‘The same fire’: Black students, faculty discuss diversity, activism on campus

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Pitt’s Bradford campus, the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, the Center on Race and Social Problems and the Black Action Society sponsored a panel Thursday afternoon called “The Black Impact: Black Faculty and Administrators’ Influence on Black Student Success.” Fellow members of the Black Pitt community, including faculty, students and administrators attended.

By Rebecca Johnson, News Editor

Throughout Jack Daniel’s career at Pitt, he had many roles. But in each of them — whether it was as the first chair of Pitt’s Black studies department, the dean of students or the vice provost for undergraduate studies — he said he had one responsibility. 

“My responsibility was to the Black community, and I say that with no disrespect to the authority of the University.” Daniel said. “As I understood my role, it was to do all that I could to bring the resources of the University of Pittsburgh to … improve the circumstances of the Black Pitt community.”

Daniel discussed his experience navigating Pitt as a Black administrator and student at Thursday afternoon’s panel “The Black Impact: Black Faculty and Administrators’ Influence on Black Student Success.” He was joined by fellow members of the Black Pitt community, including faculty, students and administrators, as well as moderator Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner. Pitt’s Bradford campus, the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, the Center on Race and Social Problems and the Black Action Society sponsored the event.

But Daniel said this work takes a toll on his — and other Black people’s — mental and emotional health. Daniel was also one of the students who took over the University’s computer center in 1969 to demand more equity on campus for Black students and faculty. He added that once he became so stressed that his doctor had to prescribe him medicine to relax. 

“At one point I was so stressed out that a doctor prescribed some kind of nerve medicine to calm me down, and it didn’t work until I got on an airplane to my in-laws’ home in California and I took one pill and passed out,” Daniel said. “When I woke up I was in California.”

Daniel added that it’s his wife — and fishing — that keep him grounded. 

“I happened to get married at 21 and had a very strong partner, some people call a wife. Without her, I don’t know where I would be,” Daniel said. “I always say fishing is my psychiatrist. I didn’t become a fishing person just because I wanted to fish. When I fish everything about Pitt and the struggle disappears. You have to find your fishing.”

Morgan Ottley, the president of BAS, has also pushed for change at Pitt this year. BAS and 17 other Black student organizations sent a list of demands over the summer which 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. Pitt met many of these demands in its Anti-racism, Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, although it said it wasn’t a formal response to the demands.

Ottley, a senior neuroscience major, also said she is “stressed 24/7,” but that she finds comfort in activism and helping her community. 

You kind of have to find that calling that grounds you and that kind of recenters you and really allows you to simply just exist in the world as a human being, and for me that’s dance, but it’s also being an activist,” Ottley said. “I find comfort, I find healing, in being able to support my community, from being able to bring students into spaces that students might not have been in before.”

Curtiss Porter, chancellor emeritus at Penn State’s Greater Allegheny campus and a founding member of BAS, said this work by Black students, faculty and staff can amount to a “cultural tax.” Porter said this happens when Black people are frequently asked to serve on various committees to help address diversity and inclusion on campus. 

“While the president of the BAS in every generation not only shoulders their undergraduate curriculum and that quest to maintain a 4.0,” Porter said, “but also is literally running an organization, interacting with the head of the University and major elements of the University to carry forth an agenda.”

Both 1969 and 2020 BAS members demanded that the University increase the number of Black faculty and students on campus. BAS asked last summer that Pitt commit to increasing Black tenured faculty over the next 10 years to reach 10% of all faculty. They also demanded that Black student enrollment increase to 10% in the next five years. Pitt’s Black student enrollment has decreased by nearly two-thirds in the past 40 years.

Ottley said having Black professors and faculty on campus is important for her and other students. She added that when there’s a Black person in authority, it “gives you a sense of hope.”

“For students having teachers and professors that look like them increases confidence, and then for young professionals having someone from a similar background in their field of interest generates opportunity and a sense of belonging,” Ottley said. That is what’s helped me thrive into the person I am today. Without my Black faculty, without my Black peers, I honestly would not be here.”

Daniel said helping achieve equity on campus for Black students comes down to “higher expectations.” This includes investing institutional money for scholarships and aid to assist Black students and setting up programs for leadership development. 

“Take all the standards at the University such as graduation rates, grade point averages, fields in which people study, jobs after graduation and our agenda should be no less than Black students achieving at a minimum if not higher,” Daniel said.

He added that it’s also important to “check” white leadership at the University, such as Provost Ann Cudd and Chancellor Patrick Gallagher. Daniel and Porter submitted a document called “White Paper for An Historically White University in Search of Equity and Social Justice” to senior administrators over the summer. 

“The University of Pittsburgh is a 90% or more white place. Look, if Wesley Posvar had called the storm troopers when we took over the computer center we wouldn’t be talking to me and Curtiss — we’d be dead,” Daniel said. “If the white people who still maintain power and control and the University of Pittsburgh aren’t open to the why kind of discussion that Curtiss and others have mentioned, then we have a problem.”

At the beginning of the discussion, Cudd talked about some of the anti-racism initiatives Pitt had recently introduced. She referenced Pitt’s new anti-Black racism course and Pitt’s participation in the Aspire IChange network to recruit and retain more diverse STEM faculty.

“The results of all of our efforts will be a vision grounded in social justice and understanding,” Cudd said. “One that fosters cultural change at the University.” 

In a show of solidarity with the early members of BAS, Ottley thanked them for their work and said that they are the reason BAS is so strong today.  

“This idea that our voices hold so much power, I don’t think it would resonate with the same intensity that it does today,” Ottley said. “Without their actions — without the first group of students who sat in the Cathedral and demanded change until it was made — I don’t think we would have the same fire we do today to push forward the same agenda.”

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