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Penn State Scraps Plans for Racial Justice Center

As Penn State moves forward under a new administration, the university is leaving one of its key planned diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in the past.

On Wednesday, Penn State confirmed it will no longer pursue plans to fund and establish a new Center for Racial Justice on campus. According to a statement, the move comes as administrators will begin evaluating “the multitude of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) initiatives, programs and scholarly research” at its 24 campuses starting in November.

“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,” university President Neeli Bendapudi said in a statement. “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.” 

Benapudi said Penn State will invest in diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives with funding that will be “at least as much as would have been committed to the Center for Racial Justice over the next five years.” The university estimated those funds would round out to around $3.5 million.

It’s unclear if Penn State’s recent financial troubles affected its decision to avoid funding the Center for Racial Justice. The university operated at more than a $150 million deficit in the 2021-22 fiscal year, triggering cost-saving measures including a widespread 3% budget cut, increased tuition rates and a “strategic hiring freeze.”

The Center for Racial Justice was first proposed under former Penn State President Eric Barron as one of the university’s key equity initiatives following nationwide protests and outcry in 2020. The center would, in part, provide resources to faculty, develop outreach opportunities and fund research examining racism, racial bias and more. It was slated to be housed within the university’s existing Social Science Research Institute.

“While this is just the beginning, the formation of Penn State’s Center for Racial Justice is the result of our University community taking action together toward continued growth, and I am grateful for the commitment of the leaders guiding this effort,” Barron said at the time.

In 2020, Barron formed the Select Penn State Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias and Community Safety, which, in 2021, ultimately recommended the creation of the university’s Center for Racial Justice, among other initiatives. The center was announced in October 2021 before administrators began a national search for a founding director this past March.

In her letter on Wednesday, Bendapudi said Penn State hopes to explore several existing equity efforts, including initiatives to expand employee diversity and fund existing units such as the university’s Africana Research Center and Restorative Justice Initiative.

“Scholarship and research on racism and racial bias play an integral role in not only attracting and retaining faculty who are leaders on this topic, but also on combatting bias and hatred within our communities, the nation and world,” Bendapudi wrote. “There is so much potential at Penn State for us to expand, connect and invest in the work of our faculty experts and existing networks in a way that grows our impact and standing as an institution in this scholarly discipline.” 

Bendapudi raised doubt about whether the university would fund the Center for Racial Justice during a meeting with the search committee for the center’s director, according to Spotlight PA. In a subsequent letter to Bendupudi, nearly a dozen faculty members on the search committee wrote that they were “extremely disappointed.”

“Juxtaposing the assurance that restorative and racial justice are a core concern for the University with the inability to fund a research center as the major first step in addressing important issues is therefore all the more surprising and distressing,” they wrote, according to Spotlight PA.

“Penn State does not have a solid reputation for adequately addressing social injustices, inclusion, and racism,” they added. “Without such a reputation, this cancellation is likely to affect the ability of the university to recruit and retain top faculty, who may strengthen existing or create new revenue streams, lead by example in this space, and produce critical new scholarship and public activity around race and the study of it.”

For years, faculty have criticized Penn State for its unsuccessful efforts to recruit and retain diverse students and employees. A landmark, two-part report in 2020 brought national attention to the challenges Black faculty faced at Penn State.

The report, titled “More Rivers To Cross,” found Black faculty rates at Penn State stayed practically flat over a 15-year period while non-Black faculty rates increased. The faculty-driven research also cited decreases in tenure rates for Black faculty.

The report’s second installment, published in March 2021, detailed racial discrimination faced by Penn State faculty. Ultimately, it encouraged the university to pursue more substantial efforts to improve on-campus equity.

The authors behind “More Rivers To Cross” convened a meeting of Black Penn State faculty on Oct. 17 to discuss “multiple concerns and disappointments” about the university’s limited response to their report. Now, it appears a lack of commitment to the Center for Racial Justice will add to those frustrations.

“Black faculty are concerned that while other Big Ten universities are aggressively and proactively addressing challenges and financially supporting initiatives to recruit, retain, and promote Black scholars and other minority faculty, Penn State is doing virtually nothing and reneging on its stated commitments,” the authors wrote in a statement. “The recent controversy over the equivocation regarding the Center for Racial Justice and the impending arrival of the white supremacists ‘Proud Boys’ on campus are very disquieting.”

In a statement released last week, the “More Rivers To Cross” authors requested a meeting with Bendapudi to discuss her plans to act on the report’s recommendations and the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

While Penn State will not move forward with a Center for Racial Justice on campus, it has taken some recent steps to advance recommendations from its Select Penn State Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias and Community Safety. Among them are a pro-diversity update to the university’s hiring policies and a 2021 revision to the Student Code of Conduct to explicitly prohibit “acts of bias” and discriminatory harassment.