Gallagher: Pitt has ‘let down’ black students

By Rebecca Johnson and Jon Moss

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said Thursday that Pitt has failed many of its black students and is planning multiple reforms to help combat racial injustice on campus. The statement comes in the wake of the late May killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, which has sparked massive protests nationwide. It also arrives nearly 50 years after the founding of the Black Action Society, which was founded during a 1969 sit-in to force Pitt to better support black students and faculty.

“One of the most painful things is the degree to which we have let them down,” Gallagher said. “We’re moving past the state of statements and words. This is really a time of ‘What are we going to do about it?’”

He and other University leaders discussed Pitt’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as updated plans for the fall semester in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, at Thursday afternoon’s Senate Council meeting held via Zoom. 

Gallagher announced that a committee will consider the renaming Scaife Hall, the home of Pitt’s medical school. It is named after Alan Magee Scaife, the father to Richard Mellon Scaife and Cordelia Scaife May, heirs to the Mellon fortune. May gave more than $180 million to anti-immigrant causes through the family’s Colcom Foundation. The building renaming process, most recently used in 2016 for then-Parran Hall, includes approval by the board of trustees.

Gallagher said the Pitt police would not be eliminated or defunded, but that officers would receive additional diversity training to focus on the needs of African Americans and that the University would support a statewide database of dismissed officers.

“I don’t believe funding the Pitt police department is competing in any way with our ability to support student services,” Gallagher said. “It hasn’t become a distortion of public priority.” 

Gallagher also said Pitt would hire additional staff to support black student organizations and add black students to the Chancellor’s public safety advisory committee that advises decisions regarding the Pitt police. He added that Pitt is considering making an impact fund next year addressing racism in coordination with Student Government Board. A petition is also currently under consideration to add a black studies course as part of general education requirements.

SGB president Eric Macadangdang said commitment to promoting racial justice is needed from people in leadership positions, including at Pitt. 

“What needs to begin to change is the support and commitment from the politicians, parents and leaders in positions of power,” Macadangdang said. “It is not [young people] sitting in the city council chambers, board rooms or this meeting today.” 

Gallagher added that all measures are currently being considered to promote racial justice. This follows a University-wide email last week that announced 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.

“Everything’s on the table, from the way we admit, hire, retain, train, curriculum and also the things that support campus culture and making sure that it’s a secure and welcoming campus for everybody,” Gallagher said.

Gallagher also addressed preparations for the upcoming fall semester, which will occur using a modified Flex@Pitt model. He said the situation remains a case of managing risk “appropriately,” and the University is taking precautions to ensure safety of all community members.

One way Pitt is trying to manage risk is by de-densifying campus gathering places, such as residence halls, dining facilities and teaching spaces. Gallagher said the University is examining all residence hall configurations to see whether there is enough capacity to properly space out students, or may need to rent additional rooms from outside facilities.

“We’ve worked with a group of infectious disease physicians and epidemiologists to review each of those rooms and develop recommendations,” Gallagher said. “We can’t use the residence halls at full capacity.”

Gallagher added that isolation procedures for students who may be infected are currently under review. The Pandemic Preparedness Plan lists Sutherland Hall as the location where students who are infected or exposed can live.

“We will have isolation housing options available, where somebody can be relocated and stay in that facility,” Gallagher said.

The University is also working to assess whether all classrooms can safely be utilized during the pandemic. An inventory of all classrooms, and whether courses can take place in these rooms with proper social distancing, will be finished by Friday afternoon. Classes will begin to be rescheduled next week based on this inventory, with Flex@Pitt technology upgrades installed in select classrooms in the following weeks. But Gallagher said all students will be able to attend classes remotely.

“Anybody who wants to not come into a classroom will have the availability to do it online,” Gallagher said.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said Scaife Hall was named for Richard Mellon Scaife. The building was named for Alan Magee Scaife, his father. The article has been updated to reflect this change. The Pitt News regrets this error.