Sunday, April 20, 2014

The State of Diversity at Penn State--An Interview With Leaders of the Joint Diversity Task Force

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2014)
Issues of diversity have become an important element of engagement among stakeholders at Penn State--especially our students who have been driving current efforts (e.g., Diversity Awareness Task Force: Statement to the University Faculty Senate, January 29, 2013).  Upon petition by students before the University Faculty Senate, and with Senate support, a Joint Diversity Awareness Task Force was appointed (discussed at Diversity in Silence--The Joint Diversity Task Force Report at Penn State University Becomes Less Visible). Its work includes involvement in the university's recent complex efforts to reform Penn State's General Education programs.

The members of the JDATF have been working hard move Penn State's diversity project forward.  I recently sat down with the three co-chairs of the JDATF - Dr. Patreese Ingram, Dr. Karyn McKinney, and Brian Aynardi - to discuss the work of the committee one year after being charged.  The notes of our interview and responses to my questions are set out below.

1. Can you tell me a little about the circumstances leading to the formation of the committee? 
[BRIAN AYNARDI]. I was asked by former GSA President Wanika Fisher to attend the Student Leader's Roundtable breakfast in December of 2012 several weeks in advance. Approximately 1 or 2 days prior, images of a "Mexican-themed" party from the sorority Chi Omega surfaced, gaining national headlines. Wanika decided the evening before to come with me to the meeting. President Erickson was in attendance, as well as Student Leader Roundtable representatives from various multicultural groups including, but not limited to: NAACP, Penn State Student Black Caucus, Asian Pacific American (APA) Caucus, Mexican-American Student Association (MASA), and the Latino Caucus. As students were talking, President Erickson suggested that this was a topic students may want to bring up with the Faculty Senate. Knowing I was the only student senator there, I leaned over to Wanika quietly, and asked if I should say something. She strongly encouraged me. I spoke up, and offered to request the privilege of the floor and make a statement on behalf of the students. I asked if students would be ok with this, and to my surprise, they agreed.

For the week prior to holiday break, I met with the President of the Penn State Black Caucus, and two of his friends, Nia and Melissa, almost daily. We contacted two faculty senators, whom graciously offered to help us with how to properly, and effectively, engage the Senate. These two senators were Dr. Patreese Ingram and Dr. Careen Yarnal.

The students and I drafted a version of the speech, and we sought edits from many individuals; Wanika Fisher, UPUA leadership, Drs. Ingram and Yarnal, Professor Larry Backer (then Senate Chair), President Rodney Erickson, and VP Damon Sims. I also contacted CCSG President Ben Clark and VP of Commonwealth Campuses Madlyn Hanes who gave their support of the effort.

The speech was given to the body of the Senate as per the privilege of the floor given by the Chair. Students from various multicultural groups and constituencies stood behind the podium in unison as Melissa and I delivered the statement. Senate Chair Larry Backer and President called for a charged "Joint Diversity Awareness Task Force" to be charged.

In early April, Provost Rob Pangborn, Chair-elect Brent Yarnal, VP Damon Sims, VP Terrell Jones, Chair Larry Backer, and I formed the membership of the Task Force, and invitations to students, faculty and administrators were sent. The official charge was given to the group on April 29, 2012, by Chair Yarnal and Provost Pangborn.

To be honest, I initially I thought it best if someone else gave the address. I thought I would help with getting the floor time, but wanted the students who would tell me,""We Are", didn't seem as though it applied to them", to speak. To have students who said,"I hate Penn State, I wish I wouldn't have come here," address the faculty. But they wanted me to speak. I didn't know why until Ryan, Nia, and Melissa explained to me the concept of white privilege. I'm glad they did; my life is richer for it. Together we have made a difference, and will continue to do so for years to come.

2. What do you see as the most important job of the committee?

Well, there were three charges set for this committee.
• Bring a diverse group of administrators, faculty and students together to work collaboratively to engage in dialogue and provide recommendations to the University Faculty Senate and Administration to enhance diversity awareness in the University Community.
• Thoroughly investigate practices that will be most effective to increase diversity understanding among the student body.
• To provide recommendations to the Faculty Senate Committee charged with reforming the general education curriculum as a whole.

That being said, let me say this – Many students come to PSU from very homogenous communities where everyone is very similar to themselves. Many have limited experiences with people who are different from themselves and people outside of their communities. But when these students come to Penn State, they share space with those who are different from them. They may be different in terms of race and ethnicity, cultural beliefs and practices, religion, social economic status, sexual orientation, and ways of thinking and viewing the world. Unfortunately, one thing that seems to be true of many human beings is that we tend to be skeptical of, fear and we may even dislike difference. We tend to fear the unknown.

When students leave this University and move into the workplace, they need to be prepared for a workplace that is becoming increasingly diverse. In fact, the ability to interact with and work effectively with people from a variety of backgrounds is becoming a job skill and requirement. So an important job of this committee is to make recommendations which create opportunities for all of our students to gain awareness of cultural differences, to be open to diverse perspectives, and have the ability to interact effectively with people different from themselves.

This is a great University and we pride ourselves on helping to prepare the leaders of the future. Cultural awareness and inclusive excellence are are an important part of being a well-educated student, and is critical for leaders of the future. We cannot allow our students to leave the University without having some level of diversity awareness in their educational program. We are hopeful that the General Education Task Force will be sensitive to these needs as changes are made to the general education curriculum.

3. What has been the most challenging obstacles to moving the committee’s work forward?

One of the goals of the committee is to build diversity education into the curriculum. Currently students have to take one course that qualifies as a U.S. cultures course and one course that qualifies as an International course. Only 25% of the content of the course must be diversity education or international education to qualify for this designation. We feel that there are too many courses that include only a small amount of diversity and international content that currently qualify for this designation. So we are recommending that an increased percentage of a courses content be required to qualify for these designation. We are considering the appropriate percentage, as this is still a work in progress. Currently, there are five criteria that courses must meet to qualify as US Culture or IL courses. Course must meet two of these criteria. We are also recommending the addition of another criteria to the list of five that could qualify a course for this designation – that being “Concepts of power, privilege and discrimination at the societal, institutional, and individual levels in both the United States and other countries.”

We are needing to wait while the General Education Task Force works through the process of making recommendations. We want to work collaboratively with the General Education Task Force which is a very large group that is tackling a very large charge of revising the General Education Curriculum. Therefore, we are in a holding pattern in terms of moving these recommendations along. As the General Education Task Force discusses the concepts of themes, exploration courses, and engaged scholarship within the new curriculum, we are working collaboratively with the General Education Task Force to include opportunities for diversity within these components.

4. What do you see as the relationship between the work of the committee and the Senate’s engagement with experiential learning?

We feel there is a strong relationship. The Senate wants to get students more actively engaged in their learning. Our committee would like to see more opportunities and incentives for engagement in diversity awareness activities. The University currently hosts many many diversity focused activities, events, seminars, study abroad, “study at home”, and other opportunities for students to gain diversity awareness. Examples include programs sponsored by Global Connections, speakers on diversity sponsored by CORED, the Paul Robeson Cultural Center, and various departments and colleges. We also think it is critical that students have an opportunity to engage in open dialogue across differences.

We would like to propose a system or structure that provides incentives for students to engage and take advantages of these current opportunities. We see such a system as giving students a “heads up” when they apply for internships and jobs. Employers are looking for students who have a level of cultural awareness and the ability to interact effectively with people from diverse backgrounds. Having some type of documentation of these experiences will be viewed positively by employers. The term Diversity Passport has been discussed within our committee.

5. Same question but now focused on general education reform. 
While General Education reform is not up for the JDATF to determine, we have recommended increased diversity and inclusion content in US and IL course designations from 25% to 50%, or 100% for a course counting for both. Additionally, we asked that the criterion "power, privilege, and discrimination and the societal and institutional level both in the U.S. and abroad" be added. For these courses we requested that all courses containing these designations be reviewed over a 3-year period. Furthermore, we ask that the GETF consider using diversity as a theme, or as an element embedded within each theme. However, because of the uncertainty of general education reform at this time, we cannot determine how many of these recommendations will be implemented.

6. What would you describe as the ideal product of the committee?
• Raising the consciousness of all students to the concept and importance of diversity in our society and world
• Inclusion of a diversity requirement within the General Education Curriculum
• A system that provides incentive for students to engage in diversity awareness activities, events, and that include open dialogue across difference
• Incentives for faculty to build aspects of diversity into their courses
• Inclusion of diversity in the New Student Orientation and/or first year seminars or first year experiences
• Greater opportunities for diversity training for faculty and staff
• Assessment of the impact of increased diversity programming

7. Can you talk about next steps?

We are currently working with the General Ed Task Force. We have membership on each of the Sub-committees. We have focused a lot of our time on the gen ed curriculum. We will begin to give more attention to the other goals of our committee including the concept of a diversity passport and NSO. 

8. How do you see students getting involved in the work of the committee, especially to implement its objectives?

Currently six students sit on the task force and an additional student is co-chair of the task force. [ BRIAN] Students are crucial to the success of the JDATF. Ideally, we will be able to develop a stream-lined effort among UPUA, CCSG, GSA, and stakeholders from the University's numerous multicultural organizations to collaborate in providing recommendations to programs throughout the University. All of the aforementioned groups have been engaged in diversity awareness already. Getting representatives from each constituency into a meeting with the JDATF to determine 3-4 common goals we are able to achieve, together, over the next year, will be pivotal. While everyone should continue to promote diversity and inclusion through all means, a united front will hopefully allow for an impact not just at the student organization or task force level, but within the curricular arena for current and future Penn State students.

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