Photo: News_Sen_Haywood_1: Senator Haywoood via legis.state.pa.us
A comprehensive report on racial discrimination throughout the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) was announced at a conference at WCU on Jan. 30, detailing severe incidents of discrimination and racism against students of color.
The findings were the result of an 18-month-long listening tour to the 14 universities comprising PASSHE, titled “ENOUGH: Listening Tour to End Racism on PASSHE Campuses.” Organized by state senator Art Haywood (D-4) and Chad Lassiter, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, they visited each campus during the 2022 and 2023 academic years to listen to testimonies and engage in focus group discussions with students of color about their experiences with racism on campus.
The efforts accumulated over 170 comments reported by over 100 students and alumni across PASSHE, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. The reported incidents included racist speech, stereotyping, inequitable educational opportunities and inadequate faculty representation.
“We have unfortunately heard dozens of these same stories,” Haywood said in an article by The Philadelphia Inquirer. “These students are being denied an education.”
Haywood was first motivated to complete the report in 2020, after hearing about particularly troubling occurrences on some Pennsylvania campuses. Intending to bring light to the reality of racism for students of color as well as lay the groundwork for substantive change to occur at the university level, the resulting report is the product of the past three years’ worth of work.
Comprising six pages of the 28-page report were paraphrased excerpts from students’ testimonies shared at the listening tour sessions. Among them, students and alumni described serious instances of racism, including being the target of racial slurs, experiencing racial profiling, feeling misunderstood or ignored in the classroom and tokenism.
The report does not specify the names or universities from which each concern arose.
A statement by President Fiorentino’s team to The Quad said that the university was “honored Senator Haywood chose our campus to host his press conference, as it provided us the opportunity to show our institutional values.”
At the conference, WCU’s various diversity focused initiatives were referenced, including the Moon Shot for Equity partnership and the COMPASS program.
Tracey Robinson, Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), who was involved in WCU’s focus group discussions with Haywood, noted that the impact these incidents have on students of color is not to be taken lightly. These cases can affect a student’s personal life in many ways, including their mental and emotional health, their academic performance and feelings of self-worth and belonging, Robinson said.
“Racism is trauma,” Robinson said. “And so to think that it does not impact a student’s educational experience would be very naive.”
Students also expressed concern for the lack of faculty and staff of color at the universities. This, students said, can leave them without a proper support system and with professors who do not handle DEI effectively.
This tendency towards disproportionate representation holds true for WCU’s faculty and staff demographics compared to student demographics. According to public data on PASSHE’s DEI Dashboard, in fall 2022, underrepresented minorities made up 9.6% of WCU’s faculty and 22.3% of the undergraduate student population.
For the report’s purposes, “underrepresented minorities” is an umbrella term which includes American Indian, Alaska Native, Black or African American and Hispanic individuals.
In Fall 2022, white students made up 73.2% of the undergraduate student population, while white faculty made up 80.2% of WCU faculty.
Students also expressed concern about the inaccessibility of mental health and counseling resources for students of color.
Shelby Lewis, a fourth-year student and president of WCU’s chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, has felt concern over the lack of Black representation on campuses and the challenges that students of color face on campus for some time.
“The most important thing is that there’s the feeling that we can’t say or do anything about it,” Lewis said. “Or, are they really gonna care if we do say anything about it?”
California, Clarion and Edinboro, three of the universities visited by Haywood — which have since merged into a singular institution, Pennsylvania Western University — were identified as having particularly concerning cases. The report labeled the institutions as having “the most egregious accounts of racism. [They] should be considered hostile environments for Black and Brown students.”
From these troubling conclusions, the report offers six specific dimensions for improvement, of which Robinson calls “best practices” that universities should engage in to create more inclusive environments. These include stopping racist harassment, retaining enrollment of students of color, creating an effective reporting system, mandating DEI training for faculty, improving mental health tools and increasing diversity in faculty and staff.
Currently, WCU’s Office of DEI has various outreach programs that work towards these values. Robinson speaks at first-year and new faculty welcome events about DEI, holds faculty training sessions on classroom inclusivity, coordinates the Campus Climate Intervention Team and informs students about racism reporting tools on campus.
Robinson also intends to start holding regular coffee chats, where students can stop in to talk about their experiences and give feedback about the campus climate.
Lewis proposes that universities make diversity a more regular encounter on college campuses. Then, they say, students will become more comfortable with diverse situations and help forge more inclusive environments for all.
“I think there is a lack of awareness of [diversity], so if that can be brought to the classroom on a more tangible level of, like, we’re going to surround you with people of different experiences and you have to approach this with an open mind,” Lewis said.
This report comes at a transformative time in education across the state and nation. On Jan. 26, Governor Josh Shapiro announced a plan to modify the Pennsylvania higher education system, including by limiting state university tuition to $1,000. Race and diversity in educational institutions have also been prominent conversations in national discourse after the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the legality of affirmative action this past summer.
Also in current events, schools and universities nationwide have recently been facing challenges to their DEI initiatives. To Robinson, the opposition to DEI poses a threat to inclusion beyond the classroom and reinforces the need for diversity in education and reports like this.
“I think it helps solidify that there is a clear place and role for DEI on our campuses, we still have a lot of work to do,” Robinson said. “Dismantling [DEI] should not be an option.”
Olivia Schlinkman is a third-year Political Science major with minors in Journalism and Spanish. OS969352@wcupa.edu