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Penn State

Before Penn State pledged more money for ‘promising’ diversity efforts, some of their budgets had been cut

by Wyatt Massey of Spotlight PA State College |

People attend the Feb. 8, 2024, racial justice teach-in at Penn State’s University Park campus.
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 north-central Pa. newsletter, Talk of the Town, at spotlightpa.org/newsletters/talkofthetown.

STATE COLLEGE — When Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi canceled the Center for Racial Justice in 2022, she pledged to invest the millions of dollars earmarked for the center in promising diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts already underway at the university.

But just months before Bendapudi made that pledge, university leaders from various Penn State departments cut hundreds of thousands of dollars from those same programs as the institution’s fiscal year 2023 budget went into effect, according to a Spotlight PA review.

Nearly a year and a half after the president’s controversial decision, many of the programs the president and her special adviser highlighted are operating with less support than they previously received. Leaders for some of the affected programs said the cuts forced faculty and students to do unpaid work to maintain the projects.

The entire extent of Penn State’s reductions is unknown. The university declined to provide financial information for programs not mentioned in public data, and Penn State’s special status as a state-related institution shields it from having to disclose such information under Pennsylvania’s open records law. Unless Penn State releases the information, program-level spending for the current budget cycle will not be known for nearly a year.

Spotlight PA spoke to program leaders who said their budgets had either decreased or remained the same, which amounts to a cut when adjusted for inflation. Most of the leaders asked not to be named because they said they feared retaliation from the university in the form of additional funding reductions.

Michelle Rodino-Colocino, president of Penn State’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, told Spotlight PA the administration’s promise to better fund existing programs sends an implicit message to employees: Support the president’s choice to eliminate the Center for Racial Justice and maybe get more money for your projects, or speak up about the center’s cancellation and risk budget cuts.

“It was a really poor sleight of hand,” she said. “It also read to me as an attempt to pit people against one another.”

The administration has declined calls from university employees and students to reconsider its decision to cancel the center and is moving forward with a separate diversity plan. One top university official said employees who expressed anguish over the university’s about-face on its highly promoted center are either unable or unwilling to see the president’s vision.

At a Nov. 18, 2022, town hall, Bendapudi cast doubt on whether formal centers — like those launched by other universities — could make a difference. People were too focused on “inputs” and the amount of money pledged to diversity instead of focusing on “outcomes,” she said.

The university did not respond to a request from Spotlight PA to speak to Bendapudi about her diversity plan and related financial commitments. When Spotlight PA asked how the university measures the outcomes of the president’s goals, a spokesperson provided a link to student and employee demographic data.

Less money and fewer resources to examine racism starkly contrasts the vision touted by the university’s previous administration when the center was first announced in 2021. Additionally, recent updates from leadership about promised investments do not mention race or racism.

Lisa Powers, a university spokesperson, told Spotlight PA via email that the university takes a multipronged approach to diversity.

Penn State developed a misconduct reporting system, launched a DEIB page with information on hiring and training, and has a preliminary version of an online resource page for students, Powers wrote. The university also hired a “gender diverse care role” to support LGBTQ students and added two full-time positions in disability services, she wrote.

A university spokesperson told Spotlight PA that Bendapudi allocated $2 million per year to diversity efforts from a president-controlled fund for fiscal years 2024 and 2025. Without specifying the amounts, the spokesperson said the administration provided additional funds for the Africana Research Center and the Center for Black Digital Research.

“Penn State leaders do not plan to coalesce around one area of diversity, but are focused on a broader definition of diversity that encompasses many more stakeholders and supporters,” Powers wrote, including veterans, people with disabilities, members of religious groups, and those in the LGBTQ community, among others. (Read the university’s full response here.)

Some of those stakeholders, though, have led on-campus events to critique the administration’s plan and question the commitment to its pronouncements.

Michael West, a professor of African American Studies and former department head, told attendees of a February racial justice teach-in that Penn State’s diversity announcements are “all smoke and mirrors.”

“The truth of the matter is to be found not in the words of the president’s spin doctors, but in the numbers of budget makers,” West said. “As the old axiom has it, ‘Show me the money.’”

The choice, the outrage

Eduardo Mendieta, a professor of philosophy and Latina/o studies, told Spotlight PA the Center for Racial Justice would have been a “gravitational pivot” for Penn State in terms of recruiting and retaining faculty and students of color — a decadeslong struggle for the predominantly white university.

The professor said he was eager to work with the center, the idea for which percolated from the campus community after the police murder of George Floyd in 2020. Then-President Eric Barron accepted the recommendation for the center, and a search for a director was underway when Bendapudi became president in May 2022.

“It would’ve sent a strong message about inclusion,” Mendieta said, “And one of the first things the president did was get rid of it.”

Following weeks of rumors about the status of the center, Bendapudi formally canceled it in October 2022, a decision she said was “traumatizing for many.” The president argued Penn State would be better served by bolstering existing diversity efforts, and pledged to spend at least $3.5 million over five years, the estimated cost of the center.

The promise confused some employees because Bendapudi had previously suggested Penn State did not have money for the center. “Either the university did not have the resources for the center, or they had the money all along and were going to invest it elsewhere,” read a November 2022 open letter signed by more than 420 faculty.

The cancellation drew national attention and sparked local outrage, including an on-campus protest, condemnation from groups representing students of color, and a disapproving statement by the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus.

At the November 2022 town hall, Bendapudi introduced Jennifer Hamer — a professor of African American studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies — as the special adviser tasked with gathering information on current diversity work and identifying programs to consider for additional funding.

The president also distanced herself from a specific financial commitment for diversity, saying that if she gave a number, “I’m making that up. I don’t know yet.”

“We’ve got to invest in the people that are already here doing the work,” Bendapudi said.

Budget cuts

Hamer’s report on existing Penn State projects, released in August 2023, listed 10 projects that carry an “immediate promise of supporting diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging on campus.”

To track the financial support for the projects, Spotlight PA compiled a list of programs included on Hamer’s list and in Bendapudi’s October 2022 announcement. The resulting list included 15 diversity projects from across the university.

To measure the university’s investments, the newsroom reviewed financial data about Penn State from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Near the end of each calendar year, Penn State submits final budget figures to the department from its previous fiscal year, which runs from July 1 to June 30.

The most recent data, a summary of fiscal year 2023, shows that while senior university officials publicly lauded the diversity programs, leaders who oversee funding for individual colleges and units cut more than $246,000 from three of them. A university spokesperson emphasized that these leaders — rather than top officials — made these department-level cuts.

Adjusted for inflation, Penn State cut $146,500 from the Rock Ethics Institute; $74,600 from the Center for Black Digital Research; and nearly $25,000 from the Center for Education and Civil Rights.

During that time, and adjusted for inflation, university officials increased the budgets of the Africana Research Center by nearly $73,000; Student Disability Services by $29,500; and Counseling and Psychological Services by more than $22,000. Accounting for these increases, the total cuts across the six programs for which financial data are available total more than $121,000.

The available data are not granular enough to provide insight into every program the administration highlighted. Penn State declined Spotlight PA’s request to provide information on the programs that did not have a line item in the Department of Education data.

Spotlight PA spoke to 10 people connected to the various programs highlighted by Bendapudi and Hamer, many of whom have knowledge of their respective projects’ finances. Leaders representing three of the groups for which public data were not available said the university’s financial support in the past year was cut or kept flat. Some did not realize the special adviser’s report was published or that their work was even mentioned.

More cuts might be coming. Penn State plans to slash $94 million across its system starting in mid-2025. Leaders overseeing the budgets in affected departments must then decide how to divide the smaller share among individual programs.

The Alliance for Education, Science, Engineering and Design with Africa, in Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, was one program Hamer highlighted as having “immediate promise.”

Gregory Jenkins, director of the alliance, told Spotlight PA the university did not increase funding for his program. He also expressed concern that Penn State could lose the progress it has made on diversity.

Questions of oversight

Julio Palma, a professor of chemistry at Penn State Fayette, helped moderate Bendapudi’s November 2022 town hall, during which the president said she wanted feedback from the university community as she moved forward with her diversity plan.

Palma told Spotlight PA he volunteered to lead additional discussions since Bendapudi repeatedly committed to further conversations on the topic. But Penn State has held only one similar event since — an April 2023 livestreamed conversation between Bendapudi and Hamer that did not feature live audience questions.

Julio Palma speaks on Zoom
Georgianna Sutherland / For Spotlight PA
Julio Palma, professor of chemistry at Penn State Fayette, speaks on Zoom at the Feb. 8, 2024, racial justice teach-in at University Park.

On-campus events featuring students and faculty, including Palma and West, have become the main avenue for public critique of the administration’s actions.

At the February event, West said the president often attends diversity-related events, but insisted just showing up is not enough. “To be present in person and absent in policy is a triumph of style over substance,” West said.

Lawrence Miller, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Association at Penn State, told Spotlight PA he feels the university does not value the perspectives of students, who suffer when Penn State does not support its faculty and those experts leave.

Miller said that while he is thankful students and faculty can organize gatherings like the February racial justice teach-in, it is discouraging that such events have to happen for leadership to listen to the campus community.

The feeling of going unheard might be mutual.

In a December 2022 email obtained by Spotlight PA, Rachel Pell, then-interim vice president for strategic communications, told university trustees that employees expressing criticism and disappointment over the center’s cancellation “appear to not see or be interested in listening to the full picture of what [Bendapudi] is trying to accomplish.”

The president’s plan

The Bendapudi administration’s diversity plan places less emphasis on race, a major shift from the previous administration, which three years ago committed to financing anti-racist efforts. Bendapudi’s presidential vision, and subsequent university announcements, do not mention “racism” or “anti-racism,” terms Penn State faculty have pointed out were key during her previous diversity pledges at the University of Louisville.

Bendapudi told the university community in November 2022 that people were too focused on “inputs” and the amount of money pledged to diversity.

“I’m giving you the outcomes we’ll hold ourselves accountable to and let’s make a difference,” Bendapudi said.

Yet, while the president’s diversity vision for Penn State lists targets for the university — narrowing graduation rate gaps among student groups, diversifying faculty, providing “equitable professional development opportunities for staff,” and improving the sense of belonging — the plan so far does not include specific metrics for those goals or a form of accountability if the goals are not met.

Spotlight PA sent Penn State a series of questions about how it measures outcomes for the president’s goals, such as how the public can determine whether Penn State created “equitable professional development” or what level of student and employee diversity it was hoping to achieve through its recruitment objective.

A university spokesperson responded with a link to Penn State’s DEIB dashboard, which offers student and employee demographic information.

Mildred Mickle, an English professor at Penn State Greater Allegheny, told Spotlight PA that the university’s focus on graduation rates deflects from the root issue. Mickle co-authored one of the More Rivers to Cross reports, which documented experiences of racism across Penn State’s campuses and recommended concrete fixes such as a five-year hiring plan and an oversight committee.

“This is blaming the victim rather than addressing what the real problem is,” Mickle said. “Black students tend not to thrive well at Penn State campuses because they don’t have people who look like them in leadership positions, teaching classes.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to make clear that Penn State has allocated $2 million per year from a president-controlled fund for fiscal years 2024 and 2025.

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