Diversity questions and concerns tackled at Town Hall discussion on Oct. 26

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Questions about Penn State’s overall commitment to diversity, including the number of faculty, staff and students on all Penn State campuses that are from traditionally underrepresented groups, dominated the most recent Town Hall meeting held by University leaders. The meeting was planned to focus on diversity and inclusion and there was no shortage of questions on those topics.

“Creating a diverse workforce and student body is hard. If it were easy, we would have just done it. There is a long history that has led us to this point and it will not happen overnight,” said Nicholas Jones, executive vice president and provost and a panelist. “We, as Penn State, are trying to change something that history has created. This is why the spirit of the ‘All In’ initiative is so important. It really requires everyone across the university to roll up their sleeves and commit.”

Jones was referencing the yearlong “All In at Penn State: A Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion” effort that kicked off Oct. 6 and focuses on the importance of diversity and creating an  environment that is inclusive and respectful. A key element of “All In” is for individual faculty, staff and students to ask what steps they can take to help make it succeed, according to Marcus Whitehurst, vice provost for Educational Equity, also on the panel, as well as David Gray, senior vice president for Finance and Business.

“‘All In’ is asking us to create, advance, build and develop. That’s the call to action. We can’t afford to sit back passively and wait for others to make a difference,” said Whitehurst.

Diversity and inclusion have been identified as top University priorities, the trio said at various times during the meeting, and pointed to its clear role in strategic planning. In fact, the overriding vision of Penn State’s 2016-2020 strategic plan states that the University “embraces diversity.”  The plan also reiterates Penn State’s commitment “to diversity, equity, and inclusion across all of its campuses.” All three leaders throughout the meeting answered questions and shared steps the University is taking to continue to build a diverse employee pool. They heavily encouraged participation by faculty and staff in the work it takes to change historically low percentages of underrepresented groups in the employee ranks.

University efforts to attract and retain a diverse faculty and staff was a key topic during the University-wide Town Hall, as well as what diversity and inclusion mean, and what individual employees, managers and faculty can do to make a difference. The meeting, held in the HUB-Robeson Center at University Park, was livestreamed to all campuses and an archive of the event will be available shortly.

“I believe we should be embracing a very broad, expansive and inclusive definition of diversity,” Gray said. “Everyone on a hiring committee should have the courage to be proactive in hiring (diverse individuals). People need to be advocates for diversity in all of our searches.”

Gray noted that the University’s student body continues to grow more diverse, and the same transformation can happen within faculty and staff categories. Gray’s office is in the process of hiring a senior director of talent, diversity and inclusion, who will help drive the recruitment of a diverse faculty and staff at Penn State.

Jones added that with the University’s recently offered Voluntary Retirement Program, nearly 600 faculty and staff have opted for an early exit, paving the way for new opportunities to fill positions and add to the diversity of Penn State’s work force.

All three panelists  urged faculty and staff members to take an active role in their units and departments, participating in hiring committees, sharing concerns, and suggesting ideas for new approaches that would foster inclusivity and create a more welcoming climate. They added that there are a number of resources on hand to assist employees, such as their human resources partner and the head of their units and divisions. Penn State’s Affirmative Action office also provides guidance to members of faculty search committees on how to improve the candidate pool.

“I encourage you all to be courageous. You need to know we’re in this with you,” Jones said. “We’re ‘All In.’ We have your back. If you come forward with ideas and you have the courage to be the person who raises your hand, we will support you. We want to hear how we can do things better.”

The University has several places employees and students can report concerns or wrongdoing, including an Ethics Hotline, hotline.psu.edu, and the Report Bias website: equity.psu.edu/reportbias.

Whitehurst added that the University also has commissions that are advisory bodies to Penn State senior leaders on matters related to equity concerns at Penn State. They include the Commission on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Equity Commission, the Commission on Racial/Ethnic Diversity and the Commission for Women, which have their own specific foci, but also collaborate on common equity issues as they arise, according to Whitehurst.

The meeting also gave those in attendance a chance to share suggestions on creating a more inclusive environment and Jones specifically asked the audience to provide ideas, which included creation of a commission representing those with disabilities; more visibility for LGBTQA issues, increasing diversity among top-level administrators of the University; and including contributions to diversity in faculty evaluations. In the near future, an anonymous suggestion opportunity will be created on the “All In at Penn State” web site. Currently, that site hosts a listing of upcoming diversity and equity-related events. For information, go to allin.psu.edu.

In his opening remarks, Gray also addressed the question of maternity and paternity leave that had been raised via emailed questions, and the differences in policies between faculty and staff.

“There are specific differences between faculty and staff when it comes to leaves, and employees have options when using University-provided paid time off to spend time with a new child,” Gray said. “Faculty members can request paid time off for the birth or adoption of a child, but, unlike staff, they do not accrue vacation and sick time. Staff can request paid time off for the birth or adoption of a child through the use of their accrued vacation, personal and sick time.”

He said the administration is committed to being fair and will review those differences, keeping the community updated.

The event was one in an ongoing series of Town Hall meetings the administration is holding to provide staff with updates on initiatives and issues, answer questions and receive feedback. This was the first Town Hall that incorporated a specific topical focus. The Town Halls are sponsored by Penn State Today and the University Staff Advisory Council.

For those who either viewed the Town Hall online or in person, organizers are asking for your input through a survey found at https://pennstate.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_eRoZiN0c3jnoA3H

Last Updated November 03, 2016