In 1969, African Americans were just beginning to integrate predominately white universities and colleges after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the turbulence of the civil rights movement.
The next year, Daniel Patrick Moynihan the former senator and advisor on urban problems to President Richard Nixon wrote, "The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of 'benign neglect.’ ” Much progress has been made since.
Unfortunately, in the case of Penn State and particularly the College of Health and Human Development (CHHD), the recent history of hiring black and other underrepresented faculty is still mired in a period of “benign neglect.”
Despite the platitudes and homage to liberalism misnomered as diversity, equity and inclusion, the present CHHD administration’s record has been atrocious in retaining or recruiting African American and Latino faculty.
Over the last 10 years black and Latino faculty have left CHHD (the fourth largest student college on campus) as if they were subject to a staggered and irreplaceable eviction decree.
Were it not for the commendable efforts of two previous heads of the Department of Biobehavioral Health (three black faculty), of which I have been a member for 20 years, the absolutely abysmal proportion of generously defined black faculty in CHHD would be 1.8 percent (5 of 271).
Moreover, the 2.9 percent total (8 of 274, which is below the university average of 3.2 percent) would be further reduced if only tenured or tenured-track instructors were counted.
In actuality, I am the only African American male faculty and the only black full professor in the entire College, a singular distinction exceeded appreciably in previous years.
Some departments in the College have seldom invited black and minority faculty to present at colloquia and have few if any graduate or undergraduate students from underrepresented minorities.
Further, through policy machinations such as spousal hires, creation of unconventional positions, failure to hold departments fully accountable, lack of courage and commitment, and differential preferences, CHHD has subverted institutional policy.
Consequently, it has not lived up to the university’s mission, strategic plans or promise to recruit and retain African American or Latino faculty.
The implications of this form of “benign neglect” are considerable for all students and faculty, but especially for those of color.
For one, the important scientific contributions to the health disciplines nurtured by a supportive and multicultural environment are missed.
Secondly, students are inadequately prepared to attend to patients, conduct research, or administer health policy or promotion in increasingly diverse settings.
Third, a policy of “benign neglect” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the pattern of exclusion becomes widely acknowledged among black and Latino academicians and students. And this “cultural grapevine” can be very difficult to overcome.
Finally, this state of affairs is insulting to the status of Penn State as a great university excelling in research and teaching.
Most students who arrive at Penn State have never seen or interacted scholastically with a black or Latino instructor, and there is little likelihood that by the time many leave CHHD, that this unenviable record will be broken.
Perhaps instead of “All In,” a modification of the NFL’s “Rooney Rule” is needed for colleges such as CHHD based on a one-to-one recruitment of black athletes corresponding with the recruitment and retention of black and other underrepresented faculty, students, and staff of color.
Above all, Penn State should not be an oasis of “benign neglect” and excuses.
Martin, among many others, would not be pleased.
Gary King is a professor in the Department of Biobehavioral Health.