Roundtable with Black University leadership explores race and campus climate

June 30, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- In the first event of a three-part series titled “Toward Racial Equity at Penn State: Social Difference, Social Equity and Social Change,” Black members of University leadership explored the experiences of people of color and members of underrepresented racial and ethnic communities within predominately white classrooms.

This roundtable conversation – titled “Race, Our Campus Climate and Workplace:  A Conversation with Penn State’s New Black Leadership” and held virtually on June 30 – included a specific focus on the experiences of people of color at Penn State. It can be viewed online at watch.psu.edu/toward-racial-equity/.

Moderated by Jennifer Hamer, professor of African American studies and senior faculty mentor in the Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity, the conversation explored understanding racial bias and racism in a predominantly white University and similar workplace environments; the outcomes of racial bias and racism; what safe communities look like; the role of leaders from underrepresented racial groups in these environments; and steps that can be taken, both by Penn State as an institution and Penn Staters as individuals, to advance greater diversity, equity and inclusion. The conversation included active participation from viewers through a chatroom moderated by WPSU producer and director Will Price.

Marcus Whitehurst, vice provost for Educational Equity, provided opening remarks and thanked the panelists for their participation. Panelists sharing their experiences and expertise included:

  • B. Stephen Carpenter, II, dean, College of Arts and Architecture;
  • Danielle Conway, dean and Donald J. Farage Professor of Law at Dickinson Law;
  • Randy Houston, president of the Penn State Alumni Association; and,
  • Clarence Lang, Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts and Professor of African American Studies

The panelists began by defining both racism and racial bias, and explored the different ways people of color experience racism and racial bias that other people, who are not in the minority, may not recognize. “It’s a system that some people might not see or experience,” Carpenter said. “But other people do see and live within it every single day.”

Lang described an example related to education. “We are socialized to believe that white people are smarter than people of color,” Lang said, questioning what this in turn means for institutions of higher education. “It means the absence of people of color is normalized in that context, and you can end up in conversations where the idea of academic excellence is pitted against diversity – that to have diversity, you have to skimp on academic excellence.” He said that this is one manifestation of “broader assumptions of who ‘should’ be in this environment.”

He described a scenario he said he has seen multiple times, in which a department seeks to hire a new faculty member and proposes hiring both -- one person who meets their needs, but a second “diversity hire” as well. “It does reflect, not in ways intentional or meant to be harmful, but it does reflect these bifurcations in ideas of what we ‘need,’ or what is ‘fundamental,’ and diversity.”

Conway introduced an idiom to describe her approach to tackling racism and bias: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time -- not fearing that the elephant is large.” She addressed the need for Penn State to diversify its faculty, stating that “we sometimes use excuses, like ‘we can’t build the [candidate] pool,’ or ‘the geography,’ but we use pool-limiting language.” She said that as part of actively and effectively recruiting a more diverse faculty at Penn State, “we have to acknowledge that we meter people’s lived experiences and their educational and work capacities with this delimiting, devaluing language. We need to think about how to construct job descriptions and job postings, and we need to think about and acknowledge that this is what we have historically done.”

Houston called it “an eye-opening experience to arrive at Penn State and see how much of a minority I was,” but said that experience helped fuel the passion behind his nearly 34-year-long history with the University, in part because he wants other Black alumni and alumni of color to continue their relationships with Penn State.

“I didn’t have a negative experience as a student, but I know plenty of colleagues and friends of color who did. So it can be hard for me to say to them, ‘come back, be a part of the solution,’” Houston said. “It was important to me to come back and be part of that, to overcome what this University used to be 30, 40, 50, 60 years ago. We have a lot of work to do, and we’re doing that work now.”

Carpenter spoke to how individuals can push back against racial bias by contributing to cultural change. “We need to question the answers,” Carpenter said. “If we think about what is normal, what has been accepted, that is ‘the answer.’ If we don’t question it, the answer will always be normalized. It will be ‘the way we do things around here.’ And that phrase, ‘the way we do things around here,’ is the definition of culture as I learned it.”

In talking about the importance of Black leadership at Penn State, Houston noted that “this University is 165 years old. The Penn State Alumni Association is 150 years old. And in that 150-year history, I am the second Black president, the third person of color, and only the first Black male to be president of the Alumni Association.”

Lang noted that diversifying a university’s faculty or administration is only one piece, albeit an important one, of a larger cultural effort to transform how a university operates.

“It is essential that if you’re going to have an institution where there is equity and inclusion, that has to be reflected in how it looks,” he said. “That’s essential by itself, but not sufficient, because this it also is  about how the institution functions. That’s where the hard work comes in. As hard as it is to diversify leadership, and it is essential, by itself it cannot get us to the point where universities, as institutions grounded in traditions that are in turn grounded in all of these assumptions, will change how they function.”

Conway and Lang have both been named to the Select Penn State Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias and Community Safety by President Eric J. Barron, and spoke to their role to advise the University administration during this important historic moment. Conway said that the commission is approaching its work with the vision of connecting committee members with experts to not just release a report, but to “operationalize” findings across the University. “We’re creating the structure,” Conway said, before addressing the Penn State community. “You are the meat on the bones.”

Houston shared his thoughts that everyone has a role to play in creating a better, more equitable Penn State -- as well as a better, more equitable world --and it starts with making the difference each individual can make in their own lives.

“We’re at a very critical, pivotal time in humanity, and we have to think about the kind of person we are and the kind of person we want to be. And this isn’t about leaving legacies, or anything like that. I think a lot of people will find there’s a gap between who you are and who you want to be,” Houston said. “Your individual work is to close that gap. Each of us have individual work that we have to do to get to this world that we all envision.”

This conversation followed the virtual Town Hall held on June 29 by President Barron and other members of University leadership discussing the task of fighting ignorance and intolerance, being more inclusive and embracing diversity. As part of the University’s continuing efforts, Penn State has also established a new website: Action Together: Advancing Diversity, Equality and Inclusion at Penn State at actiontogether.psu.edu.

The “Toward Racial Equity at Penn State: Social Difference, Social Equity and Social Change” roundtable series will continue with two additional conversations to be held during the fall semester. A conversation scheduled for Sept. 8, titled “Race, Teaching and Learning in our Current Climate,” will explore the experience of people of color within predominately white classrooms. The series concludes on Nov. 4 with a conversation titled “Race in the Community,” which will focus on the experiences of people of color living within predominately white communities.

Last Updated October 12, 2020