Thursday, February 7, 2013

Diversity Awareness Task Force: Statement to the University Faculty Senate January 29, 2013

The Penn State University Faculty Senate held its fourth meeting of this academic year on Tuesday January 29, 2013 (e.g. Faculty Senate January 29 Meeting Agenda).  

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2013)

For that meeting I invited representatives from the recently formed Diversity Awareness Task Force. The task force was formed in mid-December following the Chi Omega Mexican theme party and photo. In my capacity as Senate Chair I have spoken to that issue as well. Sadly those comments never made it to our website, but may be found on my Senate Chair blog—The Faculty Voice (Statement From the Penn State University Faculty Senate Chair ).  
Speaking on behalf of the task force were graduate student senator Brian Aynardi and Melissa Creely. This post provides a transcipt of their statement. Both the Senate Chair and the University Interim Provost responded positively to the call for a task force and we can hope that it is constituted in short order and begins its work.

Statement to the University Faculty Senate

29 January, 2012
 (Brian Aynardi):

Before reading today’s statement, I would like to start by introducing the students here with me today. All of these students I did not know a year ago, but today, many of them I’m honored to call my friends. Friends I made by working steadfastly on the preparation of this statement. They are: Ryan Brown, Nia Spicer, Melissa Creely, Wanika Fisher, Ariel Coronel, Anthony Khoury, Melissa McCleery, Katelyn Mullen, Dutch Markward, Ben Clark, Chandra Ulinfun, Bryan Clark, Ai-Meh Zhu, and Laura Ariza.

Dear Fellow Senators, Colleagues, Students, and Friends:

This is a time of great and positive changes at Penn State. It is also a time of great challenge. It is with great respect and sensitivity to the importance of the topic at hand that we, the students of The Pennsylvania State University, address you with our vision to increase cultural diversity awareness at this University. This is a vision from groups including, but not limited to the NAACP, the Mexican American Student Association, the Asian Pacific American Caucus, the LGBTA community, the Penn State Black Caucus, the IFC and Panhellenic Council, the Penn State Latino Caucus, Hillel, UPUA, CCSG and the Graduate Student Association. Our desire is to share our vision for a change in the general education curriculum regarding diversity at Penn State.

I offered on behalf of my peers to address the Senate today because I love this University. During my time at Penn State, I’ve always felt the emotions of joy and happiness, as if I were the recipient of an indescribably wonderful gift. For a student to feel otherwise is an undesirable outcome for both the student and Penn State. No student, while at Penn State, should feel unwanted or unwelcome. In all honesty, many of them do.

Our goal as an institution should be that all students reflect positively on their time spent at such a great University.

Racism, ethnocentrism, religious bigotry, and the disparagement of sexual minorities are real and significant continuing problems at Penn State – and nationally. A single Greek sorority party was not the rationale for addressing the senate this afternoon. Instead, a recurrent failure of cultural diversity awareness is the catalyst sparking this discussion. These episodes of exclusion and bigotry did not begin a month ago – they have existed for many years, and will continue to exist unless we embark on making positive changes. We have before us a grand opportunity and responsibility to institute changes that will positively impact the diversity climate for generations to come.

Cultural awareness, in our vision, should be a more integral part of the general education requirement for all students. In essence, we are asking the Senate for more education. We need students to use the required general education coursework as a way of broadening their understanding of the world we live in today. Teaching students our past history as an institution and as a nation, will allow students to utilize that knowledge in future endeavors to raise their awareness in an increasingly diverse workforce. One they will certainly encounter when they leave Penn State.

Melissa Creely, an undergraduate student from the University Park campus, will now provide insight to the history of racism and inequality at Penn State.

(Melissa Creely):

Penn State has a rich history: a rich history of pride, traditions, and most unfortunate of all - forgetfulness.

SANKOFA, a West African word which means “to go back and fetch it”, which we share with you today to shed light on the experiences of our past, and to brighten our future.

In 1969, African American Students, led by the Fredrick E. Douglas Association, now known as the Penn State Black Caucus, marched onto the football field in an effort to advance Civil Rights at the University. In 1970, students held a protest at Old Main to advocate against the University’s military research practices. In 1988, then USG and Black Caucus President, R. Seth Williams - along with his peers, occupied the Telecommunications Building, demanding fair treatment for all students.

In 2001, Penn State Students received death threats regarding issues of racial tension and hatred. Students hosted a “sit-in” at the HUB-Robeson Center, marched onto the field during the Blue and White football game, continued to Old Main, and eventually came uninvited to the Faculty Senate meeting later that year in hopes of having their voices heard.

These are just a few examples of students leading the way to expand diversity relations at Penn State.

In 2012, students still face issues of racial discrimination, hatred and insensitivity. Our fellow students continue to walk around campus in Black/Brown face, posting discriminatory photographs, spewing racial slurs on-campus, downtown, and at sports functions. And even as recently as last night, the “N” word was written on a bulletin board in a residence hall across a Black History Month display.

The rights and privileges that we, as students and citizens enjoy today have come from the sacrifice of those of yesterday. There are times in life when injustice stares us in the face, and we have a choice: to do something, or to do nothing. Penn State students welcomed that choice and decided to do something when discrimination, inequality, and oppression stood before them. Students have taken a stand together to forge change that will forever impact the lives of the future generations of Penn State students. Their efforts stand as a reminder today that the student voice has the potential to challenge the status quo, to allow us the opportunity to eliminate racial barriers as one, and to make an everlasting change for the betterment of Penn State.

We want to recognize that the Senate has taken action in the past to increase cultural awareness at Penn State. We applaud the Senate for their achievements to date; but, in all honesty, we can do more. The time has come for a renewed effort to promote cultural diversity awareness at this institution.

(Brian Aynardi):

By my own admission, during my undergraduate years at Penn State, I did not engage in learning about students from other cultures. It wasn’t until entering my graduate program, in a department rich in cultural diversity, that I learned that I had many things in common with so many different people.

Today many of my friends are from different cultures, ethnicities and countries. We have found common ground, embraced one another’s upbringing, cultural diversity, and sexual identity. Upon a suggestion from several students with me today, I recently read a book Tim Wise, entitled “White Like Me”. It was an insightful book and opened my eyes to many of the issues this task force wishes to undertake. We suggest books like this to facilitate diversity conversations, which may be considered for implementation into already prescribed courses. This recommendation happened through reading and learning – after all, that’s what all of us are here to do: learn.

Learning is what every student behind me wants to do; not just to learn psychology or physics, but to learn about the students they walk around campus with every day. They want to become informed about their peer’s cultures, to share their cultures with those same students, and to really feel a part of Penn State. Learning isn’t just a tool for students; it also serves as a tool for administrators, faculty, and staff. Perhaps further training for all University employees would benefit our vision.

The students of Penn State want the “We Are” philosophy to extend beyond the athletic fields. We want it to extend into the classroom – into the dormitories and dining halls – and into social events downtown on the weekend. Whether it is through coursework, multicultural events, or required readings, we feel that the “We are” philosophy is both an attainable and admirable aspiration.

We understand that the vision generated by the group of student representatives on the floor today; the vision to alleviate racial tension and culturally insensitivity is not a change that can be implemented without careful planning. Change takes time, and we feel confident, that, given time and consideration, the faculty senate will find the issue of racism and cultural insensitivity to be of great importance for the advancement of Penn State. As part of our vision, we hope that significant changes will be made during the remainder of President Erickson’s tenure at Penn State, and that it will remain as an integral vision of his successor in the years to follow.

But we need your help and sustained commitment to incorporate a strong diversity component within general education to include many reasonable suggestions students have already prepared. They prepared without obligation, but in preparation if and when they would have the opportunity to be heard. Today is that day. Suggestions include a re-evaluation of the courses currently used for diversity education for their effectiveness, and the willingness of the Senate to consider new courses for implementation to that list. Further suggestions are an increase in multicultural events, selected readings, and implementation of further diversity awareness training into the first-year seminar course.

We have asked President Erickson and Chair Backer to charge a Joint task force, within the Senate, so that dialogue with these student leaders, senators and administrators, may commence on efforts to address these paramount issues in the general education requirement. We need the help of passionate members of the Faculty Senate, and welcome all who are willing to assist.

Education is the purpose of this institution – an institution we love. To stay true to the motto that, “We are…”, we all need to agree to show mutual respect, to be willing to learn, and to be willing to work together.

In closing, I’d like to share a brief, but insightful conversation that I took part in this past Friday at the HUB. During an impromptu chat with two students, my friend and I asked these students – who both also happened to be white - if they felt Penn State did a good job educating students on diversity. Their reply was - no. We then asked for their honest opinion about two theoretical ideas we had for promoting diversity education.

The first idea was whether they felt their awareness of diversity could be enhanced by taking a one credit course where they would work collaboratively with a diverse group of students in a classroom all semester. The second idea that we asked was how they felt about attending multicultural functions during the year to interact on a personal level with students from other diverse groups for credit. Their answer, without hesitation or reservation to both ideas, was - yes. This conversation highlights the honesty and willingness of Penn State students towards the need for more diversity education at Penn State.

Cultural awareness and education lie at the heart of the general education curriculum. As students, we want to be educated on life, not just on textbooks. Therefore, we ask the Senate for your help so that together we can build a stronger, more cohesive, and more respectful community dedicated to the education of a world-class student body.

Thank you.

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