Draft reports on racism, bias, community safety initiatives posted for review

December 03, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The Select Penn State Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias, and Community Safety and the Student Code of Conduct Task Force have worked on a compressed schedule to develop draft recommendations in response to Penn State President Eric J. Barron’s June 10 message, which incorporated a charge to help address both immediate and longstanding problems of racism, bias, and intolerance inside and outside of the University. The reports and recommendations are the result of cross-disciplinary work led by both groups that included benchmarking against peer institutions, researching current University practices, policies and processes, gathering input from diversity, equity and inclusion scholars and cataloguing lived experiences and outside perspectives.

The groups are sharing draft reports with the Penn State community so that individuals can provide thoughts and ask questions. This will be followed by a Dec. 9 town hall meeting as a next step before the University embarks on a plan of implementation. The reports, accessible at the links below, have been posted on the Action Together website by the co-chairs of each group. President Barron, the commission and the task force invite the Penn State community to review and comment on the reports and recommendations by using the online form on the site.

The co-chairs and the president will receive all submissions — which can be made anonymously — to the online form and will consider these submissions in shaping the discussion at the virtual town hall event from 10 to 11:15 a.m. on Dec. 9. Barron will act as moderator, and the chairs from both the commission and the task force will discuss the recommendations and supporting ideas. There will also be an opportunity to have questions answered.

Members of the Penn State community are invited to the event, which will be streamed live at https://LiveEvents.psu.edu, and archived online for later viewing.

The 19-member select commission and the 26-member conduct code task force seek to convey to the University community their respective recommendations to build a more inclusive environment at Penn State.

University leaders will work to develop an implementation plan based on the recommendations and responses from the Penn State community to achieve the goal of integrating diversity, equity and inclusion best practices throughout the University. The Board of Trustees has expressed a strong interest in moving the efforts forward.

The Select Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias, and Community Safety

With broad representation of students, staff, faculty and administrators University-wide, the Commission on Racism, Bias, and Community Safety was charged to examine the deployment of University resources to address the profound social issues related to racism and bias that are pervasive in our nation, and specifically at Penn State. As well, an important aspect of the commission’s work was to make concrete recommendations to promote and support the safety of faculty, staff and students who are confronted by racism and bias on Penn State campuses.

The foundation of the commission’s recommendations rests on an “enterprise approach,” in which all diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are integrated and synchronized across the entire University in a coherent manner. According to the draft report, the goal is to create diversity, equity and inclusion policies, practices and initiatives that are more intentional and cohesive.

As stated during a presentation to the University Faculty Senate on Dec. 1, President Barron believes that this approach — bringing together efforts from across the University — provides an opportunity to establish greater coherence and effectiveness in the process of delivering on the University’s commitment to advancing diversity, sustaining equity and fostering inclusion. Additionally, creating a dedicated leadership position, reporting directly to the president, would help the University provide the highest possible level of support to and interest in these objectives.

The commission report outlines four recommendations:

  1. Develop, promote and support truth and reconciliation [through a process that, for example,] “would allow for the collection of information about historic and current policies and practices linked to racial and ethnic harm, intimidation and harassment;”
  2. Develop, promote and support research, teaching and learning that advance antiracist scholarship, pedagogy and culture;
  3. Develop, promote and support University-wide onboarding, mentorship, auditing and continuing development of students, staff, faculty and administrative leadership in equitable and inclusive practices and procedures; and 
  4. Develop, promote and support accountability in implementing and sustaining an equitable and inclusive campus culture.

Barron agrees that the commissioning of a review of Penn State’s history in terms of bias and racism fits with the educational mission of the University and could help guide future practices. As further support of the University’s mission, an anti-racism institute/consortium bringing together researchers and scholars, practitioners and community members could allow Penn State to lead diversity, equity and inclusion work through research and education. Barron also believes setting up processes for accountability in meeting diversity and equity goals across the University will be a critical step in assessing the University’s progress.

Commission co-chairs are:

  • Danielle M. Conway, dean and Donald J. Farage Professor of Law, Penn State Dickinson Law
  • Clarence Lang, Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts, professor of African American studies
  • Beth Seymour, chair, University Faculty Senate, associate teaching professor of anthropology, communications, history, and women's gender and sexuality studies, Penn State Altoona

The Student Code of Conduct Task Force

With significant participation from student leaders, including a student in the role of co-chair, — the task force was charged to find ways to improve the conduct code and to help provide the Penn State community with a full understanding of the code’s purpose and provisions, including the role of restorative justice.

The task force report sets forth methodology and preliminary recommendations, details the University’s response to these recommendations, and provides a revised version of the student conduct code incorporating the University’s feedback. Since proposing its preliminary recommendations in September, the task force has engaged in discussions with Barron and University leaders within the offices of Student Affairs and General Counsel. Its proposed recommendations and changes to the code have been largely supported by the University, with some modifications made based on feasibility and acknowledgement of legal limits related to First Amendment rights and more.

Through its recommendations, the task force focused on the code’s “application in response to hateful acts and expressions directed at others’ race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation and more.” The task force wrote that the code’s application “should be broader ... with due consideration for the underlying principles and processes involved and the ability of the University to create and sustain a welcoming, inclusive and safe community for all.” The task force has recommended an expansion to the definition of “health and safety” to include both physical and mental health, and the impact on campus climate and community from acts of bias.

An area of focus for the task force was studying the impact of the First Amendment, privacy laws and other legal constraints on the University’s implementation of the proposed code to address offensive or hateful expression. The task force wrote, “It is the goal of the Student Code of Conduct Task Force to discover where speech turns into conduct and how conduct contradicting Penn State’s values can be reprimanded.”

As a key recommendation, the task force worked to outline a voluntary restorative justice process as a potential consequence for those who violate the code. Proposed practices include mediation services, restorative circles, relevant courses or training and community service. The additional recommendations include:

  1. Modify the code’s purpose and introduction and include a mandatory module for students about the code;
  2. Reimagine and modify “substantial university interest” in the code to define behaviors considered to be prohibited conduct;
  3. Provide new language to confirm that some bias incidents may violate the code;
  4. Align code language with Policy AD91;
  5. Create more equitable conduct procedures for students;
  6. Diversify staff and volunteers for the Office of Student Conduct; and
  7. Incorporate explicit public reporting requirements in the code.

During the Faculty Senate discussion, President Barron acknowledged the task force’s difficult work to determine how acts of bias fit within the student code and believes that restorative justice practices could provide a process for students to better understand the impact and implications of their actions. Barron said that the offices of Student Affairs and General Counsel have approved for implementation some of the proposed code language changes, and the University intends to adopt and test the revised code during the Spring 2021 semester.

Task Force co-chairs are:

  • Nyla Holland, dual undergraduate and graduate student, and president of Penn State Black Caucus
  • Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, founder and director of the Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, and associate dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Penn State Law

For more in-depth information about either report, or to comment on various aspects of the reports, visit the links provided above or go to the University's Action Together website.

The commission and the task force are just two of the groups working toward the initiatives put forward by President Barron in June. During the Faculty Senate meeting, Barron touched on efforts in other areas including: the Task Force on Policing and Communities of Color; additional University Police and Public Safety initiatives; a livestream series, “Toward Racial Equity at Penn State;” the Equal Opportunity Planning Committee; the Board of Trustees’ oversight task force on racism, bias and community safety; Penn State’s Educational Equity Matching Program; hiring practices to advance diversity, equity and inclusion; and the Action Together website.

Last Updated December 10, 2020