Black Professors Want Penn State to Diversify and Confront Its Racism

Gary King, a professor of biobehavioral health at Pennsylvania State University, leads a group of Black faculty members who co-authored a report on racism at the school. (Doug Kapustin for The Washington Post )

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 c 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 faculty members.

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.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Nick Anderson