As the largest provider of public higher education for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the State System is unequivocally focused on creating and maintaining higher education that supports positive outcomes for all students, regardless of their starting point in life.
This focus is embedded in the ongoing System Redesign that began in 2016 and identified three priority areas: 1) Ensuring student success; 2) Leveraging university strengths; and 3) Transforming governance and leadership structures. Our success depends on a System-wide commitment to action toward inclusive excellence built on a foundation of diversity and equity. Furthermore, this is necessary to prepare our students for the opportunities and challenges inherent in a competitive, multicultural, global, and knowledge-based economy.
I enthusiastically joined the State System in August 2020 as Vice Chancellor and Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer. My immediate weeks were dedicated to meeting with campus presidents and their staffs to learn about how diversity, equity and inclusion “lives” on their respective campuses and ways in which my office could collaborate to co-create a comprehensive and coordinated approach to this critical area of the State System’s policy and practice. As I conclude my meetings with campus leaders, students, faculty, and staff, I am encouraged by the abundance of diversity, equity, and inclusion-minded programs underway designed to foster academic environments where everyone can thrive. From what I’ve learned so far, the State System and its universities are standing on solid ground and I am confident in our ability to become a model system for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Such an achievement will require intentionality, and to have measurable impact will require hard work from everyone in the State System community. Furthermore, it will require us to engage in uncomfortable conversations some times and take strategic bold actions in other times.
Race and racism are persistent examples of uncomfortable conversations that compel us to be strategic and act boldly. To this point, the State System and its universities must continue to engage with students and one another as administrators, faculty, and staff in this area as research and scholarship in this area continues to expand and demand our attention. The George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other similar killings correlate with a resurgence and demand for books and other tools that examine race and racism in America. How to Be an Anti-Racist (Ibram X. Kendi, 2019), The 1619 Project (Nikole Hannah-Jones, 2019), White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Race (Robin DiAngelo, 2018), So You Want to Talk About Race (Ijeoma Oluo, 2018), Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Ibram X. Kendi, 2016), and On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (Sarah Ahmed, 2014), and White Logic, White Methods: Racism and Methodology (Tukufu Zuberi and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, 2008) are a few examples. Consider finally the University of Southern California Rosier School of Education, Center for Urban Education’s recent release of its widely respected Racial Equity Tools, “…to change the minds, hearts, and practices of faculty, staff, and leaders – all of whose collaboration is essential to achieve racial equity in higher education” (www.cue-tools.usc.edu). There is an unprecedented sense of urgency to act to mitigate the negative impact of racism on student outcomes, particularly those that are structural and systemic in nature.
Nelson Mandela is appropriately and frequently quoted for saying, “education is the most powerful weapon one can use to change the world.” The world needs change. The country needs change. The State System and its universities need change. The public is demanding change and we are committed to using the State System and its universities as a “weapon” and instrument for change that values differences with a laser focus on student success. The Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion will work relentlessly to elevate diversity, equity, and inclusion in collaboration with the State System’s 14 campuses. Together we will continue to raise awareness about the vital role of diversity, equity, and inclusion for positive student outcomes, increase operational efficiencies, and leverage university strengths and resources – the benefits of being a System.
As we collaborate to establish a culture that embraces diversity, equity, and inclusion, it is important to remember that diversity, equity, and inclusion cannot be decoupled. Diversity generally refers to differences among individuals such as race, ethnicity, religion, education, and socioeconomic status. Equity refers to notion of fair treatment regardless of one’s starting point in life. Inclusion refers to actions that foster feelings of being welcomed, respected, and value. Diverse perspectives yield inclusion in power and voice, which results in policy and practice decisions that promote equity. Diversity asks, which students, faculty, and staff are at the table? Equity asks, what are the barriers to students, faculty, and staff getting to the table and staying there? Inclusion asks, do all students, faculty, and staff at the table feel they belong there? It’s that simple, but nonetheless accurate.
I am confident in State System and its universities’ strong position to elevate and expand its diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts as a collective. While the goal is a comprehensive and coordinated system of diversity, equity, and inclusion, we recognize that one size will not fit all given the diversity of universities. Despite the challenges, the moral, economic, and societal imperatives cannot be ignored – the stakes are too high. The State System and its universities can attract and retain diverse students, faculty, and staff. The State System and its universities can develop policies, systems, and practices that eliminate biases and barriers, and promote equitable leadership practices. The State System and its universities can be a model of higher education through equity-minded policies and practices, and a culture where everyone feels they belong.
I look forward to the work ahead. Together.
In service and with gratitude,
Dr. Denise Pearson
Vice Chancellor and Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer