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Penn State

Penn State distances itself from past diversity proposals while launching similar efforts

by Wyatt Massey of Spotlight PA State College |

Pattee Library and surrounding buildings on Penn State's University Park campus in State College, Pennsylvania.
Georgianna Sutherland / For Spotlight PA

This story was produced by the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. Sign up for our regional newsletter, Talk of the Town.

STATE COLLEGE — More than two years after Penn State solicited the expertise of its faculty and staff to address racism and bias on campus, a new administration is distancing itself from those employees and some of their recommendations.

In addition to canceling a planned Center for Racial Justice, the university has declined to release a report on another diversity proposal and characterized faculty subcommittees set up by former President Eric Barron as unofficial actors.

A confidential document obtained by Spotlight PA also raises new questions about how at least some on the university’s Board of Trustees viewed the former president’s plans, which included launching the center. The document asked “whether teaching America’s exceptionalism remains a core objective at Penn State” and suggested a study of the university’s history would “end up as a little-used library resource.”

Barron convened the Select Penn State Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias and Community Safety after the May 2020 police killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests against police brutality and racism. Barron tasked the group with studying how university resources were used to address social issues and providing recommendations to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion work.

The group of 19 scholars and university officials published their proposals in a draft report in the fall of 2020 and presented them to the Penn State community in a virtual town hall that December. The commission wrote that Penn State’s past approach to DEI work “further enables the racism and bias that disproportionately impact the most vulnerable among us.”

In December 2020, Penn State announced it was accepting applications from employees and students to serve on three subcommittees that would help create an anti-racism institute, inventory existing diversity and equity programs at Penn State, and develop a truth and reconciliation process to study university decisions that led to racism and bias.

Two of the subcommittees were led by Penn State deans, and the university directed questions about the groups to the Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity.

Lisa Powers, senior director of university public relations, told Spotlight PA in an email that the subcommittees “were not a formal University effort, but rather the work of individuals who organized themselves to further these actions after the work of the commission was complete.”

Joshua Inwood, a geography professor who served on the truth and reconciliation subcommittee, told Spotlight PA he was surprised by the university’s characterization.

“I assumed it was a university committee,” Inwood said. “I was asked to be part of it vis-à-vis a university process.”

Two other faculty members who served on the subcommittees echoed Inwood’s reaction. The groups met during typical work hours, as well as on weekends, and used university-provided resources like Microsoft Teams and Zoom. They said they met with Barron and believed these subcommittees were approved by the university. Inwood said he was not challenged when he included his subcommittee service on his annual performance evaluation.

A Penn State webpage titled “Action Together” allowed the public to track the progress of Barron’s initiatives, and, as recently as October, the website stated the university was “actively working to implement” a truth and reconciliation process. The site now redirects to Penn State’s homepage.

Powers wrote that the truth and reconciliation subcommittee delivered their proposals in a report. The university declined to make that report public.

During a presentation at his final Board of Trustees meeting in May, Barron said Penn State did not follow through on a proposal to create a position to lead universitywide diversity efforts because of internal concerns that the role wouldn’t be effective.

Instead, Barron said, members of his select commission decided to focus on a “gap analysis” of existing DEI programs, and the university’s human resources department surveyed more than 80 people across 16 colleges and six campuses.

Last month, new university President Neeli Bendapudi appointed Jennifer Hamer to a similar role: special adviser for institutional equity. In the role, Hamer will “inventory and evaluate the spectrum of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) recommendations, initiatives, programs and scholarly research occurring across Penn State’s 24 campuses” to create a more focused plan, according to a university news release.

The university described Hamer’s inventory as a “new process” that would begin in the fall.

When asked whether Hamer’s work will differ from the inventory work outlined under Barron’s plan, Powers wrote that Hamer’s role will expand efforts started by a previous subcommittee.

“Hamer’s work will include a review of existing data and reports,” Powers wrote. “As all of those working hard to create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive university understand — these efforts are never complete.”

Penn State has advanced other DEI initiatives in the past two years, including updating its hiring policy, revising the Student Code of Conduct, and increasing accountability for University Police and Public Safety, according to university news releases.

Penn State’s Office of Strategic Communications declined a request from Spotlight PA to interview Bendapudi for this story. Attempts by Spotlight PA to reach Barron by phone and email for comment were unsuccessful.

Matthew Schuyler, chair of the Penn State Board of Trustees, wrote in a statement to Spotlight PA that the board fully supports Bendapudi’s goals.

Trustees signaled similar enthusiasm for Barron’s plans, though an anonymous internal document raises questions about the strength of that commitment.

Confidential concerns

While the university was gathering support for Barron’s subcommittees in early 2021, it appears at least one trustee may have had doubts about the president’s plans.

An unsigned, five-page document — marked “confidential” and obtained by Spotlight PA — was among the emails trustees exchanged at the time. The emails indicate the document was a response from one or more trustees to the recommendations presented by Barron and the select presidential commission. Messages indicate documents of this nature were not a typical method for board feedback.

The document’s author, or authors, wrote that the university should “ensure adequate support” for anti-racist scholarship, but questioned whether a research center would look beyond discrimination faced by Black and brown people and worried it would “detract significantly” from the school’s capacity to prepare students for the workplace.

The author(s) also questioned whether mandating anti-racism courses at Penn State would “politicize college education” and asked “whether teaching America’s exceptionalism remains a core objective at Penn State.” It argued the study of Penn State’s history would “have only passing interest” and “end up as a little-used library resource.”

“We believe that in addition to advancing scholarship that speaks to our differences, the university should be dedicated to scholarship that celebrates the positive accomplishments of western civilization and the United States in a way that could serve to inspire and unite all of us,” the document reads.

Spotlight PA asked to talk to a member of the board about the document but instead received a written response from Schuyler, the board chair.

The document “was not presented to the Board of Trustees and therefore did not and does not represent the view of the board,” Schuyler wrote. “As should be expected regarding a critical topic such as this, individual board members have a variety of viewpoints.”

Mystery funding model

In a November town hall, Bendapudi said a Center for Racial Justice would not “move the needle” on the issue because many universities were launching similar institutes. The president also cited budget concerns: The university is attempting to balance its budget by 2025 after operating at a $127 million deficit last fiscal year.

Key stakeholders who were in the midst of creating the center were told there was no money for the project with the current budget shortfall. Bendapudi told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last month that Barron had not incorporated money for the center in the university budget.

However, more than a year earlier, before a virtual meeting of the university’s Faculty Senate, Barron unveiled the center and signaled money existed for the project.

“You will see an announcement of a description of the center very soon, and we have found the funds to begin the process of building that, including the search for a national leader,” Barron said at the September 2021 meeting.

The funds Barron referenced — how much and what they were used for — remain unclear, and Penn State has not clarified.

“We cannot speak to any previous funding model,” Powers wrote in an email to Spotlight PA.

In canceling the Center for Racial Justice, Penn State pledged to invest in the university’s existing racial justice efforts at a level that “will be at least as much as would have been committed” to the center over five years, a number that was later clarified to be at least $3.5 million.

However, when asked about a financial commitment to diversity efforts during the November town hall, Bendapudi declined to provide a dollar figure on the commitment and said her administration should have a plan by early 2023.

“As we figure out a path forward, this is a priority,” Bendapudi said in November. “If I stand here, sit here, and tell you a number, I’m making that up. I don’t know yet.”

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