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STATE COLLEGE — Hundreds of Penn State employees are challenging the leadership and commitments of the university’s president, while internal documents obtained by Spotlight PA show a divide within the university over how best to combat the racism.
The fallout comes after two high-profile decisions by Penn State officials last month: the cancellation of a planned center for racial justice and the initial decision not to cancel an event featuring two extreme activists right, only to do so later citing “the threat of escalating violence.
Since then, more than 400 professors and lecturers have signed a letter questioning new president Neeli Bendapudi’s commitment to racial justice. Last week, teachers staged a protest outside Old Main to voice similar concerns.
Internal letters and emails between professors and university leaders also show private discord. A diversity-focused faculty committee has told administrators the university’s recent actions undermine its work, while a dean described the now-canceled Center for Racial Justice as ‘mostly performative’ despite its previous support to the project.
The pushback comes as Bendapudi lays out part of his plan to address racial inequality on campus, an approach that differs from his predecessor in some ways. The president is expected to address professors at a town hall next week.
In an email to Spotlight PA, Lisa Powers, the university’s senior director of public relations, wrote that Bendapudi “remains firmly committed to the work that needs to be done in our diversity, equity, inclusion businesses. and Belonging (DEIB), as well as in the fight against racism — with closer collaboration, a planned approach and University-wide accountability.
Proud Boys Protest
On October 24, a group of students hosted two far-right activists – one with ties to the violent extremist group Proud Boys – for a “comedy” event on campus. Despite repeated public statements by Penn State leaders calling speakers’ views “abhorrent,” officials have refused public calls to cancel the event citing the constitutional right to free speech. The student group paid the activists $7,500 in tuition for the appearance.
That evening, protesters gathered outside the campus building where the event was scheduled, and police did not immediately intervene when individuals in the crowd sprayed protesters with a chemical irritant, according to shared videos. on line. Officers from local police departments, as well as Pennsylvania State Mounted Police, were on hand to help control the crowd. Penn State then canceled the event just before its scheduled start due to “the threat of escalating violence”.
“We have encouraged peaceful protest, and while protest is an acceptable means of expression, it becomes unacceptable when it interferes with the basic exchange of ideas,” the university said in a statement that evening. “Such obstruction is a form of censorship, regardless of who initiates it or for what reasons.”
Speakers contributed to the violence that canceled the event, and protesters – many of whom were students – drew attention to the cause they opposed, Bendapudi said in a statement the following day.
The university declined to answer questions from Spotlight PA about how many additional law enforcement officers were called in to attend the protest or how much the university paid those officers.
“Penn State generally does not comment on total security-related spending at events for a variety of reasons,” Powers wrote.
Center fallout canceled
Two days after the Proud Boys protest, Bendapudi announced she was dropping plans to launch the Center for Racial Justice, a key commitment following the 2020 protests against racism and police brutality, and a project that the The university had previously promoted as “just the start” of its anti-racism efforts.
In a private meeting with members of the center’s director’s search committee, Bendapudi raised budget issues. The university is trying to balance its budget by 2025 after running a deficit of $127 million in the previous fiscal year.
But in his public statement, Bendapudi said Penn State would invest in existing programs “at least as much as would have been committed to the Center for Racial Justice over the next five years.” The university then provided a financial figure for the commitment – at least $3.5 million over the next five years.
In an open letter to university leadership, more than 400 professors from multiple Penn State campuses questioned Bendapudi’s shifting explanation.
“While any plan leading to systemic anti-racism reform is welcome, these messages seem inconsistent and raise other concerns,” the faculty wrote. “Either the university didn’t have the resources for the center or they had the money all along and were going to invest it elsewhere.”
Penn State declined to provide additional comments beyond what it had previously released. Penn State’s special status as a state-related university makes it largely exempt from Pennsylvania’s open records law. Although the university publishes its operating budget and audited financial statements each year, neither of these documents provides a detailed overview of annual departmental or program budgets. The university did not respond to a specific question from Spotlight PA about how the public could track Penn State’s financial commitment to diversity and inclusion efforts.
In a letter to trustees, some members of the Eberly College of Science’s climate and diversity committee wrote that Penn State’s recent actions had undermined decades of work to promote diversity and inclusion on campus.
The cancellation of the Center for Racial Justice and the defense of the group of students who hosted the far-right lecturers on campus, they wrote, were “extremely disheartening for those of us who have invested the time, energy and hope in efforts to recruit and retain a diverse community”. members and make the College welcoming to all.
On November 3, faculty, staff and students gathered outside Old Main to protest the president’s decision regarding the Center for Racial Justice.
In a Nov. 7 letter to colleagues, Clarence Lang, dean of the College of the Liberal Arts and co-chair of the committee that proposed launching the center in 2020, said people discussing the center were not fully informed.
Lang wrote that although he endorsed the center after it became the recommendation of his colleagues, he found it “mostly performative” and “non-essential to substantive work on diversity, equity, ‘inclusion and belonging at Penn State’. He had always advocated for greater investment in existing diversity programs, he wrote, offering similar suggestions to Bendapudi’s.
Leadership transitions can create mistrust, he wrote, and Bendapudi, as the university’s first female president and first female president of color, faces issues left behind by “an otherwise unbroken chain of ‘white men who ran Penn State’.
“Executive administrators of color must often take responsibility for correcting mistakes they did not make, while tolerating rituals of disrespect from colleagues – including those who present themselves as staunch anti-racists – who challenge the competence, authority and legitimacy of university leaders. of color in a way they never would with their white counterparts,” Lang wrote.
Next town hall
On November 2, Bendapudi appointed Jennifer Hamer as special advisor for institutional equity as part of a university plan to fight racism and promote inclusion. Hamer — the acting associate vice provost for educational equity and professor of African American studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies — will evaluate curricula, recommendations, and research on existing diversity across the university, according to a Penn State press release.
Hamer and Lang are married and both worked at the University of Kansas while Bendapudi was there. Hamer worked with Bendapudi in the provost’s office for about a year before Bendapudi became president of the University of Louisville.
Bendapudi is expected to answer questions about his decision to cancel the center and the university’s response to the Proud Boys event and protest at a town hall with the faculty senate on Nov. 18.
At least one group of professors have already cast doubts on the new post of special adviser. Members of the advisory board of the Restorative Justice Initiative, a university program that promotes education and engagement for people who are or have been incarcerated, said in a letter to university leadership that only one person could not do the work of an interdisciplinary centre.
Bendapudi, in his October 26 public statement, cited the Restorative Justice Initiative as one of several existing groups that could receive funding in place of the Center for Racial Justice.
Bendapudi’s statement gave the false impression that the initiative was involved in the decision, RJI’s advisory board members wrote in their letter.
“The public statement announcing the cancellation of the Center for Racial Justice identified our group (the Restorative Justice Initiative) as being able to fulfill part of the purpose of the Center for Racial Justice,” they wrote. . “Naming our group in this manner actively misrepresents our involvement in this decision to the public and our own Penn State community.”
The university declined to say whether Bendapudi consulted with the named groups and institutes before his public announcement.
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