PHILADELPHIA — It was in the days after George Floyd’s murder, and longtime Temple professor Molefi Kete Asante wrote a blistering five-page letter to then-university president Richard M. Englert. He called on the school to do more to support the Africology and African American studies department and combat racism.
“I am totally in rage,” began Asante, who started the nation’s first doctoral program in African American studies at Temple in 1988 and authored 100 books, “but I have been enraged for years working at Temple University where I have devoted the bulk of my career, and I have always found with little exception an absolute silence about racism until now. … We are not doing enough to deal with racism. Let’s model the behavior we talk about in conversations.”
Englert took him up on it. Lengthy planning meetings on Zoom followed. And in November, Temple officially opened the Center for Anti-Racism, one of the suggestions Asante made in his letter.
Just one month prior, a few hours away in central Pennsylvania, Neeli Bendapudi, who became Pennsylvania State University’s president in May, announced the school would renege on a pledge made by her predecessor, Eric J. Barron, to open a $3.5 million Center for Racial Justice.
The contrast has been noted by observers, including in a speech by state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, who, along with state Sen. Sharif Street, also a Philadelphia Democrat, helped to secure $1.3 million in state funding for Temple’s center.
“We’re at a moment right now where there are other universities in our commonwealth that made similar commitments to engage in the work of anti-racism who are … going back on the promises and commitments they made,” Kenyatta said during the opening event for Temple’s center. “Instead what you see here is a university charging forward.”
Bendapudi, Penn State’s first female president and first president of color, has repeatedly asserted that she values diversity and inclusion but that there are better ways for Penn State to make progress. She pledged to work to close the graduation rate gap among students of different backgrounds, improve the hiring and promotion of diverse faculty and staff, offer professional development to staff members of color so they can advance to higher-level jobs, and create a better “sense of belonging.”
More than 400 faculty signed a letter, signaling their displeasure with her decision.
For years, Black faculty at Penn State have been calling on the university to do more to address the lack of hiring and retention of Black professors. After Floyd’s murder, faculty members in the African American studies department wrote a letter to Barron, urging that the school cut ties with local police and disarm campus police, require all students to take a course in anti-Black racism, offer more support to Black students and scholars, and create a task force on local policing and communities of color.
And a majority of Black faculty who responded to a survey said they had experienced racism from students as well as from administrators or supervisors and colleagues, according to a report released by Black faculty members in 2021.
About 3% of faculty at Penn State’s main campus in University Park are Black, the report said. Black students make up about 5% of the population.
Faculty had hoped that a center would have signaled the university’s larger financial commitment to anti-racism and given faculty, who are often marginalized and isolated, a supportive community in which to do their work, said Marinda Harrell-Levy, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State’s Brandywine campus in Media.
Harrell-Levy, one of the authors of the report, said she was disappointed in Bendapudi’s decision, but remains hopeful that Bendapudi will deliver a plan that will help the university combat racism and improve diversity and inclusion.
“It was a blow,” she said of Bendapudi’s walkback, “but hopefully it was a glancing blow.”
Harrell-Levy was on the committee searching for the inaugural director of the center when it was abandoned.
She said she’s happy for Temple and hopes to support its center with her research, while looking to Bendapudi for Penn State’s next step.
“Hopefully, in the coming months she will roll out a different plan that will make sense in light of this larger disappointment,” she said.
Temple isn’t the only university with a center on anti-racism. American University founded its Antiracist Research and Policy Center in 2017. Its founding director was Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to Be an Antiracist” and a National Book Award winner, who got his doctorate in African American studies at Temple in 2010. Kendi now heads Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research, which was started in June 2020. Georgetown University also has a Racial Justice Institute.
Rutgers University started the Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice, which aims “to serve as a kind of university wide and statewide intellectual corridor,” bringing together faculty across disciplines and amplifying their research on racism and social inequity, said its executive director, Michelle Stephens. One project underway, “Black Bodies, Black Health,” made possible through a $725,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is looking at structural racism and its impact on health.
And Arcadia University in Glenside in November 2021 opened the Center for Antiracist Scholarship, Advocacy, and Action, which looks to “(re)shape the thinking and mindset about racism across the globe.” The center includes examples of how racism has been prevalent in marketing and advertising over the last century.
At Temple, the new center, which is in the College of Liberal Arts building on the North Philadelphia campus, is just beginning. Paintings have yet to be hung, and a new sign hasn’t arrived. But work is underway.
On Jan. 31, Kendi will return to Temple for a discussion with Timothy Welbeck, the center’s executive director, on anti-racism. The center also will convene a faculty advisory committee on anti-racism research that will shape the discourse around the issue — the work is expected to span disciplines from law to medicine to media and education. And, the center will partner with the city on a not-yet-announced antiviolence effort, Welbeck said. The goal will be to work on solutions to minimize the impact of racism, such as creating more activities for young people and stemming poverty.
“Much of the crime we see in the city is a direct result of some of the deep poverty we see in the city,” said Welbeck, 40, a Villanova law school graduate and civil rights attorney who has taught at Temple since 2011.
Welbeck said he’ll be looking to broker community partnerships, too, and seeking grants and donations.
“The work of anti-racism is the most important work of our time,” he said.
“So much of the ills in society stem from that history,” he said, referring to slavery, racial segregation, the displacement of Indigenous people, and the marginalization of people.
Welbeck said that in addition to creating the center, the university also is working to diversify its staff and students — Temple said it welcomed its most diverse class in at least two decades this fall — and closing the graduation and retention gaps. Temple in September was the only college in Philadelphia to receive a “Higher Education Excellence in Diversity” award from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine.
“We believe we can tackle these issues and still be a leader around anti-racism,” he said.
Asante, a professor of Africology and African American studies who spoke at the center’s opening, said he was pleased the university had reached a critical milestone.
“I hope we can maintain this direction,” he said.