Faculty Senate continues efforts to advance diversity, equity and inclusion

September 17, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- At its first meeting of the 2020-21 academic year on Sept. 15, the Penn State Faculty Senate continued its work to improve diversity, equity and inclusion across the University by voting to accept the recommendations of its “More Rivers to Cross” task force.

The first “More Rivers to Cross” report was released in January and examines the specific challenges facing Black Penn State faculty. As part of the Senate’s ongoing commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion for all members of the University community, a special “More Rivers to Cross” task force was created and charged with analyzing the report and developing recommendations for the Senate to consider in advancing these goals. In its first report to the Senate, the task force affirmed the Senate’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and made six recommendations for actions to improve conditions for African American faculty across the University.

“Since [the report was first released], the nation has undergone an earth-shattering racial reckoning after the horrific murder of George Floyd, the death of Breonna Taylor, and the many other Black men and women who have unjustly perished at the hands of law enforcement,” said Gary King, professor of biobehavioral health and one of the authors of the report. “This has reverberated globally, and even in the face of the worst public health pandemic the world has seen in over a century, this unfinished business continues to be recognized as a major dilemma. It is within this epic period of racial transformation I encourage my colleagues to review carefully and accept these recommendations to make these long-overdue changes.”

The six recommendations of the task force for the Senate to consider include:

  • Creating a new committee charged with identifying and coordinating reforms to eliminate barriers to the hiring, retention, satisfaction and success of African American faculty;
  • Creating and maintaining a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Work Plan modelled on Penn State’s Sustainability Work Plan;
  • Committing Senate resources to support the completion of the second “More Rivers to Cross” report, which will focus on Penn State’s Commonwealth Campuses;
  • Establishing an annual report detailing the state of faculty diversity and inclusion across Penn State, as well as the status of initiatives to enhance faculty diversity and inclusion;
  • Establishing hiring policies, processes, resources and incentives designed to substantially increase the representation of African American faculty across the University, and;
  • Establishing factual review, promotion and tenure criteria that overcome racial biases and the disproportionate service responsibilities of African American faculty members.

Josh Kirby, chair of the Senate’s “More Rivers to Cross” task force, thanked the Senate for its attention to these important issues and for the work they’ve been able to accomplish since the release of the initial report – including a major update passed last May to the Senate’s full-time faculty hiring policy in support of greater diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Those recommendations have begun and we will continue to work with the officers and administrators of the University to push that further and truly meet the needs of the population we are trying to hire,” Kirby said. “We are working to make sure that everyone has the resources and support to know that Penn State is a place that will benefit from them being here.”

This comes at a time when the Faculty Senate is working to advance diversity, equity and inclusion for all underrepresented members of the Penn State community, including by partnering with University leadership to combat intolerance through incorporating bias training and coursework for all employees and students, beginning this semester. Additional efforts to advance diversity, equity and inclusion across the University include the creation of a Select Penn State Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias and Community Safety, a full review of the Student Code of Conduct, and the reconvening of the Task Force on Policing and Communities of Color.

Faculty Senate Chair Beth Seymour affirmed that continuing to promote anti-racism and greater diversity, equity and inclusion for all members of the Penn State community is one of her key focuses for the Senate, while Kirby urged every senator to remain committed to combatting racism and intolerance across the University.

“This can and should be a recurring issue, one that we see in the structure and charges of the Senate and of its committees. We don’t want this to be a ‘one year’ effort,” Kirby said. “In this room are future leaders and future chairs of committees. Don’t forget today. It is our responsibility as senators to make sure our community is inclusive, and we can do a better job.”

Updates from University leadership

Penn State President Eric Barron spoke to the Senate by exploring some of the same themes he said he planned to discuss in his public remarks at the Sept. 18 Board of Trustees meeting, including the “extraordinary challenges versus the extraordinary efforts” of administration, faculty, staff and students to prepare for and execute a safe and healthy return to campus. He spoke to the importance of flexibility on multiple levels, including with faculty and instruction methods, “meeting students where they are” to support their success during challenging times, and the flexibility to respond to changing circumstances in real time. He said the University’s multi-layered strategy of testing, tracing, quarantine and isolation were developed in conversation with Penn State experts to best mitigate the transmission of the coronavirus. Barron praised the many successes and innovations of the University’s faculty and staff that have helped contribute to Penn State’s commitment to its academic mission during the pandemic.

Executive Vice President and Provost Nick Jones also spoke about Penn State’s efforts to create safe and healthy campus environments across the commonwealth as part of the University’s “Back to State” plan. He answered questions from faculty relating to Penn State’s testing strategies, and spoke to the flexibility of the University’s response, noting that Penn State has potential “off-ramps” and “on-ramps” based on how the situation continues to develop, and affirmed that University leadership takes the health and safety of its community seriously.

Mark Dambly, chair of the Penn State Board of Trustees, updated the Senate on ongoing efforts around several of the board’s top priorities, including access and affordability, health and safety during the pandemic, and advancing social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion. Some of the success he highlighted included holding tuition rates flat for in-state resident students for the third consecutive year; the creation of an oversight task force on racism, bias and community safety; and Penn State’s participation in the new Big Ten course-sharing initiative.

Additional business

The Senate also advanced a host of other pieces of legislation, including a policy to encourage student participation in state, local and national elections. Under the new addition to the Senate’s policy on class attendance, faculty members are encouraged to make reasonable accommodations for students voting or otherwise participating in an election, including as poll workers or “get out the vote” activities like driving senior citizens to the polls.

“We want to encourage students to vote and encourage students to actively participate in democracy,” said Michele Stine, chair of the Senate’s education committee.

Other business undertaken by the senate includes:

The next meeting of the Faculty Senate will take place on Oct. 20, and will be viewable virtually on Zoom.

Last Updated September 17, 2020