Pitt hosts experts on race in universities

By Alexa Bakalarski / News Editor

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A meeting on the Cathedral of Learning’s 20th floor has Pitt looking towards improving diversity in the 21st century.

About 60 professionals from universities, the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Public Schools joined Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems’ Diversity and Racial Justice in the 21st Century University Summer Institute. At the summer institute Tuesday, panelists discussed supporting faculty of color at universities, legal considerations of racial justice in higher education, student life and racial justice, as well as support for K-12 students of color hoping to enter college.

James Huguley, a Pitt professor of social work, was the event organizer for the institute. In his opening remarks, Huguley asked the attendees to take a moment of silence and reflection for “the people that have been lost recently, their families and communities and what they are going through.”

“Dean [Larry] Davis founded [the Center on Race and Social Problems] in 2002. And if we think about the timeline from 2002 to President Barack Obama getting elected, a lot of people thought that we were now in a post-racial society,” Huguley said. “Unfortunately, we know from recent events that that is just simply not the case. It’s perhaps most evident from what we’ve seen in policing and criminal justice that the struggle is very real.”

During the early morning of July 5, Alton Sterling was killed during a police confrontation in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in a parking lot where he sold homemade CDs. On July 6, Philando Castile was killed during a traffic stop in St. Paul, Minnesota. Videos of both deaths went viral on social media throughout the week.

On the night of July 7, an otherwise peaceful protest in downtown Dallas turned violent when 25-year-old Micah Johnson shot at police officers, killing five and injuring seven others, along with two bystanders.

Dean of Student Affairs and Vice Provost Kenyon Bonner delivered the institute’s keynote introduction.

“Now more than ever, in today’s society, [Pitt’s] commitment to diversity is absolutely imperative,” Bonner said. “If any of you begin to question the need for such a commitment, you need to look no further than the recent tragedies in Baton Rouge and Minnesota where black men have died at the hands of police. [These are] only the latest victims in what has become a disturbing trend across our country, or maybe more appropriately, we’re more aware of what’s been happening for decades as part of a systemic issue in our country.”

During his introduction, Bonner also mentioned the 2016-2017 academic year will be Pitt’s Year of Diversity.

The event’s keynote speaker was Kedra Ishop, the associate vice president for enrollment management at the University of Michigan. Ishop previously worked as the director of admissions at the University of Texas at Austin, where a recent Supreme Court ruling on considering race and ethnicity in admissions occurred.

The case — Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin — involved Abigail Fisher, a white woman who sued UT Austin after being denied admission there in 2008. Fisher claimed the admissions office discriminated against her because of her race, as the University takes race into consideration as part of the admissions process in its efforts to increase minority enrollment. The Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that considering race as part of UT Austin’s admissions practice was constitutional.

Pitt’s review for admissions includes looking at an applicant’s achievement and academic credentials, including class rank, if applicable, and SAT or ACT scores, Marc Harding, Pitt’s chief enrollment officer, said. According to Harding, academic achievement is the most important factor, with other holistic factors such as diversity, service, academic fit and leadership qualities considered as well but on a lower priority.

Ishop discussed the Fisher case and the legal history leading up to it, as well as what the Supreme Court’s decision means for higher education in the future. The case supported the argument that the educational benefits of diversity may justify the use of race in admissions decisions and upheld the ability of courts to defer to academic judgment when determining the educational benefit of diversity.

“The decision does leave higher education on notice,” Ishop said. “This case was specific to Texas and the Texas context … and what we walked away with was affirmation of the legal standards that were presented … but also walked away with knowing that institutions on an individual basis have to defend themselves and prepare themselves for defense along each of these [legal] standards as well.”

Strict scrutiny, a form of judicial review that measures the constitutionality of a law by its ability to further education benefits and how the law is narrowly tailored to achieve the interest, is a legal standard that continues to apply after the Fisher decision, Ishop said.

“It requires of an institution not just to say you’re doing it, not to just say you want it, not just to say it’s important, but that you have to prove it,” Ishop said. “And this is really one of the biggest challenges that — for us on the higher education side — that we have to be really conscious of … we have to make sure that as colleagues in the field that we are each doing the things that we need to do to provide that evidence.”

Penn State University’s Liliana Garces, University of Texas at Austin’s Richard Reddick, Pitt education professor Gina Garcia and Executive Director of the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program Jason Lee formed an expert panel, moderated by Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education’s Karina Chavez.

Garces, Reddick, Garcia and Lee all held afternoon break-out workshops on their specific topics of interest. Garces led a panel on affirmative action and legal considerations and Reddick led one on supporting and advancing faculty of color, while Garcia led a panel on student life and Lee led a panel on K-12 support systems.

Miya Asato, a pediatric doctor at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, came to the summer institute because she is interested in how race influences medical care and treatment.

“You have to bring these issues to a place where people can talk about them,” Asato said. “Sometimes the biases are there, but if you’re not talking about it, you’re not aware of it.”

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