Penn State recently made a decision that’s negatively affecting marginalized communities.
On Oct. 26, Penn State President Neeli Bendapudi announced that plans for the Center for Racial Justice would not be moving forward.
This is a huge step backward for the university in terms of elevating inclusivity on campus — something it’s been attempting to do for the past few years, as the Center for Racial Justice was outlined in the university’s Strategic Plan under former President Eric Barron.
“There is remarkable [diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging] scholarship and practice underway by current faculty, staff and students across the university, and we remain deeply committed to continuing to build on the foundation of scholarly research and programming around racism and racial bias at Penn State,” Bendapudi said in a statement. “I have determined that enhancing support for current efforts by people who know Penn State best will be more impactful than investing in a new venture, and so we will not pursue efforts to launch a Center for Racial Justice.”
The center was going to provide research activities, faculty resources and fellowships aimed at addressing racial justice, as well as focus largely on research and scholarships around racial bias.
The reasoning for the cancellation was vague — it was initially speculated the center was unaffordable, and purpose behind the decision has since been inconsistent when the university received further pushback, according to a letter authored by faculty members that addressed the cancellation of the center and Bendapudi’s response to the Uncensored America event.
"At a time of rising racial inequality and intensifying racial injustice, Penn State leadership has decided to turn its back on research to address and potentially positively impact the realities of racial injustice," the letter said.
The letter also said the individuals who “labored to make the center happen” weren’t consulted prior to the cancellation of the center — despite university officials saying key stakeholders were involved with the decision.
Though the exact cancellation process remains unclear, Penn State should have effectively communicated the details with these individuals, who are willingly putting in the work to make the university a better place where all community members can feel comfortable and safe.
Penn State continuously puts responsibility on its faculty and students to spearhead diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives like this one, but the burden shouldn't have to fall on these individuals — it’s unfair.
And it’s telling that faculty members came together to address Bendapudi’s actions so soon into her Penn State career.
If the university’s budget is the reason for the cancellation, then it must be addressed that while the financial situation is important, it should not give enough cause to take down an initiative that was going to immensely contribute to a value Penn State was working hard to uphold.
According to Bendapudi, the university’s financial investment in existing DEIB initiatives across Penn State will be at least as much as would have been committed to the Center for Racial Justice over the next five years.
The university said it will make an effort to identify existing DEIB efforts beginning in November, and it will be led by a special adviser to the president for institutional equity, who has expertise and background in this area, according to the release.
The person, who will be selected by Bendapudi soon, will be a faculty member and will lead the initial work, engage in conversations with stakeholders and groups across the university and review existing data and reports. The goal will be to develop an institutional equity plan to be shared with the university community next year.
However, the Penn State community needs more transparency on the cancellation of the center — especially since the announcement came only two days after the university canceled Uncensored America’s event featuring far-right Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes and comedian Alex Stein. The reason was because of threats of “escalating violence” during the protests to the event, according to a release from the university.
Making these two decisions so close together, it seems like Bendapudi is trying to sweep her actions under the rug all at once so the Penn State community is quick to forget about them.
The previous administration left the university in a large financial deficit — one it’s been said Bendapudi has been tasked with cleaning up — but it’s easy to blame circumstances like this on individuals who aren’t here anymore.
Of course, there have always been and always will be some issues with the budget, but it’s hard to believe Barron really planned for something as big as the Center for Racial Justice if he hadn’t allocated enough funds for it.
Bendapudi and Penn State’s current Board of Trustees are making different decisions than Barron did, but these decisions need to continue to address the values of the university — and it’s evident equality is an issue the community does care about.
When it was first announced Bendapudi would be the university’s next president, one of the main narratives was how she’s the first woman and person of color to hold the position, and it was believed she would do so much for minority communities on campus.
There have been many opportunities for her to do so, yet there hasn’t been enough action on the administration’s end that proves the institution truly cares about these pressing issues.
Taking away the Center for Racial Justice is a bad look for the university. It’s impossible for prospective students who identify as part of marginalized groups to be assured they will feel safe at an institution that doesn't seem to care to prioritize them.
Bendapudi and Penn State’s administration must reevaluate their priorities when making monumental decisions on campus. If there is an overwhelming amount of objections to the ones being made, then they aren’t in the best interest of the community and should be pivoted.
Daily Collegian Opinion Editor Kit Schroder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.