Pennsylvania State University’s president, Eric Barron, didn’t consult with the school’s African American studies department before crafting his response to the killing of George Floyd.
He should have, said department head Cynthia Young.
“It just feels like this is a moment where our expertise should be central to whatever response the university crafts,” said Young, an associate professor of African American studies and English. “If there was a massive oil spill in Pennsylvania and the university felt it had to respond in some way, I’m fairly certain they would reach out to people who were experts in climate, in oil spills.”
In his May 30 statement, Barron pledged the school’s commitment to “disrupting hate, bias and racism whenever and wherever we encounter it and to creating the most inclusive and diverse community that we possibly can.” Days later, he announced steps to get there, including anti-bias training for all employees and a new commission on racism, bias and community safety.
The 25-member department wanted more. In a June 16 letter to Barron, its members advocated cutting ties with local police and disarming campus police, requiring all students to take a course in anti-Black racism, offering more support to Black students and scholars, and creating a task force on local policing and communities of color. A petition supporting their statement has drawn more than 1,000 signatures.
The concerns mirror those from Black student groups and professors around the country, calling for change and a leading role in reforms in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.
At Temple University, where about 13 percent of undergraduates are Black, graduate students in the Department of Africology and African American studies petitioned president Richard M. Englert for more resources and faculty, more autonomy over courses taught by the department, and a change in the department name.
At Princeton University, which last week announced it would remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its public policy school and one of its residential colleges, they want much more than a name change.
“They better buckle up because we’re not done,” said Abyssinia Lissanu, 25, a Princeton alumna and now a graduate student in public affairs there.
Public policy schools should be at the forefront of confronting racism, she said, and yet Princeton for too long has dragged its feet, deciding in 2016 against removing Wilson’s name. Alumni and students now seek more Black faculty, more prominence for antiracism education and reparations for Princeton’s years of failing the Black community.
As an undergraduate at Princeton, where 9% of undergraduates and 4% percent of tenured and tenure-track faculty are Black, Lissanu said too many of her international relations courses were steeped in the writings and work of white men and Western countries.
“I just couldn’t fundamentally grasp that,” said Lissanu, of Somerset, Ky. “To hear these professors saying, ‘This is the way the world works,’ I was always so confused. It felt intellectually unsatisfying.”
Community College of Philadelphia created a Black studies program about a year ago, but faculty leaders would like to see more Black professors and a requirement that all students take at least one course in the Black experience or Black identity. They see a course requirement as key to fostering conversation and understanding in a nation that sorely needs it.
“Folks are realizing it’s a matter of life and death for our community,” said Debonair Oates-Primus, assistant professor of English and coordinator of the Black studies program.
Universities are responding by establishing committees, fostering dialogue, and promising change. They have previously tried to increase diversity, but say they will try even harder.
Penn State’s new commission on racism, bias and community safety will be co-chaired by faculty senate president Elizabeth Seymour and the deans of Penn State’s Dickinson Law school, Danielle Conway, and the liberal arts college, Clarence Lang. After receiving hundreds of nominations for commission members, they plan to assemble the group this summer and offer recommendations in the fall.
The board of trustees also established an oversight group to hear regular reports from the commission. It will be chaired by Brandon Short, the 36-member board’s sole Black trustee. During a town hall meeting this week, Short, a former Nittany Lion and NFL linebacker, said he understands some are skeptical that change will occur.
“We’re about results,” he said, “that are going to make the lives of not only African American Penn Staters but all Penn Staters better.”
Barron also announced that the school, in addition to establishing a memorial scholarship in Floyd’s name, would spend $10 million on equity, primarily to match donations for new scholarships for Black students and students from other underrepresented groups. Penn State also said it would equip its police with body cameras within the next year.
Young, the African American studies head, said steps such as the scholarship funds were promising, but questioned whether others, such as police body cameras, would help.
At the University Park campus, in predominantly white Centre County, Black students make up about 4% of the student population and Black faculty less than 3 percent, and the experience is not an easy one, African American studies scholars said.
Young arrived at Penn State from Boston College in 2016 with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in full swing. She said she heard repeatedly from students who reported being called racial slurs. She lives in neighboring Boalsburg, where she said she has seen confederate flags and stickers on cars and trucks. Her concerns about policing have grown as more unarmed black people nationally have been murdered.
“It’s hard for me to be on a campus with police who are armed and not feel a sense of fear,” she said.
In March 2019, the fatal shooting of a 29-year-old Black man by State College police stirred protests. The parents of Osaze Osagie called police after their son, who had a history of mental-health issues, had written text messages threatening harm to himself or others. When police officers went to his apartment, he ran out wielding a knife, authorities said. He was shot in the left shoulder and twice in the back. District Attorney Bernie Cantorna concluded that the officers’ use of force was justified.
“I just don’t believe it was unavoidable,” Young said.
The African American studies scholars noted Osagie’s death in their letter; some in the community continue to question why armed officers were dispatched to deal with a man in mental-health crisis and why his father wasn’t enlisted to help de-escalate the encounter. (Penn State has created a memorial scholarship in Osagie’s name.)
Other incidents have inflamed relations, too. In October, an alumnus criticized a player’s dreadlocks and called them “disgusting.” This month, a Twitter post by the liberal arts department that seemed to compare the experience of conservative students with Black students elicited an outcry, according to the Daily Collegian, the student newspaper.
“Dear Black students, your lives matter,” it started. It also included: “Dear conservative students, Your viewpoints are important.”
The tweet has since been withdrawn.
Young said Penn State must do more to create a nurturing environment for Black students and scholars. The university about a year ago hired 13 African American studies faculty, but has done little to address the campus climate, she said.
Every semester, Young said, she and colleagues hear from students who feel isolated and unheard. “They feel marginalized in a variety of different ways that make it hard for them to function,” she said.
And many struggle with mounting college debt, she said.
Black scholars are hopeful the recent efforts will be sustained and that America’s campuses will be galvanized in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing, the unforgettable 8 minutes and 46 seconds that a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck.