the symposium Dovidio said it is the right time for Penn State to make diversity the default and that the University has an opportunity “to finish the job.”

In October, Penn State was selected as a recipient of the 2013 Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award by INSIGHT into Diversity magazine. The University was one of 56 higher education institutions in the nation to be recognized for having exceptional strategies and programs in place to help achieve diversity and inclusion across campus.

Visit the Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity’s website, http://equity.psu.edu, for more information on Penn State’s diversity and inclusion efforts. More information about CORED is online at http://equity.psu.edu/cored/.

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Last Updated March 11, 2014