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As the fall semester begins, universities across the state and country are focused on keeping students safe from the coronavirus and providing effective online and in-person classes.
But amidst those concerns, one lawmaker is calling on Pennsylvania’s 14 public universities not to forget another critical issue: racial equity.
“We have a responsibility to discuss this and address this [now],” Sen. Judy Schwank (D., Berks) said at a board of governors meeting last week for the public university system, known as PASSHE.
At the Aug. 13 meeting, Schwank raised Spotlight PA’s in-depth report from earlier this month which chronicled the mental and academic toll of long-standing racial inequities on students of color and the lack of meaningful response from universities.
And she called on the system to take immediate action.
Schwank asked the board to add racial equity to every meeting agenda moving forward and to make it a key part of the system’s redesign — a multi-year effort to reimagine public higher education and address falling enrollment and financial woes.
“This is exactly the time to have this discussion,” Schwank told Spotlight PA. “Who are we designing the system to serve and what will that student body look like?”
A spokesperson for PASSHE said the system can’t anticipate what will be on the agenda for every meeting moving forward, but leaders are incorporating racial equity into all their work.
Earlier this month, the system hired Denise Pearson as a new vice-chancellor focused on coordinating diversity and inclusion efforts across all 14 universities. Pearson told Spotlight PA she is working with the board to develop a diversity and equity committee.
The committee, which still needs to be discussed and approved by the board of governors, would consist of students, faculty and staff, administrators, and board members, who would advise Pearson’s office and set accountability measures for its work.
“When I heard Sen. Schwank talk so directly and passionately about the importance of racial equity, I thought, ‘I’m at the right place at the right time,’” Pearson said in an interview. “My processes will be transparent and I expect to be held accountable.”
Schwank said accountability can’t stop with one administrator, though. She raised the issue at the meeting because she wanted all her fellow board members to get invested.
Shippensburg University President Laurie Carter echoed that sentiment. At the meeting, Carter said several universities have been taking measures to be more inclusive, but “the work is simply not deep enough. There hasn’t been enough support for it, and it is not across the board.”
But Carter — a Black woman and first-generation student who graduated from a PASSHE school herself — told Spotlight PA that this moment feels different. With the hiring of Pearson, and the nationwide reckoning on race, more people than ever are committed to addressing the concerns of students and faculty of color, she said.
Many students who spoke to Spotlight PA for the original article were equally optimistic. They said it was exciting for a state senator to hear and echo their worries. And they’re hopeful it won’t stop there.
“The fact that she even brought it up … is huge honestly,” said Ada Bailor, a senior at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “I feel like the current climate won’t allow them to keep ignoring our concerns.”
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