UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Approximately 80 students attended a discussion with Penn State leadership on the topics of diversity and inclusion at a breakfast meeting Friday, Nov. 8, at the Nittany Lion Inn. The students were selected and invited at random and asked to candidly share their experiences and perceptions related to the current campus climate.
President Eric Barron and numerous senior administrative and academic leaders at Penn State hosted the conversation to continue what has been an ongoing discussion about bridging differences, fostering a welcoming climate, and expanding understanding of the Penn State community as it relates to race, gender, physical abilities, sexual orientation, economic background, ethnicity, religion and viewpoints.
Before the conversations began, Barron provided some opening remarks.
“We are seeing our world evolve and our sense is that the world — our world — is becoming more diverse but, yet, less inclusive. What does that mean for a University whose mission it is to educate the citizens of the commonwealth, the nation and the world? What does that mean for a University for which we know every single student who comes through our doors earned the right to be here? We are really interested in hearing your thoughts about your experiences. We want to be able to learn from you, not as a number from a survey, but as a thoughtful person that might have considered this particular issue a lot.”
Senior administrators who joined Barron and the students at Friday’s event included Provost Nick Jones; David Gray, senior vice president for Finance and Business; Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs, Marcus Whitehurst, vice provost for Educational Equity; Sandy Barbour, vice president for Intercollegiate Athletics, as well as numerous other members of the President’s Council, academic deans, and Student Affairs staff.
“It must always be our intent to listen to students,” said Sims. “Only by understanding the variety of their experiences and perspectives can we possibly craft the kinds of programs and services they need to succeed.”
During the discussion, students sat in small groups with two senior administrators facilitating the conversation and listening to the students’ insights. Students were asked about their sense of belonging at Penn State and what has made them feel welcome or unwelcome, as well as what community or communities they identify with and what places or people they turn to for advice or acceptance. Students also were asked how they felt about the current political climate in the nation and whether they feel free to express their identity at Penn State.
Students voiced their thoughts on these issues and provided University leadership with a picture of how varied the student experience can be.
One student expressed that while at Penn State “I have really been able to be me.” And another student talked about how Penn State provided a much more inclusive community than her hometown noting that “there are so many students at Penn State that there is probably someone who shares your identity.”
Another student discussed how he struggled to balance religious observances and academics at the University. And a few students talked about how some Penn State experiences, such as certain clubs or organizations, seem designed to exclude, which can feel very intimidating.
Many students said that political views were not something they felt comfortable discussing, especially outside their friend groups when they may not know how others identify.
“I strongly believe that when we engage one another across our differences, we learn and grow, and our community becomes more welcoming and understanding by listening to and acknowledging the viewpoints of others,” Barron said. “The insights we gain from our students and the engagement on these sometimes difficult topics serve to strengthen us as a community and encourage us to be unified by our shared values of integrity, respect, responsibility, discovery, excellence and community.”
Penn State leaders continue to look for ways to engage all segments of the community in dialogue on the topics of diversity, inclusion and fostering a welcoming environment — with the hope that these moments will create greater understanding and appreciation for different viewpoints. In January, University leaders provided an update to the community on some of Penn State’s efforts to create a culture of inclusion, and in February, members of Penn State’s Board of Trustees had a generative discussion on diversity and inclusion with students, faculty and staff as part of its public meeting. Among the topics covered were diversity and inclusion-focused training for faculty, staff and students; University hiring practices; and acknowledgement that students, faculty and staff face different needs and challenges around issues of diversity and inclusion.
Penn State also will embark on its first University-wide community survey for diversity and inclusion to be administered to all students and employees at all campuses, including Penn State World Campus, in spring 2020. The survey will give every student and employee an opportunity to share their experiences and offer feedback related to diversity, equity and inclusion at the University, which will then be aggregated and shared with the Penn State community. University leaders plan to use the findings to improve their knowledge of the various challenges individuals may face and also to make evidence-based decisions in line with Penn State’s strategic goals that are related to diversity and inclusion.
“An increasingly diverse democracy requires a deep commitment to inclusion, and that commitment must be clearly expressed on America’s college campuses,” said Sims. “Penn State’s leadership is determined to create and sustain an inclusive campus community that inspires its students to lives of dignity, respect and openness, both for themselves and others. Conversations, such as this one, can help in that way.”