Date: June 1, 2020
From: Clarence Lang
To: Liberal Arts Faculty, Staff, Graduate Students, and Post Docs
I hope that this message finds you as well as current circumstances allow.
Most of you are aware of the grim chain of occurrences that resulted in an escalating series of protests, civil disturbances, and civilian-police clashes that have spanned the nation’s cities for the last several days. I am grateful to President Barron for his message over the weekend speaking to the death of George Floyd, identifying its connection to systemic discrimination, embracing equity and inclusion as a core endeavor of the University, and recognizing the legitimacy of public demonstrations. I imagine that the rapid events since May 25 – and the larger conditions out of which they cascaded – have tested your endurance, confidence and hope, as they have mine.
Although we are in the throes of an ongoing national emergency punctuated by civil unrest, one of our most difficult tasks is not to allow the emergency to propel how we act. As an historian who has studied similarly tumultuous periods in the past, and as someone who entered academia out of a desire to better comprehend society in order to change it, despair cannot be an option. As the dean of a formidable liberal arts college, moreover, I maintain my faith in our resilience and ability to continue flourishing, however challenging that may be.
The explanations for how we have reached this point run deeper than a single loss of life. Taking the long view, I believe that we have arrived at this moment through decades of neglect of the social provisioning functions of government, the disrepute of a public responsibility to care for and protect members of society, histories of official and extra-legal violence directed at racial “others,” and growing patterns of inequality across multiple social identities and locations. These legacies, among others, are reflected in the disproportionate effects that the COVID-19 crisis is having on communities heavily composed of low-wage service workers, rent-burdened households, people of color, and other vulnerable populations. They are also apparent in the uneven responses to this pandemic among the states in the union; the contradictory approaches by state-level and federal authorities; and the challenges that have plagued U.S. higher education as a public, accessible good, and a reflection of the nation’s democratic principles.
These are dense issues to confront, with each of them posing a heavy lift on its own. Although I have felt dispirited by unfolding events, I remain motivated by all the ways that the liberal arts, perhaps more than ever, is a vehicle for understanding how we have come to this point in our history – assessing the here and now, and “thinking together” (to steal insightful language from our college’s World in Conversation colleagues) about how to move forward. Since institutions of higher education historically, and currently, have been both incubators of inequality and laboratories for visions of equity, I feel most compelled to think about appropriate ways that we can act on the ground that we occupy – proceeding from our spheres of expertise, advancing our core teaching, research and service missions, maintaining our Penn State values (integrity, respect, responsibility, discovery, excellence, and community), and keeping the long view in sight.
Toward that end, I want to note a few pending and emergent areas of activity where we are exhibiting strength and finding traction:
- As part of the burgeoning work of the Colored Conventions Project, and our college’s budding Center for Black Digital Research, our colleagues Shirley Moody-Turner and Gabrielle Foreman have been organizing #COVIDWhileBlackPA, a roundtable discussion that is taking place from 1:00-3:00 pm today. If your schedule allows, please do register for this virtual event at https://bit.ly/covidPAroundtable. This virtual roundtable discussion will bring together civic, cultural, and thought leaders from around the state to discuss the epidemic’s impact on African American political engagement and community building, as well as similarities between the present and past eras of mass mobilization. Given the broad coalition of organizations that will be represented at this event, this roundtable is important public-facing work that speaks to our University’s land grant calling to serve the residents of the Commonwealth, and fosters dense and multiple partnerships beyond University Park.
- Our college’s faculty discussion series on COVID-19, initiated this spring by our colleague John Marsh and primarily directed at newly admitted undergraduates, has been a dynamic forum for raising a number of pertinent questions surrounding social difference and inequalities, public policy, cultural framing, popular opinion, and global justice. The final installment in this series (3:00-4:00 pm on Tuesday) will be Mark Anner’s presentation, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Garment Workers at the Bottom of Supply Chains,” which is based on an impactful report that he recently authored about global retailers denying pay to millions of apparel factory workers in international markets. Indeed, our college’s Research and Graduate Studies Office has been tracking emerging trends of COVID-related research in our college, and our Alumni Relations and Development team has been coordinating another series of faculty research talks pitched to Liberal Arts alumni leaders, friends and philanthropists. In the meantime, I have been working to make these and other ongoing research developments tangible to colleagues in central administration. I am looking forward to initiatives that will more substantively support scholarly research activities in this vein.
- Early in the spring semester, our college contributed support to a scholarly initiative on social movements and education involving faculty in Liberal Arts (e.g., John McCarthy and Rebecca Tarlau) and the College of Education. Aside from my own research tendencies, recent events have made it evident that our college should explore additional feasible ways to “double down” on this commitment.
- Over the course of my first year as dean, I have been in fruitful dialogue with our University’s Office of Educational Equity about collaborations involving such projects as faculty mentoring and professional development, campus climates for students and employees as we approach the 2020 elections, and most importantly, “normalizing” equity and inclusion work so that it does not hinge on perpetual states of emergency. Along similar lines, I want to lend greater organizational clarity and weight to the work of our College’s director of diversity and inclusion, Earl Merritt, whose reporting line I moved directly to me last academic year. As part of his work, he has been part of a project coordinated by our College’s embedded HR team and Staff Advisory Committee, and funded by the University’s Equal Opportunity Planning Committee, to hold sessions to expand cultural competencies among our staff colleagues. This will be especially important, given that they will be working with incoming and continuing students for whom COVID-19, and its effects, have been painfully formative of their young adult lives. Building these competencies can also lead us to equally far-reaching discussions about fairness in the work environment for our staff.
I won’t list other, more tentative dialogues that I have had, as I do not want to give false impressions about how far along our college is in such arenas of work. And, to be clear, I recognize that we have more – and extremely difficult – labor in front of us. As “More Rivers to Cross” (a January report co-authored by one of our colleagues, Darryl Thomas) helped to make palpable, we have to continue closely examining faculty recruitment and retention patterns in our college and University community. For my part, I am interested not only in conversations about who we hire, but also about how we configure our hiring needs and relevant areas of research – which, in turn, affects who we envision as potential recruits in the first place. Further, I am mindful of the public-facing, democratic participatory work that some of our faculty have been doing beyond the campus, and I imagine that others will be drawn into similar initiatives to sustain networks of security and care that have become scarce over time. As a college, we will need to clarify how we make this elective labor not only visible, but also more valuable, as service to Liberal Arts.
These are topics, of course, that await deeper consideration as our college assembles a new five-year strategic plan with input from our academic departments and programs. The overriding point is that we are in a marathon, not a sprint. This means settling in for the long haul, and staying aware of our health, well-being, and capacities, as well as those of others. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed deep-rooted sources of grief, anger, fear, and uncertainty about our social, political and economic landscape, and it is not shocking to see the explosions (both literal and figurative) that have followed in their wake. But I also urge us, as a Liberal Arts community, to trust that we will find our thread through whatever else lies ahead.
I appreciate all that we have managed to accomplish thus far, and I thank you in advance for all that we will accomplish in the next phase to come