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Pervasive racism, harassment plagues state-owned universities despite changes

Credit: COMMONWEALTH MEDIA SERVICES

Charlotte Keith, Spotlight PA 
February 2, 2024

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HARRISBURG — Students of color attending Pennsylvania’s public universities face racial harassment, feel unwelcome on campuses, and encounter racial stereotypes in classrooms, according to a new state report.

The report, compiled by state Sen. Art Haywood (D., Philadelphia) and the head of Pennsylvania’s civil rights agency, is part of an ongoing advocacy effort launched in response to a 2020 Spotlight PA investigation. That story, “Condemn, Discuss, Repeat,” found that although the state university system was recruiting and enrolling more students of color, many said they did not feel supported once on campus.

The new report, the product of a statewide listening tour over the past two years, echoes those findings.

“Black and Brown students in the state system are alienated from the campus community in ways that are damaging to the students personally, to the Black and Brown school community, and the schools collectively,” the report found. “Pennsylvania must move beyond its racist past – there is no other option.”

Many students described similar problems, the report notes, including being called racial slurs, getting dismissed by mostly white professors, and feeling unsupported by university administrators. The findings underline “just how pervasive racist hate speech and harassment are in the state university system.”

The report does not include names or other identifying information, and the responses range from descriptions of specific incidents, like a group of white students with a group chat named after a traditional Ku Klux Klan song, to more general impressions of campus culture.

The findings come as Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro has proposed a sweeping overhaul of Pennsylvania’s higher education system, including a new performance-based funding formula that would take into account the number of first-generation students that receive degrees, among other factors.

As of the fall of 2022, almost 20% of students in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education — 10 universities collectively known as PASSHE — were “underrepresented minorities,” according to publicly available data. The category includes Black and multiracial people, as well as Hispanics, Native Americans, and Alaska Natives. By contrast, underrepresented minorities made up only 11.3% of faculty and staff.

As Spotlight PA reported, PASSHE for years focused on recruiting more students of color to boost enrollment numbers and fulfill its mission to provide opportunities to all Pennsylvanians. The percentage of students of color enrolled in the system almost doubled between 2008 and 2020, but their educational outcomes still significantly lagged those of white students.

Between 2013 and 2017, the difference in retention rates — how many first-year students make it to the second year — grew between white and nonwhite students, Spotlight PA found. In 2022, the six-year graduation rate for underrepresented minority students was 38.4%, compared with 61.5% for white students.

At an event to release the report, Haywood said PASSHE had already taken steps to address racism and disparities in graduation and retention rates, and thanked administrators for their willingness to open campuses for the listening sessions.

In April 2021, the state university system’s board of directors approved a new strategy to address racism on campus, retain more students and faculty of color, and diversify their curricula. Individual colleges in the system also took action: Between 2022 and 2023, according to the new report, state universities hired seven new staff to support diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts; created or expanded 17 student retention programs; and held more than 60 diversity training sessions.

Even so, there is much more to do, Haywood said.

Dan Greenstein, chancellor of PASSHE, agreed, calling the experiences described in the report “heartbreaking.”

“There is no place for hate on any college or university campus in PASSHE, in Pennsylvania, in the U.S,” Greenstein said. “There is a great deal more to do,” he said, adding “there are more tools we can and should use.”

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