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Black students find Penn State an uneasy fit

Sunday, April 29, 2001

By Tom Gibb, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Samantha Wallace walks into a local discount store and hunts around.

She finally gives up and asks a clerk. Where's the section with the African American beauty products?

"They don't have them," said Wallace, a black Penn State University senior from New Castle, Lawrence County. "She looks at you like you're crazy."

Pittsburgh native LaKeisha Wolf, Penn State Black Caucus president, gets a hug from Black Caucus member Chenitis Pettigrew III, a senior from Pittsburgh, during a rally last week at Penn State's University Park campus. (Pat Little, Associated Press)

It's hardly a crime against humanity. Maybe the complaint seems a natural fit for the back of the Life's Awfully Tough file. But Wallace wasn't talking about just discount stores or beauty products or convenience.

She was talking about the racial climate that became local topic No. 1 last week during a war of wills between Penn State administrators and students. It was about frustration -- for Wallace added affirmation that being black at Pennsylvania's largest university means she doesn't get full standing.

Black students say it's the American experience, of being shunned by a majority that feels more at ease with its own, parties with its own, congregates with its own.

"For African American students at someplace in a setting such as Pitt, there are more options, more of an African American community, African American churches or ethnic restaurants, etcetera," said William Asbury, Penn State vice president of student affairs.

"Here, you go to a football game, and the crowd is overwhelmingly white. You go to a basketball game, the crowd is overwhelmingly white. The faculty is overwhelmingly white, the student body is overwhelmingly white. So, white students can get the feeling they don't have to interact with people not like themselves."

Castleigh Johnson picked Penn State for the calm of its setting, its international management major and the legions of alumni who offer a bonanza of postgraduate networking. But what he got in the deal can be off-putting -- a campus where the white majority seems to look at him askance.

"It's because of stereotypes," said Johnson, a black junior from Dover, N.J. "If people would try to get to know me as a person -- but they see the baggy pants and the do-rag, and because of my color, there are a lot of negative stereotypes: I'm a drug dealer, or I'm uneducated, or I got here on free money."

It's not hostility, said student Dante Johnson, it's usually passive cold-shouldering. "White people can stare at you sometimes like they're asking, 'Why are you here?' " said Johnson, a junior from Philadelphia and no relation to Castleigh Johnson.

"In many ways, Penn State isn't much different than society in general," said Kenneth Clarke, director of the university's Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs. "And society in general is racist."

White campus, white town

Ten percent of Pennsylvania's population is black. By estimates from Penn State's budget office, 6.5 percent of the commonwealth's college-bound high school seniors are black. But Penn State's 81,270-student body is 4.3 percent black -- 3.9 percent, if you subtract its statewide network of campuses and consider only its heart at University Park.

Compare that to the University of Pittsburgh, where 7.8 percent of the students on the Oakland campus are black. The Oakland campus enrollment isn't quite two-thirds the population at University Park; the black population is 20 percent higher.

Related Story, Graphic

Penn State ranks in the middle of the Big Ten schools for diversity


Penn State administrators chalk up smaller-than-average black enrollment in part to the university's location in the state's lightly populated middle.

It was against Penn State's white backdrop that university administrators and black student activists argued to a standoff last week.

On one side was Penn State's student-run Black Caucus, charging that Penn State administrators talk about nurturing diversity but have spent years sitting on their hands.

On the other side were university administrators. While admitting that cross-cultural diversity was an area that needed work, they boasted of progress -- for instance, increasing black enrollment from 3.4 percent to 4.3 percent in six years -- and said change took time.

It was an impasse that took on a high profile nine days ago with an anonymous death threat aimed at the Black Caucus president. It was mailed to a reporter at the student newspaper and railed that Penn State was "a white academy in a white town in a white country."

For Penn State officials, the letter -- "written by a coward," university President Graham Spanier said -- was a vexing flash point because it was an element over which they had no control.

"Can I guarantee that some kook isn't going to write an e-mail, get an address and hit 'send'?" said Edwin Escalet, director of minority admissions and community affairs. "No, I can't."

Unilateral solution

By week's end, without the blessings of the Black Caucus, Penn State announced that it would:

Commit $900,000 over five years to establish an African Studies Research Center.

Increase the number of full-time, tenure-track faculty in its African/African American Studies Department to 10 from four.

Create five $5,000 scholarships for students in a dual major of African/African American Studies and a second discipline, and push the expansion of diversity courses.

The Black Caucus said it agreed only with parts of the plan. And backing the caucus was a cross-section of students who held vigil, their numbers swelling sometimes beyond 1,000, as talks went on.

The issue brought Spanier in for rounds of criticism from students.

"There's no question that Graham Spanier is the most student-friendly these people are going to find," Asbury countered.

"There's no question if you're looking for a president to work with, this is the president."

Diversity on campus isn't an issue unique to Penn State.

The 14 state universities in the State System of Higher Education show 6 percent black enrollment. The share drops to 4.5 percent, though, when Cheyney University in Delaware County -- the oldest historically black college in the nation, with 95 percent black enrollment -- is factored out.

And amid the discord, Penn State had numbers to tout.

The university's retention rate -- students it sees through to graduation, now usually measured over six years -- is 80 percent overall and 62 percent for black students, highest among its brethren in the Big 10.

At Pitt, the retention rate for black students is 39 percent, and it is 31 percent in the State System of Higher Education.

"I don't want events to negate the tremendous progress we've made," said Escalet. "Can we do more? Yes. Will we do more? Yes."

Damage unknown

But Penn State officials fret that the clash over its racial climate has damaged those plans.

High school guidance counselors in the Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg schools say the Penn State standoff gathered little attention among college-bound seniors.

"We had quite a few students apply to Penn State, and if there's a problem, they're not aware of it," said Gwendolyn Dillard, senior guidance counselor at Pittsburgh's Schenley High School, a school with 65 percent black enrollment.

But any fallout likely won't show up until next year's high school seniors start applying, Escalet said.

The Penn State racial climate drew statewide attention largely because it is the commonwealth's centerpiece of higher education. And if the school didn't welcome the attention, it deserved it, black students say.

"Here, race is an issue every single day," said senior Sharleen Morris of Queens, N.Y., vice president of the Black Caucus. "Minority students here usually don't feel a connection. When it comes to social life, things like parties tend to be almost segregated. If you're a minority student, on weekends, you don't socialize or you just go home."

"You get frustrated," said Debbie Charles, a fifth-year senior from Brooklyn, N.Y., "but after a while you just say, 'What can you do?' "

Said Undergraduate Student President Justin Zartman, a white student from Hanover, York County, "Some African American students feel this is their campus and some don't."

White and inexperienced

And every year, into that context steps another class of white freshmen. The majority of them, according to Penn State administrators, are from Pennsylvania's white small towns and suburbs.

Some arrive with the cross-cultural credentials from attending urban schools, said Terrell Jones, vice provost for educational equity.

Few come packing hostility, student Dante Johnson said, but neither do they come with much enthusiasm for breaking outside their white circles.

Ideally, a campus is a place for social growth, said Susan Tanner, a white senior from Elkton, Md.

"The whole idea of coming to college is to step outside your comfort zone," she said.

Most won't, Asbury said.

"Many white students at Penn State had little exposure to people of color. Grades K to 12, nothing, and then you're here," Jones said. "'You're the first black person I ever talked to' doesn't make for a great start with a new roommate. Neither does, 'Tell me about your hair.' "

For LaToya Cobb, a black senior from Point Breeze, the gulf between white and black was almost jarring.

"I'm from Pittsburgh and went to a magnet school. And there, white kids were friendly; they were used to having African American friends," she said. "Here, it's harder. A lot of white kids here, this is probably their first time in school with African Americans, and they stick to themselves."

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