Trustees discuss diversity and inclusion with students, faculty, staff

February 22, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Diversity and inclusion at Penn State were the focus of a generative discussion among students, faculty, staff and trustees held on Feb. 21 during a meeting of the Board of Trustees Committee on Academic Affairs and Student Life. The discussion, part of an ongoing series of conversations being held by trustees on a wide range of issues at the University, focused on experiences of individuals from diverse backgrounds at Penn State.

Participants in the conversation included members of the board committee, who were joined by senior leaders from across the University, and student and employee panelists from a wide array of backgrounds. The conversation focused on opportunities at the University to grow resources for diverse students and employees, as well as ways to foster a more inclusive environment across Penn State.  

The discussion was moderated by Marcus Whitehurst, vice provost for Educational Equity, and David Han, Penn State trustee and professor of surgery and radiology at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

Panelists included Michael Berube, Edwin Erie Sparks Professor of Literature and chair of the Faculty Senate; Elliot Bruce, president of the Black Student Union; Sonia DeLuca Fernandez, associate vice provost for Educational Equity; Alicia Dowd, professor of education and director of the Center of the Study of Higher Education; Keith Gilyard, Edwin Erie Sparks professor of English and African American Studies and senior faculty mentor in the Office of Educational Equity; Jasmine Jackson, president of the Queer and Trans People of Color group and the Treasurer of the Student Minority Advisory and Recruitment Team; Peggy Lorah, interim assistant vice president for diversity and inclusion in Student Affairs; Tomas Sanchez, president of the student Latino Caucus and director of educational equity for the Council of Commonwealth Student Governments; Maria Walls, advocate for students with disabilities and graduate student in the Masters of Higher Education at Penn State; and Denita Wright Watson, secretary of the University Staff Advisory Council and manager of the leadership development graduate program at Penn State Great Valley.

The group touched on a range of important issues, focused around the generative questions, “How can we expand the vision, capacity and resources for Penn State’s diversity planning goals, which broadly focus on diversity and inclusion in our campus climate, our student body, our workforce and leadership, and our curriculum? How can we improve, and what are we missing, in these areas?”

Among the topics covered were diversity and inclusion-focused training for faculty, staff and students. Suzanne Adair, associate vice president for Affirmative Action, and Sara Oliver-Carter, senior director of talent, diversity and inclusion in Human Resources, discussed current programs that are in place, including training and awareness programs, and the establishment of the Equity Action Resource Team (EART), a group of University volunteers trained to provide guidance and strategic insight to search committees, advancing inclusivity for future applicants.

Panelists discussed the notion of broad-based, required diversity training for all students, faculty and staff. The group noted that such training would need to be designed to generate substantive and thoughtful engagement, beyond simple participation.

Other topics included how the University includes diversity in annual employee reviews and hiring practices, both at University Park and at the Commonwealth Campuses; challenges faced by individuals with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ+ community; and acknowledgement that students, faculty and staff face different needs and challenges around issues of diversity and inclusion.

“Today’s conversation, and the positive energy and candid approach, was a great example of the kinds of discussions we need to continue to have, at all levels of the University,” Whitehurst said. “We heard positive acknowledgement of the strides we have made at Penn State on many fronts, but it also is clear that more needs to be done. Today’s discussion was an illustration of our need to continue to listen to our students, faculty and staff, and to commit the energy and resources necessary to nurture a diverse and inclusive community.”

Trustee Brandon Short, who joined the board in in July 2018, said open, honest conversations about diversity and inclusion, and a commitment by an organization’s leadership to addressing challenges and holding each other accountable, are key.

“We all need to be willing to hold each other accountable for implementing change,” Short said. “It’s a challenging thing to do, because we all are affected by implicit bias, and there’s never a perfect answer to questions that are so complex. But what we can do is try new things, hold ourselves accountable, track our progress, and change our approach if the steps we take aren’t effective.”

Sonia DeLuca Fernández, associate vice provost for Educational Equity, said diversity, equity and inclusion have and will continue to be a focus at Penn State, and other universities nationwide.

“The question for our team and for our counterparts across the country is how we constantly learn, implementing a rich tradition of research, to better serve students," she said.

Last Updated February 22, 2019