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STATE COLLEGE — Days before graduation, Penn State’s special adviser to the president accused a group of seniors of harming Penn State and spreading misinformation after the students publicly supported a professor who criticized the university.
The students, whom the College of the Liberal Arts selected to help lead this year’s graduation ceremony, wrote a letter to the editor that was published in The Daily Collegian in April. The statement expressed support for Michael West, a professor of African American Studies who publicly resigned as head of the department in early April.
West alleged in his resignation letter that Clarence Lang, dean of the College of the Liberal Arts, was undermining the African American Studies department by backtracking on written promises to West to replace faculty, and by not making competitive offers to retain faculty. West also alleged that Lang had written that part of West’s job as department head was to defend the dean from negative media coverage.
In an email to West’s colleagues after the professor resigned, Lang said West was sharing a “false narrative,” according to a copy of the message obtained by Spotlight PA. Justin Schwartz, Penn State’s then-interim executive vice president and provost, said in a university-provided statement to Spotlight PA that West’s claims were “unsubstantiated by a review of documented facts and agreements.” The university did not publicly offer further evidence.
The six students — Maggie Bond, Jessica Kim, Emma Messersmith, Ahyanna Navarro-Foreman, Jake Otto, and Taran Samarth — wrote in The Daily Collegian on April 28 that Penn State leadership must invest in African American Studies. Their success as students, underlined by the College of the Liberal Arts selecting them as graduation marshals, is because of faculty like West, they wrote.
“We come from various backgrounds, and each undertook different educational experiences at Penn State,” the students wrote. “But the key to our collective education has been the relationships we’ve cultivated with anti-racist and community-involved professors like West.”
Jennifer Hamer — who is a professor of African American Studies, the special adviser on institutional equity for President Neeli Bendapudi, and Lang’s wife — emailed five of the seniors on Tuesday morning accusing them of harming “the people who are the College of the Liberal Arts” and erasing Lang’s work.
In her nearly 1,800-word email, which was obtained by Spotlight PA, Hamer did not disclose that she is married to the dean she was defending or that she leads some of the programs she cited as evidence that the dean supports African American Studies.
“The right to free expression is one of utmost value,” Hamer wrote. “At the same time, I would argue that with free expression comes a responsibility to ascertain facts. Otherwise, we risk the harm caused by the spread of dis- and mis-information. I’m sorry to say that this has been the effect of your letter, despite what may have been your good intent.”
Several hours after receiving Hamer’s email, Richard Page, associate dean for undergraduate studies in the College of the Liberal Arts, requested a meeting with them about their letter.
Schwartz, in a statement provided by the university, defended Hamer’s email to the students.
“The free exchange of ideas, including debate, is fundamental to the mission of higher education,” Schwartz said. “The senior administration was not aware of this correspondence however, we have learned Dr. Hamer was writing to provide accurate details in her capacity as a tenured full professor of African American studies, as faculty are free to share their personal views. As I have stated before, I look forward to working with Dean Clarence Lang in his pursuit of excellence in the Department of African American Studies and to achieving objectives that have been previously outlined.”
Kim, a co-author of the letter, told Spotlight PA she does not understand the administration’s motivation to contact the students privately, especially since West and the students presented their concerns and evidence in public.
“It makes it seem like they’re trying to intimidate us by saying, ‘Let’s have this one-on-one conversation,’ or to divide us from faculty,” Kim said.
A power imbalance exists between university administrators and students or faculty who speak out or defend their colleagues, Otto, another co-author, told Spotlight PA.
“When I read Hamer’s email,” Otto said, “I read it as another instance in a pattern of behavior among Penn State administrators cultivating a culture of fear, where everyone is a member of Happy Valley unless you speak out against the administration.”
The emails follow months of tension between Penn State’s senior administration and some faculty and students who criticized the university’s backtracking on previously promised diversity initiatives and its new proposals.
Last fall, Bendapudi canceled the Center for Racial Justice, a project Penn State had marketed as “just the beginning” of its response to the 2020 protests against police brutality and racism. In private meetings with employees tasked with searching for the center’s director, the president said the university did not have money for the project. Publicly, the president argued the center would not be effective.
Lang distanced himself from the center despite co-chairing the commission that recommended the project.
Bendapudi’s decision sparked outrage within and outside of Penn State. In November, more than 400 professors and lecturers signed an open letter questioning the president’s commitment to racial justice. The Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus said in a statement at the time that the president’s decision appeared to “undermine, dilute and divert from the racial and social justice initiatives championed by professors, administrators and students.”
Bendapudi appointed Hamer in November as a special adviser to oversee the university’s new institutional plan for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, and review its past policies. Hamer, Bendapudi, and Lang previously worked at the University of Kansas at the same time.
The university released a summary of Hamer’s study last month. Bendapudi and Hamer unveiled the recommendations in a one-on-one conversation that was livestreamed. Dozens of Penn State faculty and students — including West and others who proposed the Center for Racial Justice — held a counter event at the same time as the stream.
The faculty at the alternative event criticized the president’s new plan and the university’s decision not to allow professors or staff faculty to attend or ask questions at the presentation.
The university defended its decision in a statement to local media. “It would be difficult to expect members of our community to ask questions in a town hall format when they had not yet had the benefit of hearing the findings or initial recommendations, having not heard any initial institutional commitments, nor had time to digest them,” the university said.
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