Senate discusses report on status of African American professors at Penn State

January 30, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — On Jan. 28, the Penn State Faculty Senate had the opportunity to ask questions of senior leaders about a recently shared report on the status of African American professors at University Park, titled “More Rivers to Cross.”

Prepared by Gary King, professor in the Department of Biobehavioral Health, and Daryl Thomas, associate professor in the Department of African American Studies, “More Rivers to Cross,” was recently shared with University leaders and others, and discusses challenges and areas of concern for African American faculty at Penn State and across higher education nationally.

The 93-page report focuses on the representation of African American faculty at the University, their status, tenure, administrative roles and distribution across campuses; the role of Student Rating of Teacher Effectiveness (SRTEs), an instrument for gathering student feedback on classes; and more. The report is “something every senator should read,” said Penn State Faculty Senate Chair Nicholas Rowland, associate professor of sociology and environmental studies. “It's my hope that this report leads to many additional conversations regarding what it means about us as a community.”

Penn State President Eric Barron and Executive Vice President and Provost Nick Jones each spoke about the significance of the report and its value in helping the University continue to examine the issue of diversity. They also answered questions from senators.

“The report is very worthwhile reading, and an important reminder of challenges that we face, not only at Penn State but in higher education nationally,” said Barron.

Though these challenges are not unique to Penn State, Barron said, “that is not an excuse for us not to be thinking about these issues at Penn State. We absolutely have to be thinking about these issues at Penn State.”

Over the past several years, University leadership has implemented a number of programs aimed at increasing diversity, and have created several positions geared specifically toward better recruitment and retention of people of color. The president indicated that he wants to work with the Faculty Senate to convene a task force that directly addresses the issues in the report. He emphasized that solving this issue is a matter of shared governance – faculty and administration working together. 

Jones, in his remarks, called the title of the report “a very appropriate choice.” Though the University has made progress, the provost said, “I’d be the first to admit we have further to go.”

“We have shifted much of our focus to the fundamentals — policy, practice, procedures and guidelines,” explained Jones, in an effort to build a “robust, sustainable infrastructure that when implemented will help us, over an extended period, to really bend the curve in the direction that it needs to go … and  focus on the basic ways we are doing business so that we address some of the systemic challenges that are ingrained in parts of the institution.”

For example, proposed changes to academic policies AC-13 (Recommended Procedure for Hiring New Faculty), and AC-22 (Search Procedures for Academic Administrative Positions) — two guidelines for hiring practices — are being considered, with AC-13 currently being reviewed by the Senate. The proposed changes to both policies seek to strengthen and clarify guidance on inclusive hiring practices, and the University’s expectations around diversifying its faculty and staff. The updated policies would more directly outline steps that should be taken during faculty and academic administrative searches.

“[These proposed updates to policy] represent at least a year of hard work to do everything we can to set the expectations that we have as an institution, relative to inclusive hiring practices … and to see that these expectations can found within the core of each guideline itself,” Jones said, explaining that changes to the foundational guidelines will alter the approach to recruitment, retention and hiring that is needed.

“This has been a team effort at the leadership level,” Jones said, referencing other senior leaders who have been involved in reviewing and rewriting policies to increase recruitment and retention of diverse individuals in all ranks. “But, we’re only at the leadership level and we will succeed or fail based on whether we can fully engage all of you in this process.”

Others in administration leading efforts include Kathy Bieschke, vice provost for Faculty Affairs; Suzanne Adair, associate vice president for Affirmative Action; Marcus Whitehurst, vice provost for Educational Equity; and Lorraine Goffe, vice president for Human Resources

In response to a senator’s question seeking more clarity for those who may serve on hiring committees, Jones invited Adair to speak about recent efforts by the Affirmative Action Office (AAO) to walk campus and college deans through the University’s affirmative action plan, a primary management tool for monitoring hiring practices. The AAO team’s next step is to do the same deeper review with leadership in non-academic units.

In addition, according to Adair, last spring and summer the AAO team met with chancellors and leadership teams at each campus to talk about campus climate and identify challenges, opportunities and resources.

“The most important issue,” said Jones, “is that all of us have to hold ourselves accountable. I assure you that is what I can, and will, do.”

Rowland said senators may offer feedback on the report, for consideration by the task force, by sending it to the Senate office.

In addition, Rowland said the report serves as a reminder of how important it is to participate in the institution’s first University-wide Community Survey, an opportunity for all students, faculty and staff members at Penn State’s campuses to provide confidential feedback on their experiences and perspectives related to community, diversity and inclusion. Emails with unique survey links will be sent to students, faculty and staff on Feb. 3. Feedback will be used to identify strengths and areas for growth, as well as advance the University’s values to foster a welcoming environment across all Penn State campuses.

Food and Housing Insecurity Task Force to be formed

In his remarks Barron also discussed the growing issue of food and housing insecurity for students at colleges and universities nationwide. Some students, he said, once they have paid tuition and fees, may face considerable hardship, and may skimp on housing and food, going without or making poor nutritional choices because they do not have access to sufficient resources.

To help address these issues, Barron will form a University Task Force on Food and Housing Security to evaluate challenges, identify existing initiatives that are already in place, and discover where gaps exist. The group will be charged to consider new, innovative, creative initiatives that focus on enabling food and housing security for students at the University, he said.

Barron noted that it is the University’s intent to consider the full cost of an education, including food and housing security, in Access and Affordability initiatives. “We want to make sure that those students aren’t in their final exams week without anything to eat,” he said. 

Other Senate business

In other business, the Senate passed two pieces of legislation designed to benefit students serving in the United States military and safeguard students’ privacy as it relates to letters of recommendation.

The Senate approved changes to University policy 56-00 on withdrawal and leave of absence to allow students currently serving in the Armed Forces to partially cancel their courses for a given semester if they are relocated or deployed as part of their military service. Previously, military students who were given deployment or relocation orders on short notice were subject to financial and academic penalties for not completing courses due to deployment or relocation. The updated policy circumvents these penalties, and allows military students to remain enrolled in their academic program and continue their academic journey at Penn State as best fits their unique needs.

The Senate also passed the new University policy 89-00, which establishes additional guidelines for protecting students’ educational records under the federal Family Educational Rights and Protection Act (FERPA). Under FERPA, written permission from a student is required to share their educational records, including grades and course schedules. Under the new policy, in order to better comply with FERPA and safeguard student privacy, a student requesting a letter of recommendation from a faculty member must provide written consent for the faculty member to share parts of the student’s educational record in the letter.

The Senate also approved several additional motions, including adding to Senate membership the student representative of the Penn State World Campus Student Government Association, created last spring; allowing units whose senators are officers to have the option to appoint elected alternate senators to serve in place of the officers and attend committee and plenary sessions with all the rights and responsibilities of all elected senators; and clarifying and expanding the membership and duties of senators serving on the Joint Committee on Insurance and Benefits.

Informational reports

— “Census 2020: Penn State You Count!” — a report on the work of the Complete Count Committee on the upcoming U.S. census and its importance to Penn State, Centre County and Pennsylvania. A significant challenge for the University is to increase participation among students, who may not realize that they will be counted as residents from where they are living starting April 1. The University is planning a marketing campaign and activities over the next few months to raise awareness among the Penn State community, especially students. Charima Young, director of local government and community relations, and Mike Stefan, director of state relations, urged senators to participate in sharing the information with students, faculty and staff in their various units.

— A forensic report from the Senate Committee on Education, beginning an investigation of the availability and use of more affordable accessible course materials. The committee has asked faculty for their feedback on ways that the use of Open Educational Resources and other affordable courseware options can be encouraged and what the parameters of reasonable use of add-on course materials might be.

— Additional reports included updates on Faculty Senate Student Scholarships, Family Travel Approval Rates, and Faculty Rights and Responsibilities for 2018-19; an assessment on General Education for 2015-19; feedback on One Penn State 2025’s goal of Curricular Coherence; overviews of Google Suite for Education and the Penn State GO Mobile Application; and reports from the Student Engagement Network, and on Development and Alumni Relations; and an update on Capital Construction for 2019-20.

The full Jan. 28 Faculty Senate meeting is available to watch on MediaSite.

The next meeting of the Penn State Faculty Senate will be held at 1 p.m. March 17 in 102 Kern Graduate Building at the University Park campus.

Last Updated April 15, 2021