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Calls for Change at Penn State


“We protest. We are sick. We are tired. Still, we protest.”

That quote, inspired by famed civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, comes from an open letter sent on April 16, 2024 to Dr. Neeli Bendapudi, president of The Pennsylvania State University. 

“We are sick and tired of the lack of progress toward racial justice at Penn State under your leadership,” the letter continues. “We expected better.”

Dr. Gary King, professor of biobehavioral health and African American studies at Penn State, and a member of the Committee of Black Scholars.Dr. Gary King, professor of biobehavioral health and African American studies at Penn State, and a member of the Committee of Black Scholars.The letter was signed by “a committee of concerned Black scholars,” many of whom participated in three “read-ins” of Black literature in the foyer under Bendapudi’s office, said Dr. Gary King, professor of biobehavioral health and African American studies at Penn State, and one of the members of the Committee of Black Scholars, which includes faculty and graduate students at the public state institution. 

King said neither Penn State’s administration nor Bendapudi have responded to the letter, which addresses many concerns, including the cancelation of the planned Center for Racial Justice, the debated closure of the on-campus Multicultural Resource Center (MRC), and a lack of attention given to two scholarly studies, produced with the approval of Penn State’s Institutional Review Board, which enumerated concerns regarding inequity and discrimination experienced by Black faculty at Penn State.

“We as a faculty, Black faculty and others, have been fighting the administration to address matters of racial justice, and in a very forceful and progressive manner, for the last 20 years or so in different iterations,” said King in an interview with Diverse. “My colleagues and I picked up the mantel about five to six years ago.”

The resulting report, More Rivers to Cross Part 1, released in January 2020, contained 96 pages of quantitative analysis on the paucity of Black professors and their stagnating numbers. One statistic shows that, between 2004 and 2018, the number of Black professors at Penn State stayed roughly the same, from 109 professors to 112. Proportionately, the percentage of Black faculty fell from 4% to 3%.

In More Rivers to Cross Part 2, a confidential survey of Black faculty at both Penn State’s main campus in State College and its branch campuses, found that eight out of ten Black professors experienced racism, and almost half encountered this racism within their first one to three years of service. Racism came from administrators, colleagues, and even students. Seventy percent of the faculty surveyed said they did not believe the culture would change within the coming decade.

A Penn State representative said the administration did respond to the reports when they were first published, and the reports became part of their Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging inventory from last spring. King said the reports have yet to receive any formal response from the administration.

Dr. Marcus A. Whitehurst, vice provost for Educational Equity at Penn State, said he has read both reports and appreciates anything that “captures the lived experiences and challenges of our faculty and employees,” calling the reports “helpful,” as the administration is “using this important information to be better and continuously work toward creating a more welcoming environment for our faculty, staff, and students.”

Dr. Marcus A. Whitehurst, vice provost for Educational Equity at Penn State.Dr. Marcus A. Whitehurst, vice provost for Educational Equity at Penn State.Whitehurst also said that Black faculty have access to professional supports in his office, including a mentorship program which can help underrepresented faculty navigate their careers and eventually move toward tenure, even if it’s not at Penn State.

“We want to retain the faculty, but we also want them to be competitive,” said Whitehurst.

Bendapudi, who told the helm of Penn State in 2022 after serving as president of the University of Louisville from 2018 to 2021, declined to comment for this article.  

Dr. Michael West, professor of African American studies, history, and African studies at Penn State, said that, while Penn State does offer these supports to faculty, “this does not, however, translate ipso facto into belonging. I have not met very many Black faculty with a sense of belonging at Penn State. Many feel quite alienated. Morale is low, in fact.”

Contributing to that low morale is the pending status of the institution’s MRC, which has helped thousands of first-generation, low-income, and marginalized students find belonging on campus. An April 15 article in the Centre Daily Times, a daily newspaper in State College, Pennsylvania, quoted MRC director Dr. Melissa Landrau Vega’s confirmation that the University planned to close the resource center. This statement, Whitehurst said, is inaccurate.

“The MRC is not closing. We’re discussing ways to enhance and elevate the [MRC] to better support students at Penn State,” said Whitehurst, adding that in its heyday, the center was used much more frequently than it is now, post-pandemic.

“We noticed traffic in the office had changed. Students may not have been utilizing the services as they did prior to the pandemic,” said Whitehurst. “When we saw that shift in utilization, that’s when we started conversations on, are there ways to better meet the needs of our students currently?”

Confusion surrounding the MRC bears similarity to Penn State’s cancelation of the planned Center for Racial Justice. The center was proposed after past-president Dr. Eric J. Barron responded to the murder of George Floyd with the Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias, and Community Safety

In October 2022, the founder of the Proud Boys, a white supremacist organization, was set to speak on campus, but that event was canceled. A few days later, Bendapudi announced the Center for Racial Justice would be canceled due to budgetary reasons, but more funding would flow to other programs that promoted diversity. But SpotlightPA, a nonprofit newsroom covering the state, found diversity programs set to receive the additional funding had actually been financially gutted by hundreds of thousands just months prior.

In this regard, Penn State is not alone. Many colleges and universities across the nation are quickly abandoning the promises and commitments that were made in the wake of Floyd's horrific murder in 2020. 

“We felt that [Bendapudi] was taking the Trumpian doctrine of ‘good people on both sides,’ we’re not going in this direction or that,” said King.

Dr. Jennifer Black, an assistant teaching professor of English at Penn State, said it felt as though the institution was making a “tactical decision not to prioritize racial justice, and not to empower the people who could benefit from the Center.”

Black said that, while she likes her work colleagues, she feels alienated in the same way “many Black students on campus feel alienated, living in State College and attending a Predominantly White Institution. I also find it isolating.”

“I am new to working at Penn State but grew up in its shadow,” said Black. “I have a long memory throughout the years of Penn State, their commitment or lack thereof, when it comes to issues of racial justice.”

King, West, Black, and other members of the Committee of Black Scholars said they are not calling for Bendapudi to be fired—rather, they are calling for change. They want Penn State to become the place it promises to be: “an inclusive and equitable campus environment,” said Black.

“I want this to be a better place for Black people to live and work,” Black continued. “These changes are not being made because Penn State’s commitment to racial justice is performative, not substantive. They prioritize profits over people, every time.”

Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].

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