University Senate spring plenary stresses importance of anti-racism and equity at Pitt

The+University+Senate+held+a+plenary+after+examining+systemic+racism+and+inequality+within+the+Pitt+community.

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The University Senate held a plenary after examining systemic racism and inequality within the Pitt community.

By Colm Slevin, Staff Writer

Following a year filled with nationwide protests over the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans, the University Senate focused its spring plenary on Wednesday on anti-racism and equity at Pitt.

The Senate held the plenary after charging its committees with examining systemic racism and inequality within the Pitt community. The plenary, which all students, faculty and staff were invited to attend, had three panels that discussed the inequality at the University and the necessary steps for improving Pitt.

The plenary, which focused on anti-racism and equity, comes on the heels of Pitt’s Black Action Society releasing a set of demands last summer to the University to make Pitt more inclusive and equitable. The 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.

Clyde Wilson Pickett, the vice chancellor of equity, diversity and inclusion, was the first panelist to speak, starting off the “Building an Equitable Institution” session. Pickett said there is a need at Pitt to be “diverse and inclusive” and that the plenary should focus on outcomes.

“Part of this conversation absolutely is about outcomes,” Pickett said. “We can’t prioritize a conversation about institutional equity without understanding that we are talking about the specific metrics around how we advance academic success for our students, how we prioritize hiring and retention for our faculty and having ongoing conversations about a strong sense of belonging.”

John Wallace, vice provost for faculty diversity and development, quoted from a piece from The Root that showed Pittsburgh is itself not an equitable city — it is a city in which Black people are often marginalized and suffer from systemic racism.

“This means that if Black residents got up and left and moved to the majority of any other cities in the U.S., automatically by just moving their life expectancy would go up,” Wallace said. “Their income would go up, the educational opportunities for their children would go up as well as their employment.”

Wallace and Pickett, along with Destiny Mann, a junior political science and Africana Studies double major, vice president of BAS and president of the Black Senate, and April O’Neil, an operations specialist at the University, were members of the “Building an Equitable Institution” panel. The panelists all felt that Pitt can become a more equitable institution by investing in the Pittsburgh neighborhoods, increasing the number of Black professors and supporting its Black students with their educational goals.

Pitt faculty and University Senate members David Salcido and Robin Kear asked questions to all three panels during the plenary. The first panel’s questions all dealt with issues of Blackness in America and in Pittsburgh as well as issues in the University, the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement and in the change in U.S. presidential administrations.

Mann said racism is not a political issue that can be solved by one person, but rather a personal issue that we all must fight individually. The change of U.S. presidents alone cannot solve an interpersonal issue, said Mann.

“No matter who is president, racism is such a multifaceted and deep and strong issue,” Mann said. “A president can’t do the work that has to be done, it has to be individual human beings.”

Yolanda Covington-Ward, an associate professor and chair of the Africana Studies department, and lecturer Gabby Yearwood then discussed the Anti-Black Racism course at Pitt, the need for it, the steps they took building it and the reception it garnered. This one-credit S/NC course, which was a “universal gen-ed,” introduced students to African history and topics of anti-racism. Topics in the course included contemporary Black liberation movements, health disparities and more, teaching students across all majors about anti-Black racism and how to be anti-racist.

Yearwood said the course came about quickly because each professor on the committee for the class saw how important it was. The committee consisted of more than 15 University professors who put together the course. He added that even though the course would not be enough to cover every topic in Black history, it needed to introduce students to it.

“I think it was commitment [that helped make the class],” Yearwood said. “I think everyone understood the responsibility we were charged with and everyone wanted to give students the best thing possible. Recognizing that one credit wasn’t enough, that this wasn’t enough, so recognizing that each one of these weeks should be its own course.”

Covington-Ward said planning for the course occurred throughout this past summer, while Black Lives Matter protests were sweeping the country and the forefront of many political conversations. She felt that pushed professors to work harder on the course.

“The commitment was so serious,” Covington-Ward said. “The events of, not just the summer, in terms of what happened to George Floyd. I think it was the culmination of so much trauma around anti-Black racism as Black faculty on campus and around the community. I think the committee members saw this was an important charge that they could not say no to.”

The final panel included many people from the University Senate who talked about their findings on the issue of race and equity within the University.

John Stoner, a senior lecturer in the history department, and Bonnie Falcione, an associate professor in the School of Pharmacy, talked about new policies at Pitt and the questions of S/NC grades during the pandemic. Both co-chairs of the educational policies committee worked on introducing a syllabus statement that focuses on religious observances.

Ally Bove, an assistant physical therapy professor, and Zuzana Swigonova, a biological sciences lecturer, from the Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Advocacy Committee, focused on the GRE exam, including how it was unequal and ways of getting rid of it. According to Swigonova, in 2021, only 14% of graduate programs at Pitt required the GRE and 42% were GRE-optional.

Marylou Gramm and Sybil Streeter, from the Student Admissions, Aid and Affairs Committee, addressed the inequity in enrollment. According to Streeter, issues in enrollment include economic and civil turbulence, students who couldn’t do campus visits, the effects of being test-optional and the successes of the Hot Metal Bridge program. The Hot Metal Bridge program focused on helping underrepresented students bridge the gap from an undergraduate degree and a graduate training program. Of the students who completed the program, about 85% went on to attend graduate studies at Pitt and other schools.

Provost Ann Cudd gave closing remarks at the end of the spring plenary session. She said she was inspired by the panels stressing the importance of diversity within the University.

“I was really pleased with the first panel talking about how we would measure our progress as we reached a more anti-racist, more equitable campus,” Cudd said.

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