Senate passes diversity and equity resolutions in final meeting of the year

May 05, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The Penn State Faculty Senate ended the 2020-21 academic year by advancing several items at its April 27 meeting related to the Senate and the University’s ongoing commitment to enhancing diversity, equity and inclusion.

The meeting included a presentation from Board of Trustees members on the Next Gen Penn State presidential search process, and updates from University leadership on COVID-19 vaccines and mitigation strategies, strategic planning, and budget and enrollment. Senators also heard an update from the University’s Policies Influencing Equity task force, and undertook the transferal of Senate leadership to the new chair and officers for the upcoming 2021-22 academic year.

Diversity, equity and inclusion

The Senate approved two items related to the two More Rivers to Cross reports, which examine the specific challenges facing Black faculty members at Penn State and make recommendations for how the University can improve the experiences of Black faculty members and diversify the University’s faculty across Penn State. The first report, released in January 2020, details the status of Black faculty at the University Park, while the second report was released in March and focuses on Penn State’s Commonwealth Campuses.

The Senate passed a resolution affirming its support for the report’s recommendations and expressing solidarity with Black faculty members.

“This is a symbolic action, but it is important to take a stand against racism and stand with our fellow faculty, and then take steps in order to fight against racism and any act of white supremacy,” said Senator Julio Palma of the Senate’s Self-Study Committee in presenting the resolution.

In addition, the Senate passed an advisory report recommending the creation of a public-facing diversity, equity and inclusion dashboard to gather and track data related to the University’s efforts to advance these critical priorities. The recommendation also includes the creation of an annual diversity, equity and inclusion report to measure the University’s progress. The recommendations will next be advanced to University leadership for consideration.

The Senate passed two more items related to diversity, equity and inclusion:  a resolution condemning all acts of bias and hatred against Asian, Asian American and Asian Pacific Islander communities, and legislation to use inclusive language and update gendered language and pronouns with gender neutral and non-binary terminology in course and program descriptions.

Penn State President Eric Barron addressed the Senate on the University’s longstanding and ongoing commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as Penn State’s unequivocal opposition to all acts of racism, hatred and bias. He shared that many of the recommendations from the More Rivers to Cross reports — as well as the recommendations of the Select Penn State Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias, and Community Safety — are already underway and have begun yielding demonstrable results, including developing institutes focusing on anti-racist and social justice scholarship, updating the Student Code of Conduct and passing new policies to increase transparency within University Police and Public Safety. He also said that there is funding available to support the hiring of diverse faculty members across the University, and asked for the faculty’s continued commitment to work alongside University leadership to help diversify Penn State’s faculty body.

Faculty Senate Chair Beth Seymour also read into the record a letter written by the Senate’s chairs and committee leadership condemning recent acts of bias, hate and racism and asking for the commitment of the University’s leadership in continuing to advance the recommendations of the More Rivers to Cross reports and the Select Penn State Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias, and Community Safety.

Next Gen Penn State presidential search process

Julie Anna Potts, a member of the Penn State Board of Trustees and the Presidential Recruitment and Selection Committee, updated the Senate on Next Gen Penn State, the listening phase of the University’s search for its 19th president.

She said the selection committee, alongside the Next Gen Penn State Advisory Group, is actively soliciting feedback from as many Penn Staters and stakeholder groups as possible, including 35 facilitated discussions that have been held with more than 250 total participants from groups including Faculty Senate leadership, President’s Council, the President’s Commissions for Equity, Academic Leadership Council, the Alumni Council Executive Board, Student Leaders Roundtable and the University Staff Advisory Council.

Another key mechanism for gathering input from the Penn State community on its hopes, goals, vision and priorities for the next president has been the Next Gen Penn State Survey, which received more than 9,600 responses from across the University community, including more than 1,200 faculty responses.

Potts said the selection committee and advisory group will examine the data obtained through the listening process shortly, with the goal of finalizing a report on the qualities needed for Penn State’s next president to be delivered at the Board of Trustees meeting in May. She said the intent of the board, selection committee and advisory group is to create a pool of diverse and high-quality candidates who reflect the unique needs of the University.

“We are approaching this with no preconceived notions, in order to make an informed and thoughtful decision about the need for a world-class leader,” Potts said. “We undertake this effort with deep reverence for the importance of the task at hand to serve this University, one of the world’s great public research universities.”

Updates from University leadership

Barron updated the Senate on the University’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution efforts and plans to help make the vaccine easily accessible for all Penn Staters. He noted Penn State volunteered early on to be a vaccine distribution point and has been offering vaccination sites, including through a partnership with Walmart, in order to help distribute the vaccine through the University community.

Barron said the University plans to offer incentives to employees and students to obtain the vaccine, and that more information would be forthcoming by June. He also said University leaders plan to monitor incoming vaccine data over the next year, and the University may offer additional incentives as needed to help the vaccine reach as many Penn Staters as possible.

Penn State Executive Vice President and Provost Nick Jones also updated the Senate on Penn State’s planned transition back to in-person learning for the fall 2021 semester, with the upcoming summer semester to serve as a transitional period. He noted that guidance on returning to in-person work is now available from the University; that the administration will continue to monitor the situation and follow all relevant guidance from public health authorities; that Penn State will continue to offer on-demand, walk-up and symptomatic testing; and that the University continues to have the flexibility to pivot and adjust plans as necessary.

Jones said Penn State’s Strategic Plan is moving into the implementation phase, with units across the University beginning to implement their unit-level strategic plans. The strategic planning processes helps units support each other in a more informed manner by creating opportunities to share resources and leverage Penn State’s unique structure to help realize the foundations, thematic priorities and supporting elements of the Penn State Strategic Plan.

He also said applications are trending in a positive direction, with applications for first-year students up by more than 15% over last year, applications to University Park up by 17%, applications to Commonwealth Campuses up by 12% and applications to World Campus up by nearly 30%.

Jones said Penn State’s budget planning process is underway with plans to present a final budget submission to the Board of Trustees in July. Though not finalized, he said that he and the president hoped to be able to provide for a general salary increase for employees — an item identified by Barron as an important priority. The budget also allocates money for strategic investments in innovation. 

Other Senate business

The Senate received a recommendation from the Policies Influencing Equity (PIE) task force to not adopt an alternative grading policy for the summer 2021 semester, citing concerns with potential impacts to students’ academic and professional pursuits. Currently, alternative grading is available to students finishing the spring 2021 semester, with the window for selecting alternative grades closing on 11:59 (ET) on May 21st. As recommended by the task force, there are currently no plans to continue to offer alternative grading past the spring 2021 semester, with PIE task force members expressing concern about the potential impact of alternative grades on students’ future academic and professional pursuits.

The Senate also discussed an informational report about its ongoing work to develop a new framework for faculty teaching assessment. Senator Maureen Jones of the Senate’s Committee on Faculty Affairs, Intra-University Relations, and Educational Equity and Campus Environment said the committee gathered input from a wide range of stakeholders, and that the new recommended framework will include a mechanism for periodic review of the teaching assessment process. The committee plans to bring an advisory report with its full recommendations to the Senate in the 2021-22 academic year.

Other business undertaken by the Senate included:

The meeting concluded with the announcement of election results for Faculty Senate leadership and committee membership, with Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture Bonj Szczygiel assuming the position of Senate chair.

The Faculty Senate will break for the summer; the next meeting will take place shortly after the start of the fall 2021 semester, with a meeting date to be determined.

Last Updated May 05, 2021