Connectivity focuses on all things related to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) across Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education. The publication will highlight thought leaders, promising initiatives, and other actions that promote diverse, equitable, and inclusive policies and higher education practices across the Commonwealth and beyond. Connectivity will be informative, inclusive, thought-provoking, and focused.

 January 2021

As I continue this journey as the State System's inaugural vice chancellor and chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer, I am optimistic. We have a long path ahead, but we've already taken many steps to ensure our 14 campuses are diverse, equitable, and inclusive in policy and practice.

I'm reflecting in this moment to six months ago, June 2020, when the chair of the System's Board of Governors, Cindy Shapira, said something related to the death of George Floyd that compelled me to accept this position. I was aware of Chancellor Greenstein's commitment to social justice and DEI from previous work at different organizations over the years, and Cindy's remarks affirmed for me PASSHE's readiness to move the needle on critical student outcomes.  Cindy said that although she and others deeply felt grief and sympathy for Floyd, his family, and the African American community, there was more to do:

“If we don't act transparently and specifically, then our feelings and our words are worthless. And if we don't act…we will never deliver our mission to the people of Pennsylvania. And therefore, our vision is that State System universities offer full accessibility and equity to all, period. So…as we engage more deeply in System Redesign, we need to more clearly state that Redesign will include the goal of eliminating barriers to full equity and eliminating, yes any, vestiges of racism. Said another way, let us dive into our deep pool of love, goodwill, and common adherence to our American values to achieve excellence."

Higher education has always been a solution to some of the country's most difficult struggles, and we are being challenged to rise to the occasion again in response to the current societal unrest. My optimism is anchored by the actions of System leadership, including the Board of Governors, Chancellor Dan Greenstein, and university presidents, as well as Pennsylvania's government officials, with whom partnership is so critical.

We at the system level are joining the intentional and remarkable work already underway at the universities taking concrete steps intended to channel and focus that work where operating at a system level promises to accelerate impact so that we may more quickly eliminate equity gaps that persist in our students' outcomes, and create more diverse and inclusive campus communities. Initial steps are outlined below, but it is important first to recognize that they build on work that has been underway for years at our universities and that is beginning to bear fruit. From these pages in the future you will be able to read about university-based efforts including:

  • IUP's free speech project which deserves national attention in the way it addresses issues of hate and racist speech.
  • Cheyney University's intentional efforts and success in recruiting diverse students for the System's only historically black college and university (HBCU), thereby enhancing the academic and social experience for all students.
  • The efforts at universities like Shippensburg that have resulted in improved retention and graduation rates for under-represented students, and at East Stroudsburg and West Chester significantly diversifying student body and employees, respectively (data from the System's DEI Dashboard).
  • The collective efforts of 14 university chief diversity officers to build systemwide capacity, identify best practices, and bring them to scale that will be showcased at the spring DEI Summit.
  • The reasons behind the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award that was recently given to two system universities from INSIGHT into Diversity.

So, what concretely have we done so far at the system level? Through our deep engagement with constituents – students, faculty, staff, Board members and trustees, legislators – we have identified and implemented critical foundational initiatives.

  • In my role as vice chancellor and chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer, which I started in August 2020, I'm focused on building a coordinated and comprehensive system to advance DEI throughout the State System. I'm also serving as the State System staff member on the newly created Board of Governors' Commission on DEI. My strategy also includes the monthly convening of universities' chief diversity officers to help shape and implement the work, while connecting them with other functional leaders who operate together at the state level to oversee systemwide initiatives. And allow me also to point to establishing a routine consultation structure with key constituency groups – students, faculty, and others – to strengthen DEI decision-making.
  • Published data that outlines our challenges and enables us to track progress addressing them. Research affirms (e.g., authored by EdTrust, IHEP, and others) that transformative change in higher education begins with transparency about the nature and extent of the challenges being addressed, and routine reporting about progress being made to mitigate them. Following the research, we have developed interactive online dashboards. Dashboard data are longitudinal so we can track change over time. They include information about student enrollments, affordability (cost) and educational outcomes (year-to-year persistence, and graduation rates), and are disaggregated by universities, and by race/ethnicity, income, and gender. Data on faculty diversity is also available on the dashboard. You can also examine the composition of our faculty and staff and see change over time. This is what transparent, outcomes-focused accountability looks like.
  • Systemwide diversity training. We can't assume that the cultural competencies required to address the issues that we are facing in this realm will come naturally. They must be taught, and it appears again from the research literature that they can be, provided an organization commits itself deliberately and with intentionality. In that vein, we have taken an initial first step at the System level by acquiring common training materials and requiring their use by students, faculty, and staff.
  • Developed a systemic response to deal with issues of racist and hate speech that arise on campus. Several aspects, including those enabling victims to report incidents, are emphasized, as is mobilizing responses to them through university-based community response teams which are themselves connected at the System level in ways that enable each to learn from the experiences of others.
  • Launched a five-year strategic plan process. A preliminary framework was submitted to the Board of Governors in October 2020. A more detailed version will be available in April.

This is just a start. We are far from done. There are a variety of additional concrete steps we are developing as part of our planning process, all of them in areas that stand to benefit from systemwide as opposed to university-centered actions. I look forward to reporting them from these pages as they materialize. This is hard work, but we are confident in our collective resolve and ability to do what is necessary to make sure every student and employee who chooses a State System university has the support they need.

This is our promise.


NEW STAFF MEMBER: Next month, the Office of DEI will welcome its first Director of DEI, Corinne Gibson. Corinne currently serves as director of multicultural development at Slippery Rock University and brings years of valuable experience to this new role with the System. We are fortunate to have her join us.

WHAT WE'RE READING: The Board and the Office of the Chancellor's executive leadership team engaged in a discussion about the book, So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo. We were grateful to have Gwen Torges and Rachel DeSoto-Jackson, both Indiana University of Pennsylvania faculty members, facilitating these discussions, using their expertise in conducting brave conversations. Earlier this month, John Burnett of California University of Pennsylvania facilitated a discussion around the same book for university chief diversity officers. It was our first fireside book chat.

We are eager to continue our work and value your thoughtful comments on our crucial endeavor to cultivate diverse, equitable, and inclusive environments across the System. Share your thoughts with us.

Yours in service,

Denise Pearson, Ph.D.

Vice Chancellor, DEI