“Concerns aired by Penn State’s Black faculty members are part of a broader racial reckoning in higher education
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — When Gary King came to Pennsylvania State University in 1998, records show, fewer than 3 of every 100 full-time faculty members identified, like him, as Black. A medical sociologist with expertise in race and tobacco smoking, King rose on the academic ladder. He gained tenure and promotion to professor of biobehavioral health and African American studies.
Yet during King’s time at Penn State, the Black share of full-time faculty members on the flagship campus here has barely budged. It was 3.2 percent in 2019. That echoes the pattern at many prominent public universities, but not all. Federal data shows the share of Black faculty members that year was 4.1 percent at Ohio State University, 4.7 percent at Michigan State University and 6.2 percent at the University of Maryland.
One day some years ago, King said, he urged an administrator, who was White, to help recruit more Black professors and other faculty members of color.
“He looked at me and said, point blank, ‘Yes — if they’re qualified,’” King recalled.
King said he was stunned at the not-subtle suggestion that many job candidates from underrepresented minority groups are not qualified. He was stunned, too, that an administrator would dare say that to him.
The episode spurred King to join colleagues for a pair of recent reports about Penn State. The first, in 2020, detailed the stagnation of efforts to increase the number of Black professors at the flagship campus and the burdens on those who are here.
The second, in March, revealed through a survey the slights, indignities, microaggressions, systemic obstacles and overt racism that many Black professors say they have endured in State College and on affiliated campuses throughout the state.
These problems are not unique to Penn State. Colleges and universities across the United States have long struggled to recruit and retain Black professors and provide them with supportive work environments.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has faced scrutiny in recent weeks over why Black journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize winner, was hired into a prestigious journalism faculty position without tenure even though predecessors who held the chair did have that job-security designation. Pressure is growing on UNC trustees to grant Hannah-Jones tenure, but the awkward episode has underlined questions about the treatment of Black facultymembers.
At Penn State, the reports from King and his colleagues and Washington Post interviews with more than a dozen professors here and elsewhere illuminate how Black faculty members are demanding action against racism and for diversity and equity in academia.
Penn State President Eric J. Barron, who is White, acknowledged the legitimacy of those demands. “What they’ve said is very real,” Barron said in a video interview with The Post. Barron, who plans to retire in 2022 after eight years in office, said the university must do more to hire and support Black professors and make all on campus feel welcome. “I have a responsibility not just to the sense of community here,” he said, “but the sense of safety here.”
Asked about the comment on job-candidate qualifications that had outraged King, Barron said he is “saddened” but “not surprised” to hear of such incidents. Too often, he said, bias seeps into recruiting conversations even among those who believe they are free from it. Pursuit of racial and ethnic diversity, he insisted, does not conflict with pursuit of academic excellence. “Definitely not.”
The introspection at Penn State reflects another chapter of the racial reckoning sweeping higher education in the year since the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. Many schools have renamed buildings associated with Confederates, eugenicists and other white supremacists. They are also scrutinizing campus policing and admissions practices in places where Black students remain deeply underrepresented.
Black faculty members are saying that is not enough. They want the respect and dignity due to those who have earned advanced degrees, contributed to their fields and taught in college classrooms. They want universities to value all the extra work they routinely do to advise and mentor students of color, a burden White faculty members do not share in equal proportion. Many have taken to social media to talk about race and racism in the ivory tower of academia, using the hashtag #BlackInTheIvory.
“I think we’re seeing a door opening,” said Shardé M. Davis, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Connecticut who helped launch the hashtag. Frustrations and laments once kept private within the peer group Davis terms “blackademics” are now much more public. “We’re talking about it outside the community,” Davis said. “That takes it to another level.”
Many still fear speaking out. Younger faculty members are often loath to alienate older White colleagues who might be reviewing their bids for promotion. They don’t want to be perceived as troublemakers.
“At the end of the day, when you submit your dossier, you know it’s human beings sitting around a room who make those decisions,” one Black female professor at Penn State told The Post. Like several others interviewed for this report, she spoke on the condition of anonymity because of career concerns. But, she said, “we all have scars.”
This professor’s wounds include the time she read through a student evaluation of her work and discovered that the anonymous student had called her the n-word, using the racist epithet to question why she was teaching the class.
The professor reported the incident to a superior. The response, she recalled, was unsympathetic: “Well, students have the right to say what they want to say.” At that point, the professor said, she stopped reading student evaluations. “I shut down.”
Another female professor told The Post of a litany of microaggressions. There were times when no one seemed to respect her PhD, or when she would feel isolated at a social event with mostly White people and someone would try to make small talk with her about basketball. Some people have made odd comments on her hairstyles, she said, or wondered why she would recoil if others wanted to touch her hair. “Why is that a conversation for us to have?” she asked.
To learn more about such incidents, King and his colleagues sent electronic questionnaires to 134 faculty members on Penn State campuses who identified as Black or African American. They heard back from 95.
Slightly more than 80 percent reported personal experience with racism at Penn State. About two-thirds said they had encountered it sometimes or often from students within the past three years. Slightly more than half, 53 percent, said the same of their interactions with administrators or supervisors.
Fifty-nine percent said they sometimes or often felt uncomfortable in meetings with colleagues discussing racial issues. “A white male faculty member once asked me why the Black students don’t do as well in his graduate class,” one wrote. “I honestly didn’t know what he was hoping to hear from me.”
Seventy percent said they sometimes or often doubted that the academic culture of the university would become an equitable environment for Black Americans in the next decade.
Beyond sobering data points, what leaped out from the survey were the written responses detailing the toll and trauma of what report authors called “academic racism.” King was struck by the breadth and intensity of the feedback as he went through the anecdotal submissions.
“It was very difficult to read that,” he said. “Could not do it in one sitting.”
Five professors teamed with King on the March report: Marinda K. Harrell-Levy, an associate professor of human development and family studies; Mildred R. Mickle and Kevin Bell, associate professors of English; Darryl C. Thomas, an associate professor of African American studies; and Julia Green Bryan, an associate professor of education. Harrell-Levy teaches at Penn State Brandywine, near Philadelphia, and Mickle at Penn State Greater Allegheny, near Pittsburgh. The rest teach in State College.
Harrell-Levy said the authors held a video meeting to review the anecdotes as they were crafting the report.
The anecdotes told of faculty fear: “Student coming to stand face to face to intimidate.” Of exhaustion: “Get put on too many committees because of my race.” Of overt racism: “Told by students that I must be a genius because how else could I do what I do and be black.”
Of outrage: “I could no longer be part of a sham system of hiring. … The culture of silence to racism is pervasive, and you become the monster by standing up for your rights.”
“White colleagues receive more praise for less work and accomplishment than black colleagues,” one said. Another said students “complain every time I teach about enslavement.”
Yet another offered Penn State a suggestion: “Genuinely caring would be a start.”
“As we read them, one after another, it was heart-wrenching,” Harrell-Levy said. The group decided to expunge identifying details but publish as much of the personal testimony as possible. “There was no way we could hold that back,” she said.
Harrell-Levy said she participated in the report “out of a deep and abiding love for Penn State.” The 38-year-old said she does not want to divide or undermine the university. “It’s my first academic home,” she said, “and I hope it’s my last.”
Bell, 55, said he joined with King after reading the first report in 2020. Bell said he was struck by the “deep and seemingly irreversible sense of isolation” that Black faculty members often feel. He lives in Philadelphia and commutes once a week to State College, a drive of more than three hours one way. The town, with about 42,000 people, sits in the rural center of the state, south of Interstate 80. On campus, he said, “you can be really aware of just going days without encountering a Black person who you know works there in the same capacity that you do.”
Mickle, who declined to give her age, said: “I did this report to be a voice for those Black female and male faculty, both tenured and especially non-tenured, who feel they cannot speak openly” about racism they have witnessed or experienced. Mickle said she, too, has felt the sting of discrimination. “I did this report to protect myself because I do not feel safe at Penn State,” she said.
In its initial response, the university said it embraced “the spirit, but not the pessimism,” of the March report. Penn State also said its leaders felt “considerable distress and disappointment” reading about the racist experiences faculty members described. “No one in our community should have to endure such treatment,” the statement said.
Some faculty members found the reference to “pessimism” an insult to the trauma the report uncovered. “That hurt me to my heart,” one said.
Barron told The Post, “I can’t blame anybody for reading it the way they read it.” He said Penn State meant to convey that many are working on the problems in good faith.
Famed for Nittany Lions sports teams, Penn State in recent years has sought to recover from a sexual abuse scandal that broke in 2011 and rocked its football program and senior administration. With more than 91,000 students on all campuses, about half of them in State College, the university boasts deep teaching and research capacity. One nickname for the setting of the main campus is Happy Valley, a subject of occasionally mordant humor. Historian Michael O. West, who is Black and on the faculty, called it “this here less-than-happy valley.”
Penn State’s own data also shows concerns. Last year it reported results from the first university-wide climate survey on diversity and inclusion. Fifty-four percent of Black faculty members who responded said they had often or very often felt discrimination or harassment because of their racial or ethnic identity. Fifty-three percent said they were generally or very dissatisfied with the extent to which they experience a sense of belonging on campus.
To many in academia, such figures and anecdotes are no surprise.
Clarence Lang knows well the pain that Black faculty members often experience and the vitriol they can face. Earlier in his career, Lang taught a large history course at the University of Illinois on race and racism in America. He learned to steel himself for less-than-civil responses from students. “You got murdered on those evaluations,” he said.
Now 48, Lang is the first Black dean of Penn State’s College of Liberal Arts, one of the largest academic units on the school’s main campus. He came here in 2019 after several years at the University of Kansas. Lang said he believes the March report from the six Black professors “says a lot of truth about the status and sentiments of Black faculty.”
He added: “I would dare say you’re not going to go to a major university in this country and not have these issues. … These experiences are all too common.” Lang said he wants faculty members and the larger community to be unafraid to speak up about racism. “We can’t change the environment if people don’t feel that they can talk about it,” he said.
Last year, as a social justice movement arose nationwide after the killing of Floyd, Barron named Lang to co-chair a commission on racism, bias and safety at Penn State. The university made public several recommendations from the commission in December, including a “truth and reconciliation” process to examine Penn State’s racial history and the creation of an academic center for anti-racist scholarship. The commission also pushed for efforts to eliminate racial bias in the evaluation of teaching and stronger mentoring to support faculty members of color.
Barron said he wants fast progress and aims to hire a new chief diversity officer to report to him. “I have no intention, at least while I’m president, of slowing down,” he said. “I’ve got so many people working on this from so many different angles.” There are plans afoot for anti-bias training for employees. There are discussions with deans and chancellors about affirmative action in hiring. There are efforts to change how faculty committees conduct job searches.
But Barron said there are limits to what he can do in recruiting: He can pressure, but he can’t dictate. “No one wants me to take over the hiring process,” he said. “Faculty the world over look at themselves as the keepers of the candle of expertise within their department. … They jealously guard that.”
Among the country’s 50 flagship state universities, federal and university data shows that Penn State ranks in about the middle — 24th — for the share of faculty members who are Black. The main campus here, known as University Park, had 2,939 full-time faculty members in 2019. Of them, 94 identified as Black, or 3.2 percent. The same proportion was found overall at other Penn State campuses.
Raising that share by one or two percentage points would count, for many, as major progress. Doubling it would be huge.
But the racial gulfs in academia, at all levels, are daunting. That includes significant Black underrepresentation in PhD programs. Census estimates show about 12 percent of Pennsylvanians and a little more than 13 percent of Americans identify as Black or African American. It is hard to see how Black faculty representation will reach those levels soon at any state’s flagship university. The University of Mississippi in 2019 had the highest share of Black full-time faculty members among flagships: 7.3 percent.
Here are federal data from 2019 on the Black share of full-time faculty members in the Big Ten athletic conference. All but Northwestern University are public.
Black faculty percentage
University of Maryland at College Park
Michigan State University
Indiana University at Bloomington
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Ohio State University
Rutgers University at New Brunswick
University of Michigan at Ann Arbor
Pennsylvania State University
University of Minnesota Twin Cities
University of Wisconsin at Madison
University of Iowa
University of Nebraska at Lincoln
Without growing their numbers, Black professors say, it is also hard to see how universities such as Penn State can make lasting improvements to the campus climate. Progress often depends on breaking down barriers to entry and promotion for younger faculty members, in a hiring process that tends to favor networks of academics who share similar personal and professional backgrounds. Strong senior leadership, professors say, is needed to hold hiring units accountable for progress.
“Penn State is not doing well in recruiting and retaining faculty of color,” said Henock Louis, 57, the KPMG professor of accounting and head of that department in the business college. “Minority faculty face an uneven playing field. Like other universities in the country, Penn State is not exerting all the requisite efforts to address the challenge.”
Increasing the number of Black faculty members also means keeping veterans such as West. The 63-year-old, a professor of African American studies, history and African studies, came to State College in 2019 about the same time as eight others devoted to scholarship in the life and culture of African Americans and the African diaspora. The collective hire was an exciting moment, he said, an “indicator of seriousness” by the university.
But now he feels unsettled. Two colleagues from the collective hire are leaving, West said, a sign of the perpetual flux of the academic job market and, perhaps, of the recruiting and retention challenges a big university faces in a relatively small community. “I was hoping this would be my last stop,” West said. “I’m not so certain about that anymore.”
Gary King said the university must heed these kinds of warnings. On a personal level, the 68-year-old professor said, he has usually felt welcome and at home in State College. He has lived here more than 22 years and has no plans to move. But institutionally, he said, “when you look at the data, how welcome am I? I mean, really?”
King pointed out that a famed Penn State call-and-response chant is all about identity. “We are,” the yell starts, “Penn State!” the answer comes.
Now, the professor said, the university must face two related questions: “We are — what? We are — never going to change?”