By DONOVAN HARRELL
University of Pittsburgh leadership and diversity, equity and inclusion experts gathered for the University Senate’s spring plenary and highlighted the University’s work toward becoming an anti-racist institution and how it will continue efforts to make Pitt more inclusive.
“There’s really nothing more important to the future of this institution than making sure that we all belong here, that we are welcomed here and that we all have an equal and equitable chance to learn to grow and to succeed,” Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said in his opening remarks.
This year’s theme for the plenary, which took place on April 7, was Anti-racism and Equity. It featured three panels and two Q&A sessions. A separate panel discussion, held on April 8, discussed the documentary “Picture a Scientist.”
The two candidates vying to be Senate council president, Senate Council Vice President David Salcido and former Vice President Robin Kear, moderated each of the three initial panel discussions.
The plenary was broken up into three parts. The first one discussed ideas to create an equitable institution and the second one reflected on how Pitt’s one credit anti-racism course came together. The final panel featured reports from the standing University Senate committees detailing how they would each address issues of anti-racism, equity and inclusion within the scope of their committee’s work.
This plenary comes as the University intensifies its efforts at becoming a more equitable, anti-racist institution, inspired by the civil unrest that erupted over the last summer.
Clyde Wilson Pickett, vice chancellor of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, said in the first panel discussion that the Pitt community needs to determine a collective understanding of what equity is to help prioritize the University’s efforts.
“We need to understand that we can’t prioritize a conversation about institutional equity without understanding that we’re 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 sense of belonging,” Pickett said.
Destiny Mann, vice president of the Black Action Society student organization, agreed with Pickett, emphasizing the importance of focusing on retention to help build a sense of belonging.
John Wallace, vice provost for Faculty Diversity and Development, said improving diversity at institutions like Pitt could help address larger societal issues, especially in Pittsburgh, where Black people disproportionally struggle with issues of employment, education and income.
Improving faculty diversity especially could bring more Black students to Pitt, who then may work on addressing issues affecting Black communities.
“We, of course, know that if we increase the number of Black faculty, that has huge implications for increasing our ability to recruit and graduate undergraduate (students),” Wallace said. “Black undergraduate folks will be more likely to graduate, more likely graduate on time, more likely to go to graduate school, and so forth.”
Development of Pitt’s anti-racism course
Following a Q&A session after the first panel discussion, Yolanda Covington-Ward, the chair of the Department of Africana Studies, and Gabby Yearwood, the director of undergraduate studies for the Department of Anthropology, explained how Pitt’s one credit anti-Black racism course for first-year students was created in time for the fall 2020 semester.
The course materials, which have since been made available to the public, came together as a result of a multidisciplinary committee of faculty and collaboration Pitt students and alumni, Covington-Ward said.
Yearwood echoed Covington-Ward’s sentiments.
“I think having people from so many different disciplines brought in so many great ideas and so many perspectives to understanding blackness in one of the most holistic ways that I’ve been a part of,” Yearwood said.
He added that putting the course together required precision and speed, which were difficult to balance. It also was challenging to distill so many multifaceted ideas into a one-credit course.
“Most of the faculty and instructors who spoke during each of these conversations and lectures had reduced an entire course down to 15 to 20 minutes,” Yearwood said. “And for faculty, I think you can all understand how incredibly difficult that might be, and potentially frustrating.”
Covington-Ward later said there was much more content that didn’t make it into the course. However, it helped to remember that the course was meant to introduce students to the many concepts, opening up the later possibility for expansion.
Covington-Ward said the course will continue to evolve in the future. For example, one of the course modules that focused on artistic expressions in Black communities will now be led by Mark Clayton Southers, a Pittsburgh-based playwright.
“I think those kinds of changes and shifts are definitely a part of how the course can be revised and will be revised in the future,” Covington-Ward said.
Standing committee reports
Representatives of the University Senate committees for Educational Policies; Student Admissions, Aid and Affairs (SAAA); and Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Advocacy (EIADAC) outlined each of their committee’s approaches to addressing the Senate Directive to the Standing Committees on Systemic Racism, Inequity and Justice.
John Stoner, a co-chair of the Educational Policies Committee, said the committee has taken several actions in the past year that address the directive. The committee is in the process of updating its mission statement to better reflect its commitment to issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, and examining ways to address systemic issues at the University.
The committee also encouraged faculty to be more sensitive to student religious beliefs. The committee created a syllabus statement that faculty can use to express this.
Bonnie Falcione, a co-chair of the committee, said the committee is continuing to address faculty concerns about student evaluations of teaching, or OMETS.
This longstanding issue has prompted several responses from Pitt faculty and leadership on concerns that the evaluations are biased against women and people of color. Provost Ann Cudd has encouraged department leaders to use a more holistic process when evaluating faculty.
Allyn Bove and Zuzana Swigonova, the co-chairs for EIADAC, said committee members will focus on several issues. Members also will look into concerns around bias in OMET scores.
Bove added that the committee has a standing group that focuses on issues related to Pitt’s LGBTQIA community, including inclusion and retention efforts.
Marylou Graham and Sybil Streeter, the co-chairs for SAAA, said the committee has been working to get an understanding of several areas in the University that need improvements, including student diversity, financial aid, and undergraduate retention.
Streeter and Graham said the committee has “a very long wish list” for things it would like to address at the University.
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-383-9905.
Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.