Black faculty question diversity promises as Penn State scraps racial justice center

The university's own Select Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias and Community Safety recommended a Center for Racial Justice over a year ago. 

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Penn State University has scrapped a racial justice center that has been long in the making, leaving its Black faculty members now questioning the college’s alleged commitment to diversity.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the internal Select Penn State Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias, and Community Safety recommended a Center for Racial Justice more than a year ago. 

Several dozen Black faculty members got together on Oct. 17 to talk about what they felt was Penn State’s lack of response to urgent issues brought up more than 18 months earlier following the university’s decision not to implement the center.

Penn State University college campus
Penn State University students play frisbee in front of Old Main on campus in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

According to a faculty-written report titled “More Rivers to Cross (Pt. 2),” despite making up just under 6% of faculty nationwide, African Americans made up only about 3.11% of the faculty in 2020 at the Big 10 university. More than one-third of Black faculty respondents also said they “sometimes” regretted becoming a staffer at Penn State.

Gary King, a professor of African American studies and biobehavioral health at Penn State who co-wrote the report, said its Black faculty members are tired of delays and inaction in addressing their expressed concerns, claiming university hierarchy continues to disregard recommendations already examined and made by its committees.

“They know the nature of the problem,” said King, according to the Post-Gazette. “They know the severity of this issue. They know that it is going to require some serious institutional change. And no one is questioning the actual numbers. No one’s questioning the actual findings that we’ve come across.”

Penn State put several cost-cutting measures in place after its last fiscal year ended with a deficit of more than $100 million. However, the center’s annual costs would reportedly be less than $1 million. A committee had already been created to lead the search for its director.

Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi reportedly met with several campus organizations to discuss the racial justice center. She declared in a news release Wednesday that the school remains fully dedicated to fighting racism and racial discrimination.

“I have determined that enhancing support for current efforts by people who know Penn State best will be more impactful than investing in a new venture, and so we will not pursue efforts to launch a Center for Racial Justice,” said Bendapudi, according to the Post-Gazette.

The institution declared it would assess diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) efforts by next month. It intends to analyze current data and research to disseminate a university-wide plan in early 2023.

Penn State cited other initiatives, such as a “landmark update” to its full-time faculty hiring policy and the launch of the Antiracist Development Institute by Penn State Dickinson Law just last year. 

Still, King said their efforts hadn’t been good enough. He claims that Bendapudi’s chief of staff promised in May that the president would meet with Black faculty members around August to discuss their concerns, but that has yet to happen. 

He’s calling for more transparency and suggested that Bendapudi publicly state her objectives to Penn State’s faculty and its students. 

“They are very hesitant, if not explicitly reluctant, to take actions to change the situation or address the specific recommendations that we have,” said King, according to the Post-Gazette.

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