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With Penn State in the spotlight for scrapping plans for a Center for Racial Justice, Black faculty members are questioning the university’s commitment to diversity and anti-racism — and a co-author of two reports that previously outlined Penn State’s shortcomings says its latest response simply isn’t good enough.

At least several dozen Black faculty members, from both University Park and the commonwealth campuses, met Oct. 17 to discuss what they felt was Penn State’s inaction in addressing pressing issues highlighted more than 18 months ago. Those concerns, detailed in the faculty-written “More Rivers to Cross (Pt. 2)“ report, included how African Americans accounted for about 3.11% of faculty in 2020 — despite the minority group accounting for just under 6% nationwide — and how more than 1 in 3 Black faculty respondents said they at least “sometimes” regretted the decision to join Penn State.

Little has changed since then, some faculty said.

“They know the nature of the problem,” said Gary King, a co-author of the report and a professor of biobehavioral health and African American studies. “They know the severity of this issue. They know that it is going to require some serious institutional change. And no one is questioning the actual numbers. No one’s questioning the actual findings that we’ve we’ve come across.

“But they are very hesitant, if not explicitly reluctant, to take actions to change the situation or address the specific recommendations that we have.”

For its part, the university announced Wednesday that it planned to evaluate diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) initiatives by next month. In a news release, the university explained it planned to review existing data and reports with the aim of sharing a university-wide plan early next year.

University President Neeli Bendapudi, who took over in May, also met with several university groups to discuss the matter and said Penn State is “deeply committed” to combating racism and racial bias.

But King intimated that Black faculty are tired of delays and inaction. Why is more study needed, he asked, when the university has chosen to ignore recommendations that its own committees have already studied and made? A Center for Racial Justice was recommended more than a year ago by an internal university committee — the Select Penn State Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias, and Community Safety — but Bendapudi acknowledged in Wednesday’s news release that the university would no longer pursue the founding of such a center.

Penn State operated at more than a $100 million deficit the last fiscal year, and several cost-cutting measures were implemented this year. But the center was slated to reportedly cost less than $1 million a year, and a search committee for its first director had already been formed.

“There is remarkable DEIB scholarship and practice underway by current faculty, staff and students across the university, and we remain deeply committed to continuing to build on the foundation of scholarly research and programming around racism and racial bias at Penn State,” Bendapudi said. “I have determined that enhancing support for current efforts by people who know Penn State best will be more impactful than investing in a new venture, and so we will not pursue efforts to launch a Center for Racial Justice.”

But Penn State has promised change for years now and, Black faculty members said, the university is still lagging behind most Big Ten universities when it comes to following through.

Last year alone, for example, Ohio State committed to hiring at least 100 faculty members of color over the next decade; Purdue said it would hire 40 faculty in the next five years to “diversify the racial makeup” of its university; and Maryland announced a commitment of hiring at least 100 new faculty from underrepresented communities over the next 10 years.

While Penn State pointed to other commitments, such as a “landmark update” to its full-time faculty hiring policy and the 2021 launching of the Antracist Development Institute by Penn State Dickinson Law, King believed Pennsylvania’s land-grant university has fallen far short of its Big Ten counterparts.

“Penn State is not showing that it’s a Big Ten university with regards to matters of diversity and anti-racism,” he said.

According to King, Bendapudi’s chief of staff said in May that Bendapudi would meet with Black faculty around August to address their concerns. They still haven’t met. King said they received a note from Bendapudi last week about her willingness to meet, but no date has yet been set.

More transparency is needed in this process, King said, and Bendapudi should publicly explain her intentions to faculty and students. He was not receptive to proverbially kicking the can down the road once more.

“The time is now,” he said, referring to a public presentation of specific plans, as opposed to further meetings with internal committees. “We all would like to see that, not just Black faculty. We would all like to see that. Absolutely.”

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