Letter to the editor

I have been at Penn State since 2002. I am the only tenured African American professor in the history of the Penn State political science department. How long is that? George Atherton taught political science at PSU in the 19th century: yes, that Atherton. Think about it: the United States has had an African American president before the political science department at PSU has promoted an African American to full professor. The department has never tenured a black woman.

None of this should be surprising. There has been roughly three percent African American faculty at PSU for 30 years: this is a deplorable record.

This is often concealed by the University’s continued promotion of its “diverse” faculty/students, which shows trends that are typically not reflected among its African American equivalents.

For example, black student enrollment still does not reach levels achieved at PSU in the mid-1980s. Yet, the Chief Academic Officer, Provost Nick Jones, when asked about PSU targeting diverse hires, replied: “we don’t discriminate one way or the other” (see below). One way or the other? What’s the “other”? There has been three percent African American faculty for 30 years, and the provost is concerned with racial discrimination of “one way or the other”?

It sounds like the “good people on both sides” type of argument.

The provost’s comments reflect, inform, and sets the policy and tone for the university; and this is evident in the political science department where my treatment as the only tenured black professor in its history is much different—and negatively so—than that of white professors.

For example, when I arrived in the department in 2002 there were no black PhD students in our classes. I helped recruit three black women who not only graduated but two of whom became our best placements at Big Ten universities. I asked the head to put their pictures on the front of our department web page as a testament to our seriousness and recent success in educating black women PhDs and as well as a recruiting tool.

The head, a senior white woman professor, refused. Seeing no reason for the refusal given that there were stock pictures of white students on our web page—and one black person who wasn’t even a PSU student, as far as I know—I repeated my requests.

The department stonewalled for several years using a range of excuses including deleting all pictures of people on the front page. Now there are a variety of pictures on the web page, which conceals the years of resistance by the department of this simple act of acknowledging black women PhD graduates in political science.

Much worse is the instance when I raised the issue to the department head of a senior white male professor using the sexist slur, “bitch,” in a departmental meeting. I immediately objected to this professor; but when I complained to the head, a white woman senior professor, she told me that this white man’s use of the slur, “bitch”, was tantamount to the use of the word “dear.” The white woman head then accused me of contributing to a hostile climate because I’d used the word dear before and the white man professor was promoted. Today both of these people determine if I will even be considered for promotion, which surprisingly, I am not.

This is typical for those of us who complain of the hostile climate we are compelled to work in: we are the ones who are accused of creating the hostile climate that we are subjected to: often by the very people—administrators and senior professors—who create and maintain this hostile climate.

For example, in my formal annual evaluation, a previous department head, also a white woman, began to talk to me about black rapists and how she had been stalked by black men when she taught at another university—this was nowhere near the subject that we were discussing at the time.

Taken aback, I asked her what did this have to do with me or my annual evaluation; and she replied “well, you never know where people are coming from?"

When I told her that these were racist tropes and complained to the dean, also a white woman, my concerns were dismissed, and the Head was given an award by that dean.

The racism is beyond attitudinal, it is institutionalized in the evaluative criteria the department and college use as well. They rationalize using SRTEs that we know are biased by race and gender by arguing that these are not the only criteria they use—but they shouldn’t be used at all if we know they are biased—and egregiously so with regard to race (and imagine how that works out for the only black professor in a department’s history).

Even first year education students at Penn State have recognized this and the Collegian has published articles related to it (e.g.Daily Collegian November 28, 2018).

But, again, the department and college has not devised a system to account for the racism of administrators and colleagues in the department who may conduct peer reviews.

For example, a senior white male colleague in my department stormed out of a meeting in contempt of the idea of having a staff member from the Office of Educational Equity attend a faculty meeting to discuss “implicit bias”—not racism, just “implicit bias”.

What confidence can a black colleague have for such a white senior professor who will evaluate their teaching and research—especially that which focuses on white supremacism and patriarchy, and to vote on their promotion, who will not even tolerate a discussion of implicit bias, much less, racism?

Particularly troubling is the published research showing that students’ SRTE ratings are consistently lower for new, female, minority and physically disabled faculty regardless of their teaching quality.

This is not even a small sample of the toxic racist climate that I’m compelled to work in, create in, teach in, research in, do service in, and be black in…here at PSU…#BeingBlackatPennState #BBPSU.

If professors and administrators will treat black professors in such racist ways, then how do you think they treat black students, or student applicants? Among my many and largely ignored suggestions to the provost is that in certain situations (e.g. a major department that is still experiencing historic racial “firsts,” such as having the first black tenured professor in its history), oversight and/or interventions from the provost office are necessary.

But then again, when the provost spoke with faculty in our college, he opened his comments with an ethnic “joke” …so?

Another requirement is that those of us who have been subjected to the prevalent and enduring white racism on this campus from colleagues, administrators, staff, and students should give voice to their experiences, at minimum, and take concerted action, even if it begins with just a letter to the student newspaper, as Gary King did recently (e.g. Daily Collegian February 7, 2018)

The racists who are hidden in plain sight use the cover of concealment to shroud their racist practices; and they use the silence of others to conceal their white racist actions; and those who remain silent are complicit in that white racism. These are unfortunate facts of being black at Penn State…#BeingBlackatPennState #BBPSU


Hear from the university in its recent report: 

"Toward a culture of equity and inclusion"


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