Pitt considering petition calling for black studies course requirement


Screenshot via change.org

Sydney Massenberg created a petition last Friday urging Pitt administrators to require all undergraduates to take a black studies course as a graduation requirement.

By Rebecca Johnson, Senior Staff Writer

Pitt officials said they are considering a petition, which currently has more than 5,300 signatures, requiring all undergraduates to take a black studies course as a graduation requirement. It comes in the wake of the late May killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, which has caused massive protests nationwide.

Sydney Massenberg, a 2020 graduate in political science and psychology who will start law school in the fall, created the petition last Friday. She penned a letter to several administrators elaborating on the proposal, and said adding to or revising current general education requirements is necessary because of the lack of awareness students have toward the black experience.

“Diversity and non-Western culture requirements seem like they’ve initiated students learning things outside of their culture, but because the requirements can be filled by things like a dance class, it’s missing the point,” Massenberg said. “Especially because of the climate right now, students need to have a well-rounded education.”

University spokesperson Pat McMahon said Massenberg’s proposal is an “important idea that’s being taken seriously.”

The new graduation requirement could become part of a larger suite of strategies to strengthen racial equity justice on campus in response to Floyd’s death. Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said in a University-wide email last week that the strategic Plan for Pitt 2025 will be put on hold indefinitely, after an initial six-month hold announced last month due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to work on such strategies. No specific strategies were identified at the time.

All of Pitt’s undergraduate schools currently have some general education requirements in the social sciences. The Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences requires courses designated as diversity, global issues, a region outside of the United States and cross-cultural awareness.

Massenberg said she believes this requirement would be particularly beneficial to white, first-year students, who often come from nondiverse backgrounds.

“It’s important that first-year students be aware of experiences other than their own,” Massenberg said. “Not having that exposure can leave a lot of people ignorant of other’s experiences, which can be harmful to people in marginalized groups.”

Massenberg presented her idea at Tuesday afternoon’s Faculty Assembly meeting. At the meeting, University Senate President Chris Bonneau said he supported the proposal and said he was referring it for further consideration to the Senate’s Educational Policy Committee, as well as the Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Advocacy Committee.

We have faced moments like this and failed, but we have another chance to get it right, another chance to change our society, another chance to ensure that Black Lives Matter,” Bonneau said. “It’s students like Sydney that make Pitt great.”

Tabitha Barnes, a 2020 graduate and former SGB Diversity and Inclusion committee chair, said she signed Massenberg’s petition because mandating students to take a course in black studies forces them to learn about racism and diversity rather than through optional programming.

“Pitt invests tens of thousands of dollars every year in diversity-related programming, and it’s largely performative, which I know because I’ve gone to and planned many of them,” Barnes said. “Education on anti-blackness has to happen in a classroom where students are mandated to listen, reflect and reply.”

Barnes added that a course will teach nonblack students why promoting diversity is important, which is something black students already know.

“The reason why students who need diversity training the most never get it is because they don’t want to know why it’s important,” Barnes said. “Black students already know why. It’s written on our skin, it’s written in our blood, it’s on the news, and unless nonblack students learn the ‘why,’ they’ll never seek out anti-racist resources needed to reform their beliefs and behaviors.”

Barnes said she agrees with mandating a black studies course in the first year of a Pitt education because of anecdotal experience she’s had in an Africana Studies course with mostly white first-years.

“Black students knew historical events, they knew theories, they knew people and places, and there was a great disparity in white students coming into that space,” Barnes said. “But, throughout the course, I noticed a change in attitude. A lot of people took it to fill a credit and you could see the transformation when they actually started asking questions or doing the reading.”

Massenberg said she also strongly believes in the power of education to partially eliminate offensive comments that she’s experienced both in the classroom and on campus. Massenberg said she remembered a white student in an Africana Studies class questioning the merit of historically black colleges and universities as being particularly misinformed.

“A white student in my class said that he doesn’t understand why historically black institutions aren’t a form of segregation,” Massenberg said. “It was hurtful because he was accusing marginalized groups of segregating themselves, when HBCUs were created so black people had a place to go to school. But a lot of people think that way, it’s not just him.”

For students looking to take a black studies course, Massenberg said she recommends Afro-American History I taught by Alaina Roberts or Urban Sociology taught by Junia Howell. Roberts, an assistant professor of history, said her courses dive into the history and impacts of racism, which is important for a complete education.

“Students and Americans in general are missing out on the history of this country and the way institutions and social policies play out when you don’t learn black history,” Roberts said. “It’s necessary to learn African American history and culture to get a full education at a liberal arts university.”

Roberts added that she is impressed by the protests across the country demanding racial justice, and she hopes this petition will have an impact at Pitt.

“I am really in awe of what’s going on right now with the protests going on in the country and in the world,” Roberts said. “I really hope this means there will be change in the world, and that this [petition] means there will be change here at Pitt.”