Penn State

Eric Barron wants to see diversity bloom at Penn State

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Penn State is blue and white. A lot of white.

But if projections for the future of Pennsylvania and the United States are correct, the complexion of the university is in for a change. That’s an idea that President Eric Barron is embracing.

Diversity is one of the pillars on which Barron is building his plans for Penn State’s future.

He said it is driven by hard numbers.

While birth rates in most counties in Pennsylvania are down, in urban centers like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, where there are more likely to be minority populations than in rural counties like Clearfield and Elk, births to non-white mothers are rising, with Hispanic communities showing the most growth.

By 2030, Pennsylvania will graduate fewer Caucasian students than minorities.

“I believe that educating the citizens of our commonwealth is a moral imperative,” Barron told trustees in March, outlining plans and progress.

He reiterated the importance in an interview with the Centre Daily Times last week.

“Are we being inclusive?” he asked. “Is this a place where people come and feel like they belong here?”

It wasn’t a rhetorical question. He wants to know what he can do to make Penn State more attractive to minority students and faculty.

Some areas are already a success. Asian faculty members are well-ahead of the demographics curve. About 10 percent of instructors at Penn State are Asian, along with 5.5 percent of students. Both numbers are above the projected diversity for 2020.

Look at black and Hispanic numbers, though, and they are smaller. Just 6 percent of the student population identify as black, and 3 percent of the faculty. The current numbers are the same for Hispanics. Within five years, the Pennsylvania populations of those groups are expected to be 12 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

At Commonwealth Campuses, Barron said the numbers are more reflective of the local populations, but at University Park, diversity is lagging. As many students complete a portion of their degrees at the local branches before moving to main campus, some of that diversity might transfer, but Barron said it can’t just be about waiting for that, especially as more students take advantage of opportunities to complete their entire degree in Abington or Behrend.

He is also not satisfied with a top-down modeling of diverse hiring. Instead, he wants everyone to share information.

At the College of Education, there are 11 new tenured faculty members for the next school year. Eight of the contracts have been signed already, and three more offers are pending. If all 11 new professors come on board as planned, there will be six new instructors of minority backgrounds, with four of them black and one Hispanic.

Barron said he wants it to be about accountability and expectations, but what he doesn’t want it to be about is a requirement to hire a certain number of people of one group or another.

“I don’t think about quotas,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the right way to think. I want to know what have we done to make sure the pool is diverse?”

He also believes a faculty that looks more like the demographics of the state is more likely to attract students from all over the state.

“It’s about being inclusive and accessible,” Barron said.

Part of it is also about staying competitive. He called diversity “a business model imperative” when he spoke to trustees.

“If we are not prepared for those changes I don't see how we will have the students who will allow us to have a budget model that will work,” he told them last month.

That plays into another of Barron’s pillars, keeping college as affordable as possible.

Penn State has a large number of students who are the first in their family to attend college. At Commonwealth Campuses, where students are more likely to be from a minority group, 40 percent of them are first-in-family. At University Park, it’s 20 percent.

“Anything you do to affect affordability will help diversity,” Barron said.