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Take Note: PSU Professors On "More Rivers To Cross" Report, Which Outlines Shortage Of Black Faculty

Penn State associate professor Dr. Darryl Thomas and professor Dr. Gary King, who wrote "More Rivers to Cross: A Report on the Status of African American Professors at Penn State University."
Min Xian

A new report titled "More Rivers to Cross: A Report on the Status of African American Professors at Penn State University" finds that there's a shortage of black faculty at the university and offers some reasons for why that is.

Penn State professor Dr. Gary King, and associate professor Dr. Darryl Thomas prepared the report with the input of other black faculty.

Dr. King teaches in the College of Health and Human Development, and Dr. Thomas teaches African American Studies. We talked with them both about this report, which you can read below.

"More Rivers to Cross:... by Emily Reddy on Scribd


Emily Reddy: Welcome to Take Note on WPSU, I'm Emily Reddy. A new report titled "More Rivers to Cross: A Report on the Status of African American Professors at Penn State University" finds that there's a shortage of black faculty at the university and offers some reasons for why that is. Penn State professor Dr. Gary King, and associate professor Dr. Darryl Thomas prepared the report with the input of other black faculty. Dr. King teaches in the College of Health and Human Development, and Dr. Thomas teaches African American Studies. We talked with them both about this report. Dr. Gary King, Dr. Darryl Thomas, thanks for joining us.

Gary King and Darryl Thomas: Thank you for having us.

Reddy: So this report grew out of a meeting of 50 black Penn State professors and others. This is not the first of these calls to action. There was "Pennsylvania's 1983 to 1988 Desegregation Plan" and "The Framework to Foster Diversity 1998 to 2003." But these numbers of black faculty don't seem to be changing much, do they?

King: Unfortunately, no. And despite the fact that there has been some progress, it has not been the kind of progress that should be represented for a major university, such as Penn State. And this report that Darryl and I co-authored, and as you said, with the collective input of many other black faculty on campus, represents part of the history that shows how needed the report is and how poorly represented we are at the university.

Thomas: Right it's basically in a sense it provides some empirical evidence for what we have been witnessing over the years, in terms of disappearance of black faculty, and inability of the university to retain significant numbers.

Reddy: And some of these numbers, you've got some history: In 1976 at the university, it was less than 1%.

King/Thomas: Yes, that's correct.

Reddy: By 1982, 1.2%. In 2004, 4%. And now down in 2018, to 2.9%.

King: Right. Right. And that's one of the reasons why this report was so vital. And why so many people at the university and from administration to Faculty Senate to departments as well as faculty, now have taken notice to uh, to address this. But this has been a continuing struggle. And one of the things that our report demonstrates is that not only are we aware of it, but others are aware of it as well. In fact, during the 1980s, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, had a front page article and a follow up editorial on this very topic and saying that Penn State was quote unquote, not number one, and particularly with regard to the recruitment and enrollment of black students, as well as the recruitment of black faculty. And and so this is where we are in 2020. And this is not a good situation to be in.

Thomas: Right, we basically have been marching in place, in some sense not making much progress. And we've talked among ourselves seeing the numbers have plummeted. But by looking at the empirical data it just really put it in sharp relief, how bad things really are.

Reddy: So this this particular report looks at black faculty from 2004 to 2018. And over that time frame, depending on the numbers you look at, Penn State is either added one African American professor or lost two. [There are] two different data sets. Either way, that that hiring of black faculty is not keeping up with overall hiring.

Thomas: Right, the attrition rate has been pretty high. And it says a lot about the environment. And one thing the report really does is tap into the environment in which people must work in as well. And that plays a very important role in terms of why people leave and that sort of thing. So when you hire one or two here and there, it just doesn't make that much difference in the in the total numbers. And the impact as well.

King: Those numbers are quite interesting. And one of the things our report reveals is that there's a subtlety to those numbers. Because when we're talking about black faculty, uh, the university, as many universities do, they categorize all faculty as faculty. If they are administrators, if they're research faculty, if they're teaching faculty. That differs from those who are tenured and or tenured/tenure line, which is the main source of research and the main source of university production and activity that goes on. So when we look at tenure and tenure-track professors who are African American, you find that those numbers are even worse. And we looked at that over over a 15 year period and it continued to decline to the point of around about 22%.

Reddy: From in 2004, there were 83 tenure or tenure-track faculty who were African American, and in 2018 there were 68. Yeah.

King/Thomas: Yes.

Reddy: And you're both tenured. I wonder if that also affects the the idea that you know, you feel more more secure. You feel like you can do something like create a report like this because of that tenure.

Thomas: Oh, definitely. If you're not tenured, [laugh] that's not a good move professionally to put out a report like this.

King: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Because we had colleagues who contributed to this report, but did not want to be identified in any way. And that's understandable. And we had some faculty who were tenured and still did not want to be identified because they felt that there would be repercussions. But they also felt very strongly that this report was absolutely necessary to present to the university community and beyond the university community.

Reddy: Because yours are the only two names on the report and it also says, "and on behalf of concerned black faculty at Penn State," what has the response been like, from the university or from your colleagues?

Thomas: The colleagues I think have been very positive. People who are not in the position to take a position or put their names on it because they're junior faculty felt that we're dealing with issues that concerns them, particularly terms of their student evaluation, the whole evaluation process in terms of going up for tenure and promotion, and how biased a lot of that is. So I think we tapped into a real source of anxiety that people feel.

Reddy: And you mentioned student reviews. Your report says that white students who have never dealt with a black person in a position of power -- they might not have even met a person of color before. And they can question black professors' authority. How, how common is that here at Penn State?

King: Well, I think we've all had experiences that have led us to, to that conclusion, and that we are subject to a different set of criteria that other professors are not. And we suspect that very strongly. Plus, when you look at the literature, and the research, it clearly shows that, you know, there's a pattern of bias. And the SRTEs they're problematic from a number of perspectives. In 2017, the Faculty Senate issued a report on the SRTEs and that report was very strong. It was well documented, as in terms of what it does not do and what it should not be used for. But yet, and still, the university hasn't really changed that. That has a major impact not only on African American professors, but also on other professors of color, as well as women. And there's a trove of empirical evidence to support that, and much of that we presented in our report.

Thomas: And then it really doesn't measure what students learn. I mean, it's supposed to be about that. It's more about how students feel about individual faculty. It's more like a popularity contest more than anything else.

Reddy: And then these evaluations, SRTEs here at Penn State, are used to decide things like tenure and promotion, awards, salary increases.

King: Right. Exactly. Exactly. And that raises questions with regard to pay equity, of course.

Reddy: Do you think Penn State should get rid of SRTEs?

King: Oh, I, I firmly believe that the SRTEs as presently constructed and should be discarded. Penn State is not the only university that has dealt with this, this issue. And it continues to deal with this issue. In fact, the American Sociological Association as indicated the report, and along with 15 other professional scientific organizations, have come out against the use of SRTEs. And the other interesting thing as well is that there are many universities who are actually discarding SRTEs totally. The University of Southern California for one now has done this. University of Oregon is in the process of doing this and revising it. Now, this isn't to suggest that professors should not be evaluated. By no means. Nor is it to suggest that students shouldn't have some input with regard to this, but not as presently designed for a 20-year-old to determine the quality of teaching or the quality of expertise that you bring to the classroom. And the other, there are a number of other points I just want to make very quickly about that. And one is that, when you look at the SRTEs, the two major questions that are asked relates to the quality of the instructor and the quality of the course. Yet and still there are about 10 to 12, sometimes 15 other questions that are asked that are never considered in terms of a professor's evaluation. Then there are some qualitative comments that bring to mind, um, some real issues related to racism. I mean, we've heard the instances where students have used the "N word" in describing their professors here at Penn State on SRTEs. So this is something that you know has been documented and of course when you're a prof and you see this or even an administrator, and you see this and you don't take the necessary actions, that becomes highly problematic. And clearly, it has an effect on professors as well.

Thomas: And the other impact I guess in particular in terms of woman, some of the students have said in some of their comments, "Oh, I did not know that, you know, this particular faculty is smarter than I am." You know, and so in some sense not recognizing their authority, their expertise in areas and that's very problematic for women faculty, in particular women of color, and women will dealing with science and math and some of those areas as well.

Reddy: And women actually get the the lowest rankings on SRTEs of any group. Black, sorry, African American women.

King: Uh, huh. African American women. Another point that we do want to raise is with regard to what the university is aware of, in terms of SRTEs. It may very well have data on this matter that it's not releasing, because it represents some of the things that we're stating. And that they have some empirical evidence clearly documenting the differences and the bias that's involved with regard to SRTEs, particularly as it relates to African Americans, other faculty of color, and women.

Reddy: You talk about that in the report, the need for more transparency. And actually, President Barron addressed that in a recent Faculty Senate meeting. He said the university can't give out that info on SRTEs or salary. Perhaps ironically, because the numbers of some of these identities are too small, and the people would be identifiable.

King: Well, I'm not quite sure that's the case because there are ways in which you can aggregate the data and present it in such a way that you really don't know. You don't...

Reddy: A bigger pool?

King: Right. You don't have to do it by departments. You may not even have to do it by colleges. You can do it in other ways to present that data so that we clearly understand what our problem is and what we need to do to address it. And also, of course, that if, in fact, the university was aware that there was no differences, I think it would have released that information.

Thomas: Definitely.

Reddy: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Take Note on WPSU, I'm Emily Reddy. We're talking with Penn State professor Dr. Gary King and associate Professor Dr. Darryl Thomas, about their report "More Rivers to Cross: A Report on the Status of African American Professors at Penn State University." I found this idea in your report of black faculty doing more "invisible labor" interesting. Black faculty are often assigned to committees that require diverse perspectives. They do more mentoring, advising, and what you call the hidden work of protecting black students. And that leaves less time for things that lead to promotion like, like research.

King: Well, this is a part of the body of evidence that we presented in terms of the literature. And that has been the experience and continues to be the experience of many African American professors here at Penn State as well. That they do feel an obligation to interact very closely with, with African American students, as well as others. Sometimes these students are are coming to the university and in a very strange environment away from home, experiencing things that are very different from what they thought Penn State was all about. And it requires occasionally an extra effort to to address that. I think we all have had that, you know, that type of experience. And so what is being suggested by a our report is that this should also be part of the service obligation and the understanding of service to the university, when in fact you're doing that. And you can do that in a number of different ways. One is certainly being advisors to African American or other types of student organizations, working with students very informally, and also presenting the idea of service as a very important part of what this university is all about.

Thomas: The other part of that is we don't have a large number of counselors a color and that has in some sense, really increased the load for black faculty. Because sometimes these students may feel more comfortable talking about issues they may be confronting with the faculty person rather than a mainstream counselor.

Reddy: Academic counselors or mental health counselors?

Thomas: In some cases maybe sometimes to do with mental health issues or other issues in terms of just surviving at the university. So when you look at the counselors outside of the academic area there aren't that many that these students of color have access to.

Reddy: The report talks about isolation. Dr. King, you're the only African American male faculty member and the only black full professor in the College of Health and Human Development. Do you feel that isolation?

King: Oh, well, I must say that in my department, the Department of Biobehavioral Health. We have actually three African American... I'm one of three African American professors as the result of things that the previous...

Reddy: Perhaps these are old numbers, that I have here.

King: Yes. Well, no, no. You're correct. But the number of African American faculty in the college, however, is quite low. I, I suspect that, you know, the official numbers run about eight, maybe nine. But when you take out the administrators, when you take out the research faculty as such, we're really talking about maybe five or six. I enjoy my colleagues in the Department of Biobehavioral Health. I've been there for over 20, about 21 years, and the college in and of itself, the data speaks for itself. There's no question about it. You know, we have lost many more than what we should have lost, you know, over the last the last 15 years, and there has not been the dedicated effort, and the directed effort, and the very serious effort to attract and recruit and to retain African American faculty. And when you consider that my college has a very large enrollment of students from across the university in different different courses on both the undergraduate and on the postgraduate level -- and in fact, my department has the largest major -- the question becomes, "Well, how are we educating these students with regard to diversity? How we prepare them to go into a world that is quite different from their experiences here you know, at Penn State?" And when they don't see anyone else of color, and many of them are not going to have interaction with me or others, or very limited interaction That's going to create some some problems. And so it is incumbent upon us, you know, as an academic environment and as professors to make sure that you know, they are well prepared in this regard. So, with respect to isolation, just put it this way, if you were the only white male or white female in a college of about 340, 350 other faculty, would you feel isolated in some way?

Reddy: And how about you Dr. Thomas? Have you dealt with isolation?

Thomas: Uh, I'm in the department for American Studies in the College of Liberal Arts. And so basically most of the faculty in that particular college, with the exception of a few here and there in my department. And as a result I have not experienced some of the isolation others have. But on the other hand, because I'm also trained in political science and, and a lot of my research is social science, international relations, international relations of the third world. There's some degree isolation in terms of having colleagues you can talk to. And we in some sense overall have been sort of like the stepchild [laugh] of academia, because of what we do in terms of black studies, and they see us in some sense as people who focus on victimology. And what we teach about is much larger than that. And we try to acquaint students with the rest of America because it is very diverse. Not just black; Latino, Asians and Native Americans and others. And so we in some sense, bring all the American experience to them. My concern is, our students will leave here, a lot of them end up being policymakers, decision makers, but they have not had courses or interaction with people of color, not just blacks. And as a result of that, they will be ill prepared. Because in the workforce, a lot of people will be leaving these are rural areas they might have come from. In some cases moving to cities and other areas where the population is a lot more diverse.

Reddy: What do you think about the impact of programs like "All In," which was a diversity effort here at Penn State? Do you see any...

King: Well, part of our report is an attempt to make "All In" all in.

Thomas: Right.

King: And so we're certainly you know, it, it's something that we support, and we think the university has the right motives, you know, with regard to it, but it's the results that make a difference, as well. So that's one of the reasons why we say that Penn State can and must do better in this regard. And so we're prepared to begin to have some interactions with the university to address this issue on a much larger and much more extensive scale. In fact, we have a request to meet with President Barron and Provost Jones and we're hoping to hear back from them fairly shortly to have some discussions.

Reddy: What does doing better at diversity training look like?

Thomas: Well, I think we want to move beyond the issue where you may have one or two people as part of the faculty. Of 25-30 people or plus, you may have one or two people of color, maybe one may be African American or Latino. And so that is not doing better, just having a sort of... a small number like that. And, and it does not serve our students. A lot of our students are majoring in engineering, in the health field, and other areas. And sometimes, I had one occasion where a student was very large, you know, male who looked very athletic, but he was interested in engineering and the faculty wanted to know why he was there. [laugh] Instead of...and someone asked, look, why aren't playing football or something like that? So we run across a lot of issues of that sort, and part of that gets back to the question. There aren't that many faculty of color of black faculty in some of these departments that the reports bring out. The numbers are just, you know, dismal. And so there's a real need, not only for our black students, but even for our Euro American students to be able to have that kind of experience that can have some impact upon, you know, how they look at the world. And also on how they focus on policy issues that are going to be very important in the 21st century. 

King: Absolutely.

Reddy: You mentioned it in the report, and President Barron mentioned this in the Faculty Senate. But this isn't just a Penn State issue too.

Thomas/King: No. Right.

Reddy: I mean, is there anyone out there doing a good job of this? To look to?

King: Yeah, well, I mean, there are some universities who have taken this on very seriously, and to have a plan that extends over a period of time. For example, Virginia Commonwealth University has made some very interesting strides and very important strides in increasing the number of African American faculty. We also have Big Ten universities that are doing much better than Penn State. Yes, it is a problem that is part of the American university environment. However, the numbers are quite different. On average, most universities and colleges have between 5% and 6% of their faculty who are African American. We're below 3%. And so we have a lot to do to to do in terms of catch catching up. And so that's problematic. The other point, the other interesting point about this as well is that when we think about recruiting the faculty, when we think about bringing people, you know, to Penn State or what have you, you also have to think about the pool. And previously, we said, "Well, there're not enough doctoral students. There're not enough, you know, African Americans who are in graduate school or so forth and so on." But recent data released from the National Center for Educational Statistics, you know, reveals that between 2004 and 2015, the number of African Americans who received doctorates increased by 56%. That is really, really astounding. And that also suggests that the pool in and of itself has increased. And so we're... we can and we must do better in this regard, because it's the old reasons and the old excuses, you now, aren't going to suffice.

Thomas: So we can we can do better and also in terms of recruitment, and basically we have to have some commitment, not just from the top. There's a big push by the administration. But we also must have pushes by deans, and also by chairs of departments as well. And also by faculty.

King: Yes.

Thomas: In order to address this issue.

Reddy: President Barron addressed your report at the recent Faculty Senate meeting. Did that give you hope that, you know, this was going to really get looked at?

King:Well, we're looking we're looking forward to meeting with President Barron and Provost Jones, and to begin to have some discussions. Because we have some recommendations. We have some ideas. But we also want to see where they are at at this point in time. They've had the report for about six weeks now. And there's been a lot of discussion. The faculty send it has made it very clear that this is an important issue and they're preparing a report to follow up with reguard to "More Rivers to Cross." We also have a number of faculty on campus who are very much behind us and who are not necessarily African American professors. But I've had many of my colleagues come up to me and say, "Thank you very much." "This was this was needed." "This is where we should be going." "Oh, I was very surprised to see this." "I'm embarrassed that this is where we are, you know, in 2020." And so, the words, the platitudes, the principalities, you know, however, they are presented or announced are good. But we need to see something actionable.

Reddy: And you say in the report that there's going to be another part to this report. What's going to be in that?

King: Yes, well, we don't want to reveal everything.

Reddy: You don't want to give it away, OK.

King: And everything else, so you're gonna have to.... Yeah, right. You're gonna have to we'll try to be a little.... I'll try to be a little responsive, Emily. But part two is, is going to be a follow up. And part two would include other issues that we think are very important for the university to address. And, and this is not an adversarial kind of engagement. You know, we'd like to look at this as a very constructive, and sometimes it's actually needed. And, you know, we'd also like to thank all of our colleagues who participated in this and, and the courage that it takes for them to, to want to, you know, to push forward. And we're also going to be having other meetings of "More Rivers to Cross" and, and of faculty to to address these issues. And so that's part two.

Reddy: We'll look forward to.

King: Okay.

Reddy: Thank you both for being here.

King/Thomas: Thank you, Emily.

Penn State professor Dr. Gary King and associate professor Dr. Darryl Thomas prepared the report "More Rivers to Cross: A Report on the Status of African American Professors at Penn State University" on the shortage of black faculty at the university, and some reasons for why that is. To hear this and other episodes of Take Note, go to I'm Emily Reddy, WPSU.

Emily Reddy is the news director at WPSU-FM, the NPR-affiliate public radio station for central and northern Pennsylvania.
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