Racism, bias, and community safety recommendations discussed during town hall

Co-chairs of the Select Penn State Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias, and Community Safety and the Student Code of Conduct Task Force discuss draft reports and recommendations with President Eric J. Barron during a virtual Town Hall

Nyla Holland, president of Penn State's Black Caucus, responded to questions during the live stream of a Town Hall meeting focusing on racism, bias, and community safety on the morning of Dec. 9. The live stream was produced from WPSU studios on Penn State's University Park campus. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — During a virtual town hall event on Dec. 9, the co-chairs of the Select Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias, and Community Safety and the Student Code of Conduct Task Force discussed their recently released draft reports and recommendations. Both groups have worked to develop draft recommendations in response to Penn State President Eric J. Barron’s June 10 message, which incorporated a charge to help address racism, bias, and intolerance inside and outside of the University.

During the town hall event, the co-chairs and members answered an array of questions for the University community about the respective recommendations of the 19-member select commission and the 26-member conduct code task force to build a more inclusive and equitable environment at Penn State.

The Dec. 9 virtual town hall is now archived and available for viewing at and on the Action Together website.

Barron led the town hall event’s discussion with the co-chairs from both the select presidential commission and the conduct code task force, as well as additional task force members. The draft reports were recently posted to the Action Together website, and President Barron invited the University community to submit comments and questions anonymously in advance through an online form. Barron opened the discussion and introduced each of the panelists.

Commission co-chairs:

  • Danielle M. Conway, dean and Donald J. Farage Professor of Law, Penn State Dickinson Law
  • Clarence Lang, Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts, professor of African American studies
  • Beth Seymour, chair, University Faculty Senate, associate teaching professor of anthropology, communications, history, and women's gender and sexuality studies, Penn State Altoona

Task Force co-chairs:

  • Nyla Holland, dual undergraduate and graduate student, and president of Penn State Black Caucus
  • Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, founder and director of Penn State’s Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, and associate dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Penn State Law

Additional task force members joining:

  • Tamla J. Lewis, associate general counsel
  • Danny Shaha, assistant vice president for Student Affairs

Barron continued his remarks by touching on Penn State’s long-standing commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. “Penn State has recognized the importance of making our University more diverse and welcoming. We have focused on diversity as a moral, educational and business imperative. One of the six foundations of our strategic plan is diversity, equity and inclusion. And we articulated our commitment in the Penn State Statement on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.”  

Barron added, “We have an opportunity to continue to grow in our efforts around diversity, equity and inclusion.”  

Barron outlined that the recommendations for both groups under discussion are the result of cross-disciplinary work that included benchmarking against peer institutions, researching current University practices, policies and processes, gathering input from scholars, and cataloguing lived experiences and outside perspectives. 

Select Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias, and Community Safety

In turning the first half of the discussion to the work of the select presidential commission, Barron outlined the commission’s charge to examine the use of University resources to address profound social issues related to racism and bias and to make recommendations that will promote and support the safety of faculty, staff and students who are confronted by racism and bias on Penn State campuses. 

Responding to Barron’s question about why this work is critical, Lang said, “We’re in a global society that’s in a moment of reckoning with regard to the issues of race, racism, racial equality — and higher education has to be involved in assessing the role it’s going to play as either a victor of progressive change moving forward or an obstacle.”

Conway discussed the membership of the commission and its focus on four key pillars in its selection process: transparency in communication; broad representation from all levels of the University and across campuses; demonstrated expertise in the work of diversity, equity and inclusion both inside and outside the University; and asking those nominees not selected as members of the commission about their willingness to serve on subcommittees in support of the charge. Commission members met within three working groups to deliberate on the issues of racism, bias, and community safety as they worked to formulate recommendations.

In asking Conway to speak about the commission’s recommendation around an enterprise approach, Barron noted a few of the University’s current efforts — specifically, the University’s strong Educational Equity office, headed by a vice provost deeply engaged in this work; colleges and units prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion work; and a new assistant vice president of diversity, inclusion and belonging. Barron expressed his interest in this unifying approach as a potential way to bring greater coherence and effectiveness to existing and future efforts.

Conway outlined the details of the recommended enterprise approach in which all diversity, equity and inclusion efforts might be integrated and synchronized across the entire University, with the goal to create policies, practices and initiatives that are more intentional and cohesive. Additionally, creating a dedicated leadership position, reporting directly to the president, might help the University provide the highest possible level of support to and interest in these objectives. 

During a virtual town hall event on Dec. 9, the co-chairs of the Select Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias, and Community Safety and the Student Code of Conduct Task Force discussed their recently released draft reports and recommendations. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

Next, Seymour provided context for the commission’s recommendation for a truth and reconciliation process, explaining “In order to identify a pathway toward healing, restoration and rehabilitation, we must acknowledge where we have been and where we are today and, to do this, it’s important for us to look at the past, as well as the present.”

Through dialogue in these areas, the commission hopes such a process might help establish increased engagement from the Penn State community, believing that restorative justice and restorative practices — that are centered on mediation and healing communities rather than on punishment — are important tools for working toward lasting change.

Seymour further explained that the commission believes a process might engage historians to study past practices and policies, as well as foster exploration of the present by inviting the Penn State community, including alumni, to voice their experiences. The focus of this recommendation is on building healthy and safe communities, and the commission feels that it presents an opportunity for the University to lead in higher education in these areas.

Barron next asked the commission to speak about its recommendation to develop, promote and support research, teaching and learning that advance antiracist scholarship, pedagogy and culture. Barron noted his interest in this recommendation as it fits into the University’s educational and research mission and its commitment to continual growth and learning.

Lang discussed how the commission envisions that a center or consortium might allow the University to build a research focus that brings together research expertise from across the University. The commission recommends that such a center or consortium might further engage the Penn State community as scholars and as educators in these areas while promoting collaboration and synchronizing efforts.

Seymour next outlined the commission's recommendation for specific onboarding, mentorship and development in equitable and inclusive practices and procedures. This recommendation is centered around restructuring what the commission has called “inputs,” “environments” and “outputs” to reach specific diversity, equity and inclusion goals. Seymour discussed each of these: “inputs” as an assessment of how community entrants are attracted to the University in the efforts to attract diverse students, staff, faculty and administrative leaders; “environments” as a focus on cultural components that reflect and affect change in how the University promotes, assesses and compensates individuals; and “outputs” as a focus on building and supporting inclusive and welcoming communities, active alumni who represent diverse graduates, skilled leadership that support these efforts, civic engagement, as well as change and transformation that reflect our values.

Lang discussed the commission’s recommendation for developing systems for both individual and organizational accountability. While groups and units across the University have accountability processes in place already, this recommendation is intended to build on these further. A process for individual accountability might be created to help hold responsible and recognize individuals for advancing diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. A process for organizational accountability might be developed to assess the extent to which structures, recognition and penalties exist to support these efforts.

As the commission looks toward determining potential ways to operationalize its recommendations, the commission is recommending standing up three subcommittees: DEI Infrastructure Inventory Subcommittee, Truth and Reconciliation Process Subcommittee, and Anti-Racism Institute Subcommittee. Students and employees who are interested in serving on these subcommittees may submit an application to the committee.

Halfway through the town hall discussion, Barron shifted to the work of the student code task force, noting that this is just the beginning of discussions about the Presidential Commission’s report and recommendations. 

Student Code of Conduct Task Force

The student code task force was charged with finding ways to improve the conduct code and providing the community with a better understanding of the code’s purpose and provisions, including the role of restorative justice. The goal is to have a code that better reflects community values related to inclusivity, individuals’ rights and accountability for behavior. 

Barron commented that the importance of this work was made clear in the wake of incidents of racism that surfaced in social media associated with Penn Staters. Some who saw the posts demanded disciplinary action, including expulsion, saying students violated the code. Barron emphasized that the University condemns hateful behavior and expression and works with individuals to address it, but — as it faces limits with some cases because of free speech protections — it felt it was an important time to provide a thorough review of the code, to see how it could be improved.   

Wadhia shared the steps the task force took to identify strengths and weaknesses of the code and offer recommendations that it felt would help all students feel safe and included. Overall, the task force’s goal was to align the code with Penn State’s mission and values of equity and inclusion. Its work included four main tasks: determining how hateful acts and expressions might be addressed by the code within the bounds of the law; extending the reach of the code to off-campus behavior that may present a danger or threat to the physical and mental health of students or be detrimental to the educational interests or climate of the University or its students; incorporating voluntary restorative justice practices for code violations and acts of bias; and promoting greater accountability and transparency through tasks like reporting.

Barron noted that he felt it was important to have significant participation by undergraduate and graduate students on the task force, including a student in the role of co-chair. Holland, as the task force’s student co-chair, outlined the commission’s membership and further commented on its process in developing recommendations. Holland explained that membership includes a majority of students, diversity across campuses, and expertise and lived experiences with the code, bias and discrimination. As part of its efforts, the task force held office hours with the Penn State community, met with experts on the First Amendment and on models of restorative and transformative justice, and benchmarked against other codes of conduct. 

Barron asked Wadhia to explain how the task force approached the difficult work of determining how acts of bias fit within the code and bringing greater clarity for consequences involving acts of bias. Wadhia outlined three aspects to the recommendation around acts of bias: proposing new language that was not previously in the code clearly stating that acts of bias are antithetical to the values of the University, harmful to the community and a potential violation of the student code if outside First Amendment protection; making explicit that students who engage in acts of bias that do violate the code could receive enhanced or stringent sanctions; and committing to address acts of bias that do not rise to a violation of the code through voluntary restorative justice practices.

Representatives from Penn State's Conduct Code Task Force discussed recommendations to build a more inclusive and equitable environment at Penn State with President Eric Barron during a livestreamed Town Hall meeting on the morning of Dec. 9. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

Shaha provided additional detail, saying that harassment that is motivated by bias or discrimination was already addressed by the code under “Harassment,” but to clarify the University’s commitment to addressing such conduct a new standalone provision of “Discriminatory Harassment” also was added to the code.

In reference to utilizing restorative justice practices — already an unofficial practice of Penn State’s Office of Student Conduct — Holland discussed the task force’s recommendation to formalize a process that might help students better understand the impact and implications of their actions. The task force has suggested language about community, healing, and learning throughout the code and proposed voluntary practices that include mediation services, restorative circles, relevant courses or training, and community service.

Holland emphasized, “Students spend four years at Penn State learning and growing every day, and we want people to take advantage of this opportunity and the positive outcomes it can create, because it can create a better University experience and, ultimately, a better society.”

Shaha elaborated further, stating that many staff in the Office of Student Conduct and the Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response have already been trained in facilitating restorative justice practices, and those offices will partner with others to formally enact this recommendation and explore the adoption of a formal restorative justice process.

Barron noted one area of focus for the task force has been in better understanding the balance between protecting the rights to free speech while also creating a welcoming and inclusive community, asking Lewis to provide a legal perspective on the types of challenges we face as a University. Lewis discussed how public institutions, as state entities, must work within First Amendment constraints and adhere to respective state constitutions, some of which have additional free speech clauses. Holland added that while private institutions adhere to their own internal policies, many of these policies mirror First Amendment practices.

Lewis noted the importance of public institutions encouraging opening dialogue and thought in the interest of academic freedom and academic growth, but explained that there are some types of expression that may be considered conduct that is not protected, is harassing, or could interfere with University operations. Lewis outlined three areas where there may be exceptions to First Amendment protections, for the purposes of the conduct code: true threats to an individual or group; interference with the operations of the University; and actionable harassment.

Wadhia discussed the task force’s recommendation to modify the purpose and introduction to the code incorporating language that promotes equity and inclusion and a culture where there is student endorsement and that establishes a mandatory training module that might educate students about the code.

Shaha described the task force’s recommendation to increase reporting, in line with federal and privacy laws, to share code-related incidences and outcomes with the University community with the goal of increasing transparency. The Office of Student Conduct, in consultation with the task force and others, will create a template for an annual report to share information, with the goal of publishing the first report in Summer 2021.

Shaha also discussed the task force’s recommendation that the University commit to representation of staff members and volunteers in the Office of Student Conduct — who work with and support students through the conduct process — from historically underrepresented groups. In addition to the Office of Student Conduct enacting language changes in its recruitment materials and website presence, Student Affairs is creating a half-time position to focus on diversity, equity and inclusion issues among its staff members.

Barron noted that the offices of Student Affairs and General Counsel have approved for implementation some of the proposed code language changes and are planning for the code to be tested during Spring 2021. Some steps, such as the educational module, may take longer.

Next steps

Barron closed the town hall event by thanking the co-chairs for discussing their recommendations. “Right now, in university communities across the nation, we face profound challenges. Our mission is to serve and advance citizens through education, research and service to society. It is a mission that fails if we are not diverse and if we are not inclusive. There are many steps to take based on what we started to discuss today.”

The reports from the select commission and the conduct code task force, accessible at the links below, are available on the Action Together website. The Penn State community is invited to continue to submit input and questions anonymously through the online form on the site.

University leaders will work to develop an implementation plan based on the recommendations and responses from the Penn State community to achieve the goal of integrating diversity, equity and inclusion best practices throughout the University. The Penn State Board of Trustees has expressed a strong interest in moving the efforts forward.

Barron closed by saying, “I am grateful for the collective efforts of our Penn State community, and I thank our commission members and our task force members for their leadership and for their tremendous service. I also thank those who are watching for your engagement in this important discussion.”


Last Updated April 15, 2021