Among many final goals, Penn State President Eric Barron has focused on advancing diversity, equity and inclusion during the last year of his tenure, and for President-elect Neeli Bendapudi, continuing to foster diversity is one of her main aspirations.
Bendapudi will officially enter office on May 10 after being unanimously appointed as the university’s 19th president by Penn State’s Board of Trustees — the first woman and person of color to hold the position.
Barron served as president for eight years, following the removal of former President Graham Spanier by the Board of Trustees and the brief interim presidency of Rodney Erickson. He is a former president of Florida State University, collecting “nearly 35 years of leadership experience in academic administration, education, research and public service” according to his biography.
Prior to his presidency, Barron also served as a professor and dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State.
“I made it a priority to continue teaching, even as I became a dean and eventually a university president. So, I never gave it up,” Barron said in a recent interview with Penn State News.
Barron’s work to promote diversity, equity and inclusion
During his inauguration in May 2014, Barron introduced diversity and demographics as one of his six main priorities for his tenure.
In 2016, Barron was awarded with the INSIGHT Into Diversity Giving Back Award, which, according to its website, “honors college presidents and chancellors who go above and beyond their everyday duties to give back to their institutions and communities.”
He was awarded on these grounds — encouragement of community service, commitment to students’ concern and an appreciation for culture.
Carlos Wiley, director of Penn State’s Paul Robeson Cultural Center, said he believes Barron was always open to listening to students, and he worked on initiatives that were important.
Under Barron’s leadership, Penn State announced a Strategic Plan for Diversity for 2020-2025 outlining four planning goals, according to Penn State’s Office of Educational Equity:
Foster a culture of respect and inclusion that values the experiences and perspectives of faculty, staff and students
Develop and implement curricula and scholarship to interrogate social issues and inspire social responsibility
Evaluate and rectify organizational structures, policies and practices to cause differential impact and limit access and opportunities for faculty, staff and students at Penn State
Recruit, support and advance a diverse student body, faculty and staff.
In June 2020, Barron released a plan to address racism, bias and community safety.
Part of the plan included working to revise the Student Code of Conduct in spring 2021 to reflect new language addressing racism and advancing equality, according to a Penn State News release.
He also convened a Select Penn State Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias and Community Safety and started the Center for Racial Justice in 2021. Under Barron’s administration, the university saw a rise in enrollment of “underrepresented students” three years in a row, Penn State News said.
According to Penn State News, as of Feb. 19, students from “underrepresented groups” now represent 13.6% of the student population, a 3.8% increase from 2018.
“Move to an enterprise approach” to diversity, equity and inclusion with the future creation of a Chief Diversity Officer position
Address challenges in recruitment and improve practices for onboarding and mentoring
Represent diversity, equity and inclusion as a “mandatory element of education” and planning to develop an institute dedicated to “anti-racist, anti-bias and pedagogy and scholarly research”
In the email releasing these initiatives, Barron said these actions are “only the beginning,” and the administration will take steps with “purpose and conviction” to address issues and create positive change.
“If you’re a land-grant institution, you need to serve the citizens of society, which includes educating all citizens,” Barron said in an interview with Penn State News. “In my experience, when you meet somebody different and you get to know them, you have a richer experience in college.”
According to Penn State News, the university has established 67 equity scholarships totalling $23 million to recruit and retain students whose “gender, race, ethnic, cultural and/or national background contribute to the diversity of the student body.”
“As an institution, we’ve made substantial progress in a lot of areas around diversity and inclusion, but there is much more work to do and many more changes to be made,” Barron said to Penn State News. “We have made it a real priority to foster learning, cultivate engagement and promote new levels of understanding across our entire campus community.”
University Park Undergraduate Association President Najee Rodriguez said the advocacy under Barron’s tenure has been “extremely beneficial,” and some of his plans need to be revisited so they can be implemented soon under Bendapudi.
“I think [the administration] should appoint people for ideas that were conceived in the past few years,” Rodriguez (junior-international politics and history) said. “Investing [the] necessary budget and money into these programs can bolster these efforts on campus.”
To Rodriguez, the Eric and Molly Barron Renaissance Scholarship was a tangible action that demonstrated equitable actions being taken to close deficits.
“It directly benefits members of underrepresented communities that specifically come from low socioeconomic backgrounds,” Rodriguez said.
Ava Starks, political action chair for The Penn State Student Black Caucus, said genuine DEI efforts are important to her — rather than being “performative.”
“In regard to DEI, I feel like Barron took the initial steps to be in communication with students, but I do feel like he fell short in making [us feel] like we always feel seen on campus,” Starks (sophomore-philosophy) said. “You have to do more to support students and make sure they feel represented on campus.”
Starks said it’s important for university leadership to interact with diverse students one-on-one about “the things that we hold true to our hearts and are important to us as student leaders.”
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Barron said Penn State is “rapidly moving” toward “having the majority population not be the majority population,” in his recent interview with Penn State News.
According to Penn State Undergraduate Admissions, white students made up 64.95% of the undergraduate population during the 2019-20 academic year.
Continuing diversity, equity and inclusion efforts with the inauguration of Bendapudi
Prior to being elected as Penn State’s new president, Bendapudi served as a president and professor of marketing at the University of Louisville and has also worked at the University of Kansas, Texas A&M and Ohio State — holding both leadership positions and teaching roles.
Under Bendapudi’s leadership at the University of Louisville, the university saw its “largest and most diverse freshman class,” according to Diverse Issues in Higher Education, and she “became” a leader in DEI.
Bendapudi said one of her main goals is “fostering diversity,” which she said starts with bringing diversity into the decision-making process at Penn State.
She said diversity is already “in the DNA” of Penn State, which can be seen with her election.
“In a changing world that is so dynamic and unpredictable, we need people around the table that don’t look alike or think alike,” Bendapudi said previously in a presidential Q&A, according to The Daily Collegian. “Diversity of thought matters in terms of tackling challenges.”
Rodriguez said he would like to see Bendapudi’s administration create the infrastructure that’s required for supporting marginalized students, implement centralized offices that are able to deal with DEI-related issues, and increase support for specific groups and communities.
He said campus climate and community are also correlated with DEI-related issues at Penn State.
“It’s central Pennsylvania, there’s a geographic element to it,” Rodriguez said. “It creates a lack of dialogue and attention, it’s not something people feel comfortable talking about, and that is a problem.”
Elijah Neal, secretary for Queer and Trans People of Color at Penn State, is “hoping for the best” DEI efforts during Bendapudi’s tenure.
“I just hope that President Bendapudi is willing to hear out the voices of many minority students… and enact many different things that would ultimately benefit the minority students here at Penn State,” Neal (junior-political science) said.
Wiley said he thinks the problem is a lack of empathy, and many people are “unwilling to engage with people who are culturally and ethnically different than [themselves].”
He said he’s hoping for various institutional changes within Bendapudi’s administration.
“I would like her to make time to meet with student leaders from student organizations that represent marginalized and underrepresented groups at Penn State like President Barron did,” Wiley said.
He also said he hopes Bendapudi will continue Barron’s goals of requiring more diversity, equity and inclusion courses for students, including a senior project that shows they’ve “built capacity and are learning around the subject.”
“I’m excited to see what she has planned during her leadership term, and I really hope that we can start to see more underrepresented student groups put in the limelight and celebrated and appreciated more on this campus,” Starks said.
In her December 2021 Q&A, Bendapudi said she believes everyone needs to “fundamentally rethink what higher education’s all about,” according to the Collegian.
“For us to continue to be vital, competitive, we need to be a place where everybody says, ‘Penn State is the place to go because no matter who I am, when I come here, I can make a great life for myself, for my family and my community,’” she said in the Q&A. “Ultimately, that’s what higher education is about.
“It’s really about transforming lives.”
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