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Inside Penn State faculty’s deep-seated diversity problem and ensuing bias

A historic lack of diversity at Penn State results in institutional bias that could stifle black academics

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Last updated April 15, 6:45 p.m.

The racial landscape

Game-changing developments have shifted the racial landscape of the United States in the last 14 years. Yet, during that time, the total number of African American faculty at Penn State has declined rather than increased.

There were 109 black faculty at Penn State University Park in 2004. By 2018, that number remained fairly stagnant at 107; just 3.1% of the 3,425 total faculty members. In reality, the university’s apparent apathy toward hiring and retaining black academics for the most part has put them far behind the more progressive standards of the nation.

Conversely, faculty representation in nearly every other ethnic group has been on the rise.

During that time span, this country saw its first African American president, the legalization of same-sex marriage, the modern internet, a recession and the addition of 448 total faculty at Penn State University Park.

Historically failing to seek out black academics, coupled with the general racial landscape of State College, has allowed for a system of faculty evaluations that lets bias-prone student surveys hold a seemingly inordinate stake in the promotion of faculty of color.

On Jan. 16, The Daily Collegian ran a letter to the editor from Errol Henderson, an associate professor of political science, in which he decried discrimination at the departmental level of the university.

In questioning what he found to be a biased evaluation of his teaching acumen, Henderson felt there was little support from the majority-white staff surrounding him. He described this climate as “hostile,” and the racism surrounding him as “beyond attitudinal.”

Nearly four months later, Henderson and other Penn State faculty, students, community members and representatives from the NAACP convened to address racism throughout the university.

Though testimonies came from various departments, base notions of isolation, frustration and anger rang throughout.

The meeting, occurring on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, made clear that racism remains prevalent in the everyday lives of black people in State College.

“As a young African American male who has been here for four years, I have felt very socially isolated. With the faculty panel here, it seems like I could relate to everyone’s story,” Brian Cliette , instructor of hospitality management, said during a panel. “Like in the back of my mind there was a script that I’d already read, and now I’m here hearing the audiobook from you.”


 When compared to Pennsylvania as a whole, State College varies on relative diversity. According to a 2017 population estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau, percentage population of white persons remains fairly standard on the state and local level at 76.5% and 79%, respectively.

However, relative population for Asian and African American groups almost switches once localized.

Black persons make up an estimated 11.9% of the commonwealth’s population, but only 3.9% within State College. Conversely, Asian ethnicity makes up 11% of the State College population, but only 3.6% of the entire commonwealth.

These numbers are not arbitrary, as an influx of international students has seemingly dominated the university’s public claim of diversity.

“The weird thing is, when I left here in 2003, the international population was not this big. It is much bigger now. In many of the majors, STEM majors certainly, most of the class is white or international,” said Gregory Jenkins, current professor of meteorology and atmospheric science.

And he’s not wrong.

The proportion of international students attending Penn State University Park is 10.7% above the national average.

Seeking proportionate diversity does not mean that all ethnic groups clamor for the largest piece of the pie, but rather, that the over-abundance of any number of groups creates an environment of implicit privilege.

In a statement to the Collegian, the university made note of its desire to change this landscape.

“It is right that we should all be focused on the need to increase the percentage of African American faculty across the University to adequately reflect current demographics nationally and to expose students, and the entire Penn State community, to leading African American scholars and mentors,” Nick Jones, Penn State’s executive vice president and provost, said in the statement.

But faculty of color at Penn State often encounter students who have had little to no previous experience with teachers of another race.

Dr. Wanda B. Knight, associate professor of art education, African American studies, as well as women's, gender, and sexuality studies, often makes note of this reality.

“When I initially stand in front of my students, I have them take a poll every time: ‘How many of you have had a black professor?’ The vast majority haven’t. In Pennsylvania, 96% of the teachers K-12 are white people. 96!”

As the state’s primary and secondary education fall short of providing a standard of instruction from all voices, Pennsylvanians entering as undergraduates may view the university as seemingly diverse.

However, while white students benefit from their now somewhat-varied cultural experiences, faculty of color face the other side of pale.

Some feel the lack of black faculty is due to recruitment committees who fail to weigh the issue of diversity in personnel decisions.

“The search committees continue to not be diverse in many instances,” Jenkins said. “There may not be a single person of color in a search committee, and I’m supposed to believe that they’re out looking for people of color?”

However, just as past recruitment has created the current landscape, so too could future hires remedy it.

“Recruitment is a first step, the deans, department head, and the recruitment committees have a major responsibility in this regard,” Gary King, professor of biobehavioral health, said. “This is where a big part of the problem lies, and it must be addressed by the university.”

The SRTE issue

From freshman gen-eds to 400-level theory courses, there’s one consistent outlet of student critique.

The Student Rating of Teaching Effectiveness tool has been an instrument for Penn State faculty since 1985. It allows for students to voluntarily review various portions of a professor’s teaching acumen at the end of the semester.

Ratings are meant to contribute anecdotal context to the teaching portion of promotion evaluations. SRTEs are noted in policy documents as often inconsistent and perceptive to bias; and thus, the university implores reviewers to consider them as “broad brush” instruments.

A report from Angela Linse, executive director and associate dean at the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, to the faculty senate on SRTEs, notes they “are not precision tools that produce a measurement that can then be compared to a known standard.”

Reviews are segmented between three sections.

The A section contains questions on the general experience of the student. Questions A3 and A4, which ask students to rate the overall quality of the course and professor on a seven-point scale, are in every SRTE as a baseline measure.

This data can prove informative if either end of the scale ends up abnormally clustered.

pie charts

“I think most faculty probably believe that there may be a few students in class who collude together and say, ‘Ok let’s give this professor a bad score,’” Jenkins said. “And I really think this likely happens to women and people of color quite often.”

In the B section, questions on the same scale pertain to the goals of a specific department, and are chosen by department heads out of 177 total options.

The open-ended section contains written comments, which grant the reviewer a window into student perception of a professor.

As a means of data collection, the A and B sections are often dubious and could be swayed by irrelative factors.

“I know that there is bias in those SRTEs, and a lot of it is around popularity and how many A’s you give,” Jenkins said. “If you are early in your career, and you are teaching lots of different courses, it’s hard to figure that part out.”

Like the “questions? comments?” toll number on the back of a shampoo bottle, SRTEs tend to be filled out from those motivated by exceedingly negative or positive feelings.

Positive SRTE submissions may be spurred by an easy A, a favorable teaching style or a pleasant manner of speaking. Conversely, negative reviews, which tend to be more personal, may come due to seemingly irrelevant factors like a lisp or messy handwriting.

Obviously, maliciously written comments such as intolerance for a black professor’s teaching on racism won’t be considered by the department heads who review them.

But should the A and B section data be removed from that professor’s set? And how can a department head know if a seemingly objective comment stems from extraneous motivation?

In detecting underlying bias within student comments, administrators must ultimately rely on their own judgment. And, while university policy heeds the many pitfalls of student reviews, no amount of racial consideration could wholly rid this data of its undertones.

“Why are we relying on this instrument that we know has these biases? They rely on them because you can lazily turn to them when you want to make your case,” Henderson said. “And even when they don’t make a case for you, they can use them for making a case against you.”


Such data is granted a relatively unknowable weight by the reviewer, and faculty of color stress over the potential that their careers may stall due to administrative discrimination.

Interpreting SRTE data gets even more difficult when weighing classes of vastly different size, subject and intensity.

For example, under the current general guidelines of evaluation, an African American professor teaching an introductory class on colonialism to over 400 students will find his ratings weighed on the same scale as a white contemporary teaching the same class.

“When you’re a faculty member of color teaching about racial issues, you are going to take a bigger hit than a white faculty member teaching those issues. That is fairly well documented,” Linse said.

Currently, there is no university policy in place which instructs department heads or administrators to account for implicit bias in SRTEs or student comments.

In a report for the Senate Committee on Faculty Affairs on “Effective Use of SRTE Data” by Linse, she explains that “without research-based guidance, these faculty end up relying on their own experiences, biases, and possibly erroneous information to the evaluation process.”

The report notes that research on racial bias within student ratings is less prevalent than gender bias, as the lack of a strong sample size makes any patterns unreliable.

"Because there are so few faculty of color here, it complicates it,” Linse said. “You don’t have a big enough distribution to know whether that faculty member is different from any other.”

For those who have seen little addition to that statistical pool while at the university, such reasoning seems shaky.

“I ask them, ‘What is the sample you compare me to if I am the only tenured African American professor in the history of this department?’” Henderson said. “What are you comparing me to? I am your sample.”

As Linse describes, student reviews are merely an instrument, and reflect the inherent qualities of those using it.

“Are some students who are filling out the ratings implicitly biased against faculty of color? We can relatively, confidently say yes, because we know that a predominantly white society is generally implicitly biased against people of color,” Linse said. “So why would students be any different?”

Since it is so entrenched and integral to the evaluative process, the complete removal of SRTEs would require documented evidence that the instrument itself is biased.


According to Provost Nick Jones, as of publication, Penn State is “examining the questions used on the SRTE forms to identify if any may be inadvertently prompting biased ratings from students.”

Such research is promising, yet SRTEs are not the sole issue with implicit administrative bias.

“While we will do the statistical analysis, it is not going to solve the issue of a [black professor] having their data unfairly interpreted in a promotion case,” Linse said. “I don’t think any amount of research can specifically address the individual issues that professors are facing. And that is the challenge in this, it’s a broad-brush kind of an instrument which is potentially being used as a precision instrument — which it is not.”

Lack of oversight

Penn State faculty undergo annual and five-year extended teaching evaluations in order for administrators to determine positions within the department. These reviews revolve around research, teaching and service — with each portion granted an indeterminate slice in the final review based on departmental preferences.

One issue with the teaching portion of the review process lies in vague language surrounding the weight given to different evaluative measures in the final equation.

As policy says: “teaching performance, for example, may be evaluated with ratings, peer teaching evaluations, and/or a teaching portfolio.”

Ultimately, a great deal of the evaluation process is left to the discretion of department heads. This is likely sensible, as any academic pursuit cannot be accurately weighed against another.

However, the lack of initial oversight in crafting review policy has created a landscape in which department heads and administrators hold unchecked narrative power in the summarization of student data and comments.

This summarization of SRTE results by department heads became standard after the faculty senate’s 2003 survey on SRTE procedures found many professors tended to erroneously self-report their own results. They corrected this by amending policy to include “under no circumstances shall the candidate be involved in preparing the summary of student comments.”

While seemingly just, this helped form the current landscape in which professors of color feel they have little input in the narrative stemming from their SRTE results.

“‘They can say ‘The students generally felt like…’ and you see them start to pick, hand pick and summarize,” Knight said. “And that is very problematic because they aren’t taking into consideration the context of the individuals, and what pedagogy the instructor is using to be transformative.”

Student reviews tend to be honest, anecdotal views of a professor, yet the possibility for manipulation makes scrutiny of the entire data and comment set necessary.

“SRTEs reflect the opinions of a cohort and individuals. It would be nice if the head would correlate comments across the cohort and parse out the targeted negative feedback,” Marc Miller, assistant professor of landscape architecture, said. “Perhaps this would require some additional training or workshops so department heads could become more aware, but it also requires that they remove some of their basic assumptions.”

Even if SRTEs were somehow manipulated to account for bias, the process of summarization by a superior may allow for insertion of biased undertones into a professor of color’s review.

“Penn State is a community of academics, but the experiences are not entirely shared,” Miller said. “To assume that African American or other marginalized faculty has had the same experience with academia being neutral is false.”

This is not to infer that department heads hold racial malice toward faculty of color, but that a lack of a neutral third party allows for unconscious bias to go unchecked. This may manifest in forms beside race — as gender, sexuality and personal relationships can permeate the objectivity expected of a reviewer.

Safeguards could be put in place to help curb this reality.

“You could have [non-PSU faculty] review the class, or you could have focus groups from students in the class, or you could have a mid-semester review from students to see what is going on,” Linse said.

Another issue with the relative autonomy of department heads comes from the very hierarchy they operate under. Universities across the country differ on whether to use heads or chairs to run the upper annals of administration.

henderson quote

Chairs are elected by members of the department, and thus might be more loyal to professors than deans and provosts. Heads, on the other hand, are appointed by deans and provosts, and may make decisions more in line with the larger goals of the university.

If departments within the university continue to operate under a head hierarchy, subordinate faculty receiving their annual reviews are at the whim of those open solely to scrutiny from above. If a professor feels their SRTE data may be biased, the denial of such by their department head would be final.

“This is a management problem, they’ll simply ignore that racism is here,” Henderson said. “As they deny this racism, we don’t get to the management issues or the structural changes.”

Where is Penn State now?

Dr. Joan Duvall-Flynn, state conference president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Pennsylvania State Conference (NAACP—PA), came to the university on April 4 to offer professors and students of color an avenue for collectively fighting against oppression.

“You have power, you just need to know what it is,” Duvall-Flynn said at the meeting. “You will change this campus.”

Joan Duvall-Flynn

Joan Duvall-Flynn gives a speech at the More Rivers To Cross event in the Business Building on April 4.

Currently, the NAACP does not have an adult chapter within Centre County or its surrounding counties — though Penn State does have a college unit, lacking a local adult branch for certain resources.

Duvall-Flynn and most in attendance sought to remedy this by establishing one right in town. The local presence of such a group could feasibly provide legal checks on discrimination of any form.

“If there is known bias in a ratings system, and that rating system is impeding on the economic well-being of the persons being rated, that means the disparity has to be addressed,” Flynn said. “And so there are agencies that we will go to, because what we do is rock the boat.”

Legal action may be uncomfortable for those who feel diversity isn’t an issue at this university, but such an opinion may come due to perception from the majority and past public declarations by the administration.

As previously reported by the Collegian, the university’s Jan. 16 report asserting “employees from diverse backgrounds make up 30% of faculty, and 13 % of staff and administrators, University-wide,” offered an inaccurate portrayal of diversity in University Park as a whole.

A conglomerate measure of general diversity fails to highlight the discrepancies among different ethnic groups. In data provided by the university, black, Hispanic and Hawaiian faculty were lumped together into a 7% portion of the university’s overall measure.

More specific data later provided by the university to the Collegian found that 3.1% of total faculty at University Park identified as black/African-American (though it is of note that self-reporting of race was not mandatory for new hires in 2017-2018, and thus percentages may be slightly affected.)

Also, the university said effective 2010, the federal government changed how individuals self-report race. Institutions are required to report only one race-ethnicity per individual, so this federal reporting requirement could slightly understate the count of black faculty in certain circumstances.

But, when measured against national data from 2016, Penn State falls roughly 2.3% below the national average.

For those who have continued to work among this inequity, exemplary performance is not only common but necessary, as 48.6% of current black faculty at Penn State received tenure — 9.6% more than the average rate of all other faculty.

“There is this weird feeling that you have to teach your classes equal or better than your counterparts, and that the penalty for not doing so could be excessive,” Jenkins said.

Since the beginning of the fall semester, the university has made piecemeal moves to alter the perception of diversity at Penn State. The aforementioned review of bias within the promotion and tenure review process by the faculty is expected to be finalized by the fall.

The university also made multiple senior leadership appointments of African American administrators and a “cluster hire” of diverse faculty in the College of the Liberal Arts, according to the statement from Jones.

For whatever complacency the administration displayed toward past calls for diversity, they now seem ready for action.

“We are resolute in our commitment to achieving our goal of diversity and inclusion, and our determination goes beyond words,” Jones said.

However, no level of data manipulation or well-intentioned rhetoric can change the perception shared by faculty, students and residents — that University Park is, and likely will continue to be, a place where black faces are few and far between.

“At times, I feel like privilege is something that supersedes everything,” Jenkins said. “It just feels very isolating, and I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be 18 or 19. To feel like ‘Wow, I’m not even here.’”

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