More Rivers to Cross

Black Faculty and Academic Racism at Penn State University (Part 2)

Executive Summary

In January 2020, More Rivers to Cross: A Report on The Status of Black Professors at Penn State University (UP) Part 1, an independent analysis of the status of black professors at Penn State’s University Park (UP) campus, was released. Since then, our nation and particularly communities of color have been ravaged by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Further, in the aftermath of the videotaped police murder of unarmed citizen George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, our society has been severely challenged by the “great racial reckoning” and the most massive street protests in the nation’s history, organized and led by communities of black people throughout the country.

Penn State joined the chorus of academic institutions decrying this horrible tragedy and issued statements of “support” and “compassion” for communities and individuals long subjected to what President Eric J. Barron identified as “trauma, pain and frustration” created by everyday U.S. cultures of “hate, bias and racism.”

Dr. Barron’s subsequently convened a Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias and Community Safety and released a set of draft recommendations at the conclusion of 2020. Glaringly omitted from the Commission or President Barron’s declared priorities or specific implementation plans, in advance of his retirement in 2022, are any references to increasing the underrepresentation of black faculty throughout the academy.

1 The 100 black professors presently comprise 3.1% of 3,214 faculty and has remained at that level for the last 20 years. About the same proportion of black faculty are represented at the Commonwealth Campuses (CC, see Appendix A). We can only imagine what the first black Penn State professor, Mary E. Godfrey, would have to say about the progress that has been made in this area since 1956.

More Rivers to Cross: Black Faculty and Academic Racism at Penn State University (Part 2) extends the work of our initial report and goes beyond the recommendations of Dr. Barron’s Commission. This report presents the results of a survey of black professors at University Park (UP) and at each of the CC regarding their experiences with racism…

…on the institutional and interpersonal levels, perpetrated by students, colleagues, administrators as well as the academic culture in which we work. In addition, this document provides an analysis of the particular challenges and experiences faced by black professors at the CC. Lastly, we offer our transitions toward equity and justice. Some of the key findings of our report are listed below:

The survey revealed that 8 out of 10 black professors reported experiencing racism at Penn State UP and slightly more at the CC. Almost half encountered racism within the first year of their appointment and one-third within 1-3 years.

More than two-thirds (67.7%) of respondents reported that they have experienced racism within the last 3 years from students either “sometimes” (41.5%) or “often” (26.2%). About 3 times as many CC faculty compared to their UP colleagues (44% vs 15%) reported that they experienced racism from students “often” within the last three years. Black faculty have been “called racist names by students” and racial invectives have appeared on their vehicles or written in student ratings of teaching effectiveness (SRTEs) including the epithet “nigger”.

A faculty member stated that “Calling me a monkey that has to be sent back to Africa may be a joke but deeply hurtful because of the history behind the dehumanizing language.” One professor lamented that “student[s] complain every time I teach about enslavement”. In fact, two-thirds of all respondents (63.5%) indicated they have “sometimes” (34.9%) or “often” (28.6%) experienced racism by way of their SRTEs within the last 3 years. One black professor succinctly summarized the issue: “Students evaluate me differently on SRTEs than my white colleagues.”

Over half of black faculty (53.1%) stated that they had “sometimes” (35.9%) or “often” (17.2%) experienced racism from administrators or supervisors. For example, black faculty reported, “the discussion of excellence (without any clarification) whenever minority, specifically black, are proposed as a target faculty candidate or graduate applicants”; or hearing “that hiring Black and Brown people is vital to the department so long as it is not at the risk of the reputation of the program”. 

Another professor stated, “When I received tenure I received a smaller raise than my white male counterpart who got tenure the year before. I know because they told me what they got. I spoke to [administrator] and [this person] made an excuse that they were more ‘experienced’.”

A majority of black professors (56.2%) reported that they had experienced racism either “sometimes” (45.3%) or “often” (10.9%) from their colleagues within the last 3 years. One professor listed the following: “Being forgotten on credits for projects, unintentionally for sure but it has happened many times. Not being invited to events, lack of response to communications, lack of greetings in meetings, these are things that indicate that in spite of people saying you are important, you are not. Not made to feel like a part of things. These are not wrongdoings but you do not feel a part of things.” Other professors recalled unsettling interpersonal encounters with their colleagues such as: “A ‘colleague’ telling me I speak so well… and another ‘colleague’ asking if I smoke weed when they found out I was from [a certain country]”.

The survey revealed that 70% percent of black professors either “sometimes” (37.7%) or “often” (32.5%) did not believe the academic culture at Penn State would in the next decade become an equitable environment for the pursuit of learning, teaching, and scholarship for black Americans. Black faculty echoed a fairly consistent theme in commenting about the academic culture and prospects for racial justice, as noted in this statement, “Historically, Penn State fosters a conservative climate and culture; therefore, it is difficult to feel included when institutional leaders do not champion diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

A professor stated, “I was stopped while walking. I was surrounded by campus police. I have been followed around campus by police.” Another faculty member remarked, “The culture of silence to racism is pervasive, and you become the monster by standing up for your rights.” One other faculty member stated, “I question whether Penn State can authentically improve how it handles systemic racism and/or individual acts of racism.” 

The vast majority of respondents (73.1%) who experienced racism chose not to report it to the administration, for various reasons. According to one respondent, “Racism is normalized at Penn State so it’s futile to report to white administrators or people of color who uphold whiteness about my experiences.” A black UP professor offered this perspective about not reporting, “I would not expect anything to be done about it. Further, racism is deeply ingrained into the Penn State system. It is part of the culture and climate. One complaint will not address institutionalized racism” (see Appendix B for the fully array of comments of black professors).

Further, racism is deeply ingrained into the Penn State system. It is part of the culture and climate. One complaint will not address institutionalized racism” (see Appendix B for the fully array of comments of black professors).

Our transitions toward equity and justice address concerns in which the University, by way of President Barron’s Commission or noted comments, fall short with respect to the recruitment, hiring, and retention of black professors and promoting an antiracism agenda.

In addition to mere numbers, we contend that culture matters too. What takes place within the classroom and individual departments in interactions with students, colleagues, and administrators impacts the wellbeing and mental health of black faculty and their pursuit of teaching, research, and service.

These transitions toward equity and justice undoubtedly build upon the previous reports and study groups of black faculty who have contributed to this undertaking and whose ideas, proposals, implementation plans, and challenges have gone unheeded and indeed ignored. Most notably, some of the ideas and programmatic initiatives needed to address the status of black faculty at Penn State campuses and the systemic racism embedded in the institution are presented below in an abridged format and explored in further depth later in the report:

Recruitment and hiring plans and measurable implementation to increase black faculty over the next 5 years.

Implementation of an antiracism and social justice agenda by/for the Board of Trustees, university administration, deans, departmental heads and program and center directors and faculty at all ranks.

Particular and immediate attention devoted to the transformations needed at the Commonwealth campuses with regard to black faculty and their interactions with students, colleagues, and administrators.

Establishment of an antiracism progress and accountability committee consisting of internal and external stakeholders.

Commissioning of an external study to examine salaries and equity over the last 15 years.

Immediate disuse of the racially biased system of student ratings of teaching effectiveness.

Restructuring of present organizational units such as the Office of Affirmative Action, Office of Educational Equity, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion functions to reflect an antiracism agenda.

What we find so sadly lacking from the platitudes of President Barron and the Commission is an action agenda as well as a timetable to address systemic racism at UP and CC similar to other Big Ten universities such as Ohio State University, the University of Michigan, and Michigan State University.

Lastly, this report reminds the Board of Trustees, administration, faculty, students, and the citizens of the Commonwealth that changing the status and plight of black professors as well as other faculty of color at Penn State will require a concerted and sustained set of systemic initiatives motivated not only by goodwill but by a commitment to social justice and “doing the right thing.” Penn State can and must do better to be truly, “WE ARE”…

Authors: Gary King, Ph.D.; Marinda Kathryn Harrell-Levy, Ph.D.; Mildred R. Mickle, Ph.D.; Kevin Bell, Ph.D.; Darryl Thomas, Ph.D.; and Julia Green Bryan, Ph.D.

Acknowledgments: We acknowledge the valuable contributions of research assistants Amari McDuffie and Alex Koehl. We also express our gratitude to black faculty who participated in the survey and those who contributed to the discussions and review of this report 

1 Barron Shares Message On Actions to Address Racism, Bias, and Community Safety. 03-01/html

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