The head of Pennsylvania’s public university system said Wednesday he is committed to combating racism on campus but conceded he has not studied how the system itself has historically perpetuated inequity, and how that could inform possible solutions.
“I’m a historian, so I’m ashamed to admit that,” Daniel Greenstein, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, said in a live interview event hosted by Spotlight PA. “That’s a great point, and there’s lessons to be learned, undoubtedly.”
The state system has faced ongoing criticism from students and lawmakers about its lackluster response to racist incidents on its campuses, as well as a persistent achievement gap between white students and students of color.
And while Greenstein pointed to some concrete steps he has taken — including the hiring of a new chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer — he offered few specific initiatives in support of students of color beyond what the university system already offers.
Asked how he can properly address racism on campus without understanding the system’s history, Greenstein said, “That’s a great question. I’m not sure.”
He went on to say his familiarity with racism on campus has come primarily through the experiences shared with him by alumni and recent graduates.
“It’s a very mixed, it’s an interesting, it’s a fascinating and mixed record,” Greenstein said. “There are graduates of our universities in their 70s and 80, then in their 20s and everything in between, who are Black and brown, who will talk openly and often very emotionally about how our universities ‘saved their lives.’ Not in the way that hospitals save lives, obviously, but in terms of the way that they lifted them up and set them on trajectories.”
He added, “The question for me is, how did that magic work for the people for whom it worked? And it is magic, and when you listen to those stories, it’s magical. And how can we replicate that so it happens more often?”
In a wide-ranging interview, Greenstein also addressed the challenges faced by the university system in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the ongoing plan to merge six of its 14 universities as a way out of severe budget shortfalls and declining financial reserves.
In the fall, lawmakers called on PASSHE officials and the system’s board of governors to make racial equity a focus of those plans. They cited an August report by Spotlight PA, “Condemn, Discuss, Repeat,” that found students of color across the state’s public university system do not feel supported on campuses, and at times feel unsafe.
Students said they did not have access to professors or counselors who were people of color, and did not have adequate mental health care. Many students also said they felt unwelcome on campus, unsafe, and targeted. They shared stories of being belittled or called racial epithets by classmates who did not face any consequences for their actions.
About 75% of the system’s nearly 94,000 students are white, while nearly 10% are Black and 6% are Hispanic, according to enrollment data. Although the percentage of minority students enrolled in the system has almost doubled since 2008, their graduation rate is still nearly 20 percentage points lower than that of white students.
And the difference in retention rates — how many first-year students make it to the second year — has actually grown between white and nonwhite students.
Greenstein acknowledged the gravity of the need to improve equity and achievement among students of color, and touted initiatives some of the universities have taken to tackle the problem. But he said racism, rooted in so much history, could not be eliminated overnight.
Denise Pearson, who was hired in July as vice-chancellor and chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer, will oversee faculty and employee recruitment and implement policies related to diversity and equity, Greenstein said.
He said he and Pearson had visited many campuses and met specifically with students and faculty of color to discuss issues of race and achievement.
When asked whether the system was working to recruit more faculty and staff who are people of color, Greenstein said it’s a difficult task because the system is cutting positions, so when there are vacancies, there aren’t many opportunities to backfill with new people.
“There are always opportunities to refresh,” he said. “But we’re not in a growth mode.”
Greenstein praised the leadership of the individual universities for taking measured approaches to the coronavirus pandemic, though a few were forced to quickly shift course in the fall after cases increased. The state system deferred to university presidents, who are in charge of developing mitigation strategies for their schools in accordance with guidance from the state.
All of the system’s 14 universities have canceled spring break, but the amount of in-person instruction and other activities varies. Some schools, including Bloomsburg and Indiana, are offering surveillance testing for asymptomatic students.
A report released Jan. 8 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows counties with large colleges offering in-person instruction experienced as much as a 56% increase in coronavirus cases. Universities with remote instruction experienced a decrease.
“I haven’t seen anything that draws a line between in-person instruction and community spread,” Greenstein said. “I have seen some research which shows the presence of students in a university has contributed to community spread, but I haven’t seen anything that goes as far to say that that is actually the result of in-person instruction.”
Pennsylvania saw coronavirus cases increase sharply in the fall, peaking in mid-December. Since then, hospitals have struggled to keep up with the constant stream of COVID-19 patients. Some health systems, particularly those in the southwest and south-central parts of the state, have reported intermittent staff shortages.
In the fall, students at Kutztown University — along with their families, faculty, and community members — protested the decision to reopen campus for the current school year.
But Greenstein said that he was not aware of any campuses where students said they felt unsafe. He encouraged students living in private residences or in off-campus housing to discuss their level of comfort and safety with their family and friends.
“Students that I spoke to who were on campus, in campus housing, I think felt very secure,” he said. “I think they may have also felt the pinch of the restrictions on their abilities to do things more than others.”
The ongoing problem, he said, was working to improve student engagement with classes and extracurricular activities.
“They’ve, I think, demonstrated remarkable resilience,” Greenstein said of students. “But the kind of level student engagement that is available when everybody’s together just has not been there, and I think that was the overall complaint.”
90.5 WESA partners with Spotlight PA, a collaborative, reader-funded newsroom producing accountability journalism for all of Pennsylvania. More at spotlightpa.org.