It Takes A Village to Challenge Penn State

Against the Current, No. 94, September/October 2001

Cedrick May

THE STUDENT BODY of Penn State University, often chastised for its lack of interest in substantive social and political issues, came into its own politically on Tuesday, April 24, 2001. Members of the students’ Black Caucus assumed control of a university-organized unity march against hate, and forced administration officials to sit at a table and make structural changes to the way the university handles diversity issues and racism on campus.

While there were, of course, critics strongly opposed to the way students conducted their own march and the resulting nine-day sit-in protest, the event was a triumph of serious grassroots activism, and a triumph for all students at Penn State.

Twenty minutes before the scheduled march, officers of the Black Caucus and other concerned students rallied on the top of the stairway at Old Main, the university’s administration building, where the official march was to begin.

There Caucus members spoke to the crowd asking for support in their effort to have the university administration sit down and talk about substantive structural changes to university policy and practice regarding issues of racist violence and diversity in education.

Overwhelmingly, the students and many of the faculty and community validated the requests of the Black Caucus members, and began chanting for the president of the university and administration to address the Black Caucus, and to explain why there has been little to no real action ensuring safety and the expansion of diversity and multiethnic/gender education.

As members of the Black Caucus told the crowd, they and other groups had been negotiating with university administration in good faith since 1988 over means to achieve safety and educational goals that would move the university in line with federal guidelines for diversity, educational equity and safety, all of which are linked.

When administrative officials did appear, they addressed the crowd with prepared speeches that did not address these concerns. Rejecting the business-as-usual approach, the crowd continued to chant its demands that something be said and done about diversity issues and the death threats that had recently been sent to many Black students, including members of the Black Caucus.

Rather than the stroll through town (amounting to not much more than a public relations display), the assembled student body required their administration actually do something about the race and diversity problems that had been plaguing the university for decades. It finally became apparent to the administration that there would be no march that day.

That day the students at Penn State did something more significant than a cliché-ridden march — which would have been a weak mockery of activism — and turned the event into a rally of concerned students with a voice that would not be silenced until two decades of negotiations became substantive changes.

Longstanding Grievances

The conditions that prompted the student body to action began with learning the details of death threats directed at Black students, and a long and arduous history of university administration failures to recognize the needs of its minority students.

As well, students began to glean the importance of critical changes for diversity education and safety that would benefit all students.

In the early 1980s Pennsylvania was found to be in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Penn State implemented several plans between 1983 and 2000 that were supposed to foster an inclusive and diverse environment. But these plans, including the “Pennsylvania’s 1983-1988 Desegregation Plan” and the more recent “Framework to Foster Diversity 1998-2003” failed, in large part, due to a lack of specific mechanisms for oversight.

In fact, as recently as the 1999-2000 academic year, the university downsized the African and African American Studies Department, the Women’s Studies program and Industrial Relations, collapsing them into a single department and forcing them to draw from the same pool of funds and other resources.

Along with this incredibly regressive structural realignment of departments and programs, a general misunderstanding between students and faculty as to how to relate to one another in a professional, collegial manner has also significantly undermined the educational goals of students of color and contributed to an environment of tension and misunderstanding at Penn State.

Further, there has been a long history of violent death threats made via email and regular mail to students of color. By the Spring of 2001, these threats had reached such a magnitude that not only were dozens of Black students receiving threats, but also parents and even an Anglo-American journalist at State College, PA’s newspaper, The Centre Daily Times, and who was apparently judged sympathetic to issues particular to Black students.

One particular death threat was very specific, even going so far as to document the writer’s knowledge of the named victim’s daily routines and schedules and vowing to do violence against her.

On April 24th, 2001, near the end of the Spring semester and before finals, officers of the Penn State students’ Black Caucus arranged to meet with President Graham Spanier to discuss these issues. When time for the meeting arrived, members of the Black Caucus were at the appointed meeting place, but Spanier, without even notifying these concerned students, decided to attend a faculty senate meeting scheduled at the same time.

Such transparent disregard signaled to Black Caucus members, many of whom had received death threats themselves, that administration officials were not serious about their stated philosophies concerning diversity and the safety of minority students.

Feeling jilted by the administration, members of the Black Caucus made a bold move. Realizing that in less than an hour a large portion of the student body and State College community were gathering for the so-called unity march at the entrance of the administration building, Caucus members decided to address their concerns directly to the growing crowd.

As a multitude of individuals and representatives of campus organizations assembled for the march, Caucus members mounted the steps of the administration building and told the crowd about their failed attempts at communicating with the administration. The Black Caucus asked that they not march, but rather stand and demand that the administration sit down with students and hammer out specific policies and procedures for enhancing diversity.

The Occupation

Students and community members rallied outside Old Main for over two hours while the administration considered what to do. As a frigid night descended, the crowd resolved to stay the night outside the building and wait for a response.

Administration officials announced that they would have a discussion with the Black Caucus at the Paul Robeson Student Union Building. Several hundred students marched in an orderly fashion to the boardroom where the talks were to take place.

The negotiations lasted almost four hours, while the student body, faculty members, and other members of the community, crowding into the first two floors of the student union building, chanted, sang and prayed in support of the students negotiating with administration. At the end of the evening’s talks, with nothing settled, university officials left without speaking to the student body.

Spokesperson for the student negotiators, Assata Richards, informed the crowd that no deals had been brokered, but that they planned to continue occupying the boardroom until university officials returned to the table to talk about policy changes.

Hundreds of supporters, representing a diverse assembly, who had followed the Black Caucus and other student leaders thus far, pledged to continue occupying the building until progress had been made. Many Black Caucus members also went on a hunger strike.

Indeed, for over a week, students made the student union their home, peacefully refusing to leave until changes were made in policies relating to safety and diversity on campus. Various student groups, the university student government, alumni, many senior faculty and local businesses joined the rally, sent letters, food and various other forms of support for the students.

This support, along with the inspiring oratory of Assata Richards, contributed to a high morale among the diverse group of students and community protesters. From the beginning the rally was peaceful, positive and well organized. The students even renamed the building “The Village,” representing the diverse, collegial, community nature of their endeavor.

The student negotiators were asking for a number of specific reforms that would bring the university in line with federal guidelines for diversity and educational equity, and put the school on a competitive footing with other Big Ten universities.

These demands included the promise of an autonomous African and African American Studies Department (AAAS), reversing the decision to downsize the already established department to a single program to be joined with Women’s Studies and Industrial Relations; increasing the number of tenured AAAS faculty and allowing them dual appointments so AAAS instructors should also be able to teach other courses; establishing of a research program that would address the concerns of the minority population in the commonwealth; setting up mandatory courses in diversity for students and faculty training in diversity and race issues; putting in place a system of accountability that would ensure the quality of life and accountability for all students; and establishing college specific Diversity Strategic plans.

Self-Disciplined Diversity

This was the first time that I had ever seen such an outpouring of support for any cause here at Penn State. The university has been having problems with riotous behavior during certain holiday or sports occasions, so large assemblies have tended to be looked on with suspicion. But in the diversity rally that spontaneously burst forth, groups that most people would think of as insular or antagonistic peacefully assembled, sang, prayed, ate and even slumbered alongside one another.

In less than forty-eight hours, the majority of the building had been redecorated and rearranged by students to accommodate the hundreds of new occupants and to indicate their support to the movement. Hundreds of banners, flags, flyers, original artwork, poetry and songs representing various groups decorated the walls.

Flags and symbols for Palestine flew peacefully next to those of Israel. Muslim, Christian, gay and lesbian iconography flew from banners while hundreds of students from diverse backgrounds and identities held hands chanting and praying the communal nondenominational prayer every hour throughout the day and night for over a week.

At the top of each hour, one of the spokespersons for the Black Caucus would update the assembly on the status of negotiations and also ask for input and opinion as to the requests and decisions of their negotiators. Student negotiators felt that the final word on negotiations rested with the student body as a whole.

Each communal meeting ended with students loudly chanting the word “Ash,” which is the Swahili word for “we are in agreement.”

In the meantime, students had launched a letter-writing campaign and set up a website to disseminate accurate information on events occurring on campus. A number of the Black Caucus members had gained access to major media outlets such as BET, CNN and various other national and local media interested in the unfolding events.

By the fifth day, local news shows as far away as Dallas, Texas were featuring stories on the rally and negotiations. It became apparent to student leaders that widespread media exposure would be necessary to combat the negative press that some university officials began disseminating.

In a mass email to the entire university, the president of the university claimed that students had turned the originally planned march and the discourse surrounding it “from one of unity to one that was divisive.”

By the second evening, the Penn State web page featured a report that “well-placed sources” had uncovered a plan that students (alluding to the Black Caucus) had drafted a plot for a militant takeover of the administration building the day of the march and that members of administration had felt threatened.

Mortified by this terrible accusation, students involved in the rally sent mass emails and drafted flyers and pamphlets outlining the specific goals of the movement and asserting the spontaneous and peaceful nature of the protest. Student activists Martin Austermuhle and Justin Leto, after an investigation, wrote a detailed article, which they mass emailed, debunking the administration’s allegations.

After that, the students involved in the rally never again overlooked the importance of keeping a constant flow of reliable information to every media outlet available.

Committees began to form by the third day to help take care of the needs of the numerous people participating in the movement. Security, food, public relations, donations, entertainment, tutoring and mentoring, as well as a number of other committees formed and operated, further focusing the effort and occupying almost everyone.

It Takes A Village

After a week of rallying and negotiations, the students and university administration arrived at an acceptable plan. On May 2nd, a revised Plan to Enhance Diversity at Penn State was signed and posted by the university. The plan included expanding the African and African American Studies Department with autonomous space and staff, and establishment of an Africana Studies Research Center.

In addition to dedicating specific funds to the project, the administration also pledged to work with the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus to obtain Commonwealth support for the Center. A scholarship fund is also in the works to fund students with a dual major in AAAS and another major.

Measures to educate incoming students as well as faculty, staff and deans on racial and multicultural issues were also scheduled to begin in the Fall, 2001 academic year. Finally, the Vice Provost for Educational Equity position is to be restructured to be a presence in administrative councils and discussions of budgetary planning, as well as in evaluating colleges and departments for their efforts to follow the Framework to Foster Diversity at Penn State.

The agreement marks a significant step forward in the sense that it outlines specific measures, policies and budgets aimed toward dealing with diversity matters at Penn State University. It went well beyond a general philosophical pledge.

It is important to note that Penn State University has long articulated the position that diversity of curriculum and the student body is an important goal. President Graham Spanier, along with many other officials, often state their dedication to this principle and its implementation.

Yet the philosophical idea of diversity, and the frameworks set forth to foster it, have had little in the way of substantive, concrete policies and measures. Now this university, thanks to student involvement and activism, has the opportunity to enhance the quality of education for everyone, and also enhance Penn State’s reputation as a research institution.

This is a powerful tool for recruiting and will also contribute to graduating more new citizens and educators ready to tackle the problems of society that still exist to diminish democracy. The sit-in and negotiations were a wonderful success, but vigilance must continue.

For instance, one of the Caucus’ measures that did not get implemented was giving the Vice Provost for Educational Equity position the power to withhold two percent of a department’s budget if it did not make satisfactory progress in fostering diversity.

Up to this point in time, the office has operated as little more than a public relations mechanism. It held no real power to ensure the safety of students on or off campus or to make certain that colleges and departments develop or implement diversity plans. The office only had the power to make recommendations that no one was bound to follow.

Now the office has access to more councils and input on budgetary matters, but still no final word when it comes to oversight. Oversight of such matters still resides, therefore, in the hands of the students, faculty, staff, and community.

A June 7th press release from The Village, which “still exists as a grassroots movement and egalitarian organization,” has pledged to “serve alongside other organizations as a watchdog group to make sure Penn State actively commits itself to fulfilling its agreed-upon diversity initiatives.”

In this effort The Village and the Black Caucus have organized a two-day national conference/rally entitled “Justice Now More Than Ever” to be held at Penn State University beginning Saturday, September 15, 2001.

Scheduled speakers and guests include bell hooks, Cornel West, Nikki Giovanni, Sonya Sanchez, and the mother of Matthew Shepard (the gay student murdered in Wyoming –ed.). Speakers will address a number of issues including racism, sexism, class bias and homophobia. Further information can be found at the Village’s website,

Although there has been resistance to change, ultimately the sit-in, negotiations, and upcoming September rally are a testament to the active, progressive intellectuals and citizens that Penn State University is capable of producing.

from ATC 94 (September/October 2001)

1 comment

  1. I was a student at Penn State at the time of the protest. I’m so glad this article is up, as I look back at the event 11 years later. Where can I submit some photos I took of took of the protest?

    Very warmly,
    Class of 2001

Comments are closed.