After the 2020 police killing of George Floyd, Eric J. Barron joined higher education leaders nationwide in pledging solidarity with protesters seeking racial justice. “It is past time for change,” the president of Pennsylvania State University said.Wp
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But like his peers elsewhere, Barron faced intense pressure to take actions that would outlast the rhetoric. So, that December, he touted a Penn State commission’s proposalto establish a scholarly initiative dedicated to anti-racism. “This is an important recommendation because it goes straight to the educational mission of the university,” Barron said in a video town hall.
By the time Barron retired this past spring, Penn State had announced the formation of a Center for Racial Justice and opened a faculty-led search for a founding director. Similar efforts have arisen elsewhere in academia, including a new center at the University of Michigan with an identical name.
Now, though, Penn State’s version is dead. Barron’s successor, Neeli Bendapudi, canceled the project in late October, avowing a commitment to equity and inclusion but saying it would be “more impactful” to enhance support for existing work on racial bias. The reversal prompted an uproar at the 88,000-student university and beyond: Students of color denounced the cancellation. Hundreds of professors signed a letter of protest asserting a pattern of “broken promises.” And Black members of the state legislature deplored decisions they said would move the “needle backward.”
The episode underscores how a major university’s promises during an intense period of national racial reckoning are vulnerable to the passage of time and changes in leadership. Swap one president for another, and the vision suddenly shifts.
For many on the faculty of this state flagship school, where there was fervor for action in 2020, the cancellation two years later of a plan explicitly tied to racial justice has raised a question: Is the reckoning in retreat?
“We were all very disappointed when it dissolved,” said Marinda K. Harrell-Levy, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State-Brandywine, a campus near Philadelphia. Harrell-Levy, co-chair of the committee searching for a director, said colleagues who served on it had received assurances their time would not be wasted. They were “told to believe that this time Penn State was going to get it right,” Harrell-Levy said. “And that’s not what happened.”
Students, too, are frustrated.Jada Okundaye, 21, a senior from Laurel, Md., who is majoring in social and health policy analysis, said she is upset about the reversal of a key element of the university’s response to calls for social change after Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police. “This wasn’t something on the back burner,” she said. “This was already in the works. For them to cut it off like that, it’s a big slap in the face.”
Around the country, other universities have taken a different approach.
A common thread among these is a mandate for social engagement and confronting racial prejudice. The Boston University center depicts itself as “a collaborative research and education effort across multiple disciplines to build a world where racial equity and social justice prevail.” Ibram X. Kendi, its founding director and author of the 2019 book “How to Be an Antiracist,” cited as an example of its initial work a project to track racial and ethnic disparities in the effects of the covid pandemic. “We’re laser-focused on building a center that can partner with others to address the crisis of racism,” Kendi said.
After Floyd’s killing sparked a national protest movement, Penn State was thinking big. Barron convened a commission of faculty members, administrators and others to study racism, bias and community safety. Separately, Black professors were pressing university leaders to diversify the faculty and address racism they encounter at the main campus in State College and more than 20 satellites across Pennsylvania.
Barron’s commission recommended, among other things, “an anti-racist scholarly research center or consortium” to support teaching, research and programs across the university. “This reflects a trend that we’re seeing around the nation,” Clarence Lang, dean of liberal arts and co-chair of the commission, said at the video town hall with Barron on Dec. 9, 2020. Lang said the idea would harness the expertise of faculty members across the university who were already engaged in research on race, inequality and social change. There would be “synergies” in the collective effort, he said. “This could be a venue that would be a destination for scholars around the nation.”
Behind the scenes, Barron conferred with Penn State’s Board of Trustees. A document circulating through email among trustees in early 2021, first reported by the news site Spotlight PA and obtained by The Washington Post from a person in university leadership, suggests that the overall strategy was drawing intense internal scrutiny despite a public show of consensus. The person who provided the unsigned document, labeled “confidential” and “trustee input,” spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of retribution. The document did not express opposition to the center, and the unnamed author agreed with the goal of “adequate support for anti-racist scholarship.”
But it also asserted that the university should not lose sight of other academic priorities: “[W]e believe that in addition to advancing scholarship that speaks to our differences, the university should be dedicated to scholarship that celebrates the positive accomplishments of western civilization and the United States in a way that could serve to inspire and unite all of us.” Other passages in the document raised questions about “critical race theory” — an academic framework for analyzing laws and policies that perpetuate systemic racism — and “whether teaching America’s exceptionalism remains a core objective at Penn State.”
The Post could not verify who wrote or endorsed the document.Emails The Post obtained suggest the document sparked debate within the board,with one member contending it contained “racist rhetoric.”
Matthew W. Schuyler, chair of the board, did not dispute the document’s authenticity. But he said it was not presented to the board and did not represent the board’s views at the time. Trustees weigh in on matters in various ways, he said — through phone calls, emails and discussions. “We take all that we hear into account, and we make decisions,” Schuyler told The Post.
Schuyler said the board has been steadfast in support of core principles. “If you want to be a part of Penn State, you should feel like you belong at Penn State,” he said. “Period, full stop.” But he added: “How we get there is a subject of great discussion.”
The board showed no public sign of disagreement or skepticism when Barron forged ahead with the plan. Nor was there public indication of controversy over the proposed center among state leaders in Harrisburg.
In February 2021, he wrote to the community that Penn State “will financially support the development of an enterprise dedicated to anti-racist, anti-bias pedagogy and scholarly research and is committed to attracting an outstanding leader for this effort.”
In September 2021, the university unveiled the name of the Center for Racial Justice and declared it would align with Penn State’s strategic plan. The school said the center would lead “cross-disciplinary, cross-methodological research activities across Penn State’s 24 campuses.”
In March 2022, the university announced the search for a founding director.
Then, in May, Bendapudi took over from Barron.
Raised in India, Bendapudi was president of the University of Louisville from 2018 to 2021 and is the first woman and first person of color to lead Penn State. At Louisville, she advocated a “Cardinal Anti-Racism Agenda” in 2020 after Breonna Taylor, a Black woman who lived in that city, was shot and killed during a police raid. Taylor was an emergency room technician in a university-affiliated hospital.
By last summer, the Penn State faculty committee looking for the center’s director had met with a search firm. “We had thoroughly discussed the types of candidates we would look for,” Harrell-Levy said. Outreach to prospects was beginning.
But Bendapudi was raising questions as the university faced budget difficulties.
The new president, in a recent telephone interview, said she was convinced that a new center was not necessary because many faculty members are already focused on racial justice. She said she wants to concentrate on existing initiatives, to help Penn State develop its own academic talent. “I’ve often thought of institutions as leaky buckets, where we don’t invest enough in the people who are already here,” she said. “So they leak away. They go elsewhere, while we try to bring something else new in.” She added: “My very, very strong commitment continues to be anti-racism.”
At the same time, Bendapudi said, she wants to close racial gaps in graduation rates, promote career paths for staff and faculty members from underrepresented groups and improve the campus climate for people of all backgrounds. She pledged to create dashboards to monitor progress on those fronts. Money saved from canceling the center — an estimated $3.5 million over five years — will be steered into diversity, equity and inclusion programs, the university said. “I’m holding myself accountable to outcomes,” Bendapudi said.
Bendapudi also pledges to “inventory” Penn State’s DEI projects. Barron’s commission two years ago recommended much the same thing.
She denied getting any pressure from trustees to scrap the center. “Not in the least,” she said. She also dismissed any suggestion that the name of the center was too liberal or provocative for a public university in a political battleground state. “That had nothing to do with the decision in the least,” she said. “I am very committed to racial justice, and we will talk about that.”
In short, she agreed with her predecessor’s ends, but in this case not his means.
Schuyler said the board backs Bendapudi’s agenda on diversity and equity and will not second-guess her decisions. “She has 100 percent support,” he said.
Bendapudi announced the cancellation of the center on Oct. 26, two days after protests erupted in State College over a planned event featuring the founder of the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence. The university had abruptly nixed the Oct. 24 event amid fears it could take a dangerous turn. Critics said Penn State bungled the situation. Many were also outraged that the announcement of the center’s demise occurred so soon after the tense showdown over the Proud Boys.
“The university’s recent actions appear to undermine, dilute and divert from the racial and social justice initiatives championed by professors, administrators and students on campus in recent years,” the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus said in a statement on Nov. 15. The caucus could wield significant clout in 2023 in the narrowly divided state legislature.
More than 400 members of the faculty, tenured and untenured, representing engineering, education, meteorology and many other disciplines, signed a letter that lamented the cancellation. “This recent backsliding adds to a long list of broken promises on issues of racial justice by Penn State, going back decades,” the letter said.
Lang, the dean of liberal arts, said in an interview he welcomes Bendapudi’s push to aid existing projects. Among them, he cited an Africana Research Center focused on Africa and its diaspora and a Center for Black Digital Research focused on the history of Black organizing. That center’s co-director, P. Gabrielle Foreman, was recently awarded a “genius grant” in a fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. “These things would not exist or persist without university support,” he said, a point he said has been made repeatedly behind the scenes.
In retrospect, Lang told colleagues in a letter on Nov. 7, Barron seemed captivated by a desire to recruit a “superstar” public intellectual to found the Center for Racial Justice. That person would have been furnished with a staff and budget, Lang said, diverting resources and attention from people at Penn State “who already had distinguished themselves through anti-racist scholarship, teaching, service, or advocacy.” Lang, in the letter, called the land-a-superstar approach “mainly performative.”
Barron declined to be interviewed. “Universities across this country can and should do more to support both diversity and inclusion on their campuses and to focus the real strength of universities — the scholarship of research and teaching — to explore and understand racism and thereby influence national activities and policy,” he wrote in an email. “Both efforts are underfunded and so differences of opinion will occur as to what should be the priorities.”
Many professors say Penn State made the wrong choice and is generating the wrong kind of headlines — for abandoning a scholarly initiative with racial justice built into its name. “This is a moment when the United States is really wrestling with the legacy of race and racism in this country,” said Josh Inwood, a professor of geography, who served on the search committee with Harrell-Levy. “This is where we need to be investing time and resources. That’s for me why the center matters.”
Inwood noted that Temple University held a grand opening in Philadelphia for its Center for Anti-Racism a little more than two weeks after Penn State’s center was scuttled. “Why does Temple get this but we don’t?” he asked. “We have an obligation to be engaging in work that is transformative, and we’re missing out.”