Black Action Society, 17 Black student orgs make demands of University administration

By Jon Moss, Editor-in-Chief

The Black Action Society and 17 other Black Pitt student organizations joined together Monday to demand change from the University administration. The changes, the largest that BAS has requested since its famous 1969 Cathedral of Learning sit-in, arrive during a debate over race that is convulsing the country, caused by a spate of killings of Black men by the police and years of tension boiling over.

The wide-ranging list of more than 20 demands touched on topics including amplifying the Black student voice, increasing the number of Black students and faculty, curriculum changes, additional training for employees and Pitt police reforms. The demands also arrive on the heels of the dean of Pitt’s School of Medicine agreeing last Thursday to comply with a litany of demands from Black medical students.

Morgan Ottley, the president of BAS, said it is “embarrassing” and “shameful” that Black students must demand change again from the University.

“We shouldn’t have to keep pushing for our rights as students,” Ottley, a rising senior neuroscience major, said. “We shouldn’t have to keep pushing in order for us to feel safe.”

Cameron Clarke, the president of the Carribean and Latin American Students Association, said he has experienced multiple microaggressions since arriving on campus and it is essential that Pitt make changes.

“The University, I feel, has done a little bit to try and change that, however they haven’t been fully transparent, haven’t been held fully accountable to reality,”  Clarke, a rising senior anthropology major, said.

BAS, CLASA and the other student organizations compiled the demands together, and also received feedback from Kenyon Bonner, the vice provost and dean of students. Black student leaders said they met with administrators multiple times in the last few weeks about the campus climate.

Pitt spokesperson Pat McMahon said the University will give the demands “serious consideration.”

“These ideas are part of vibrant discussions underway among undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff, alumni and others who share a belief that it is beyond time for our university both to address systemic racism on our own campuses and to challenge the world around us,” McMahon said. “Everything from curriculum to hiring and contracting practices and more is under serious consideration.”

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said earlier this month 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 strategies to strengthen racial equity justice on campus.

One of the core sets of demands is the formation of various panels for the administration and Black students to communicate better. This includes the creation of a Black Advocacy Council, to construct and execute campus policy in response to current events that affect minority students, and the People’s Voice Committee, which will work with the administration to accomplish the other demands. BAS would also be recognized as an umbrella organization for all other Black student organizations on campus.

The demands also include an increase in the number of Black students and tenured faculty. The students demanded that the Black student population be substantially increased from the current 4.88% to 10% within the next five years, and an admissions panel be formed to increase enrollment and retainment of Black students. This increase to 10% would be independent of the Black student-athlete population, the students said. The students also wish to see an in Black tenured faculty over the next 10 years to reach 10% of all faculty, spread out across all corners of the University, not solely the Africana Studies department. Increases in Black students and faculty were among the key demands of the 1969 sit-in.

Ottley said Pitt did act to increase the Black student population after the 1969 sit-in, but Black students were forced to demand change again because the University did not keep up the progress.

“There was no longevity behind it,” Ottley said.

Other student-facing changes include the creation of more than 50 scholarships, named for Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin and Tony McDade, as well as Antwon Rose II, an area 17-year-old who was killed in 2018 by a former Pitt police officer who was then working for another local department. The scholarships, totalling in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, would be able to be applied to tuition or room and board, and awardees would be recognized by senior administrators.

The demands also incorporate a pre-existing petition which calls on Pitt to include a Black studies course as part of general education requirements. University administrators have said they were open to the idea, and a University Senate committee said last week they would form a working group to study the proposal.

Other demands related to curriculum changes are establishing both masters and Ph.D. programs in Africana Studies and including the Black narrative in courses across the University.

The students also demanded that faculty and staff undergo three training sessions that cover topics such as racial biases, microaggressions and equity before the start of every academic year. The design of the sessions would be approved by the People’s Voice Committee. Questions would be added to OMET faculty evaluation surveys, asking about their strength in creating an inclusive learning environment. The students ask that faculty involved incidents in racial bias or score poorly on these OMET questions be placed on probation or ultimately terminated.

Reforms for the Pitt police are also included in the demands. The students ask that racist and discriminatory officers be fired and records of arrest, traffic stops and citations be released along with a demographic breakdown. The students demanded that the Pitt police sever ties with the City police, and the Pitt police hold events to strengthen relationships with Black students.

Ottley said the University is often reactive in making changes, and wishes they would become proactive in addressing student concerns.

“I love the University of Pittsburgh,” Ottley said. “Pitt has the potential to do a better job, they just have to want to do so, they have to want to support Black students, they have to want to be that change and they have to want to be on the front lines.”

Contributed reporting by Benjamin Nigrosh.