Speaking at Tuesday’s University Faculty Senate meeting, Penn State President Eric Barron explained the “hands up” gesture he used while attending a student protest in front of Old Main on Dec. 3.
Barron has been criticized for the gesture by those who think the president was taking a side in the ongoing national debate about the treatment of blacks by police after two high-profile cases in which grand juries failed to indict police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York.
State Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Tamaqua, demanded an apology — or resignation — from Barron in a statement released over the weekend.
On Tuesday, Melissa McCleery, an undergraduate student government representative to the faculty senate, asked Barron about having posed for a photo with the student protesters.
“People say a picture is worth 1,000 words, and the only problem is that people can write a different 1,000 words for the same picture,” Barron said.
He said he was not taking sides.
“Our focus is quite simple, and that is the vulnerability that our students feel, because they look at highly publicized events that stretch from California to New York to Florida, and in the process of looking at that and statistics they feel vulnerable,” Barron said. “The fascinating thing to me is our students planned a one-day demonstration, and it turned into five. And why did it turn into five?”
Barron pointed to derogatory racial comments made on social media about the continued student protests last week.
“Our students know that the student that said that — or it could be a staff member or faculty member — might be sitting down next to them in their classroom,” Barron said. “Tell me how you don’t feel vulnerable in that situation.”
“I’m not making a political statement. I’m not making a statement about police. I’m making a statement about vulnerability and the degree to which we have to up our game in terms of the climate of this university and our feeling of inclusion,” he said.
Those in attendance applauded his remarks.
Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said in an email Tuesday that the university will take steps to foster a civil atmosphere, especially in light of the social media comments.
“(Barron) is especially concerned about fostering a campus community atmosphere based on civility, respect and inclusion, and also looking at how the students, his administration and others across campus can work together to create a culture of inclusion, where everyone feels safe and welcome,” she said. “Some senior leaders within Penn State have already had lengthy conversations with these students to surface an action plan to address these legitimate student concerns. We can communicate those steps with you as we announce them.”