Peace - and a promise for tolerance - at Penn State

The university has settled a sit-in over treatment of black students, but the protest has highlighted higher-ed race issues across America

For 10 days, Rachel Hubbard camped out alongside Christopher Johnson in the student union at Penn State University.

The experience ended up transforming them both.

While Rachel, who is white, and Christopher, who is African-American, had never met before, they formed a bond as a result of what came to be called the "Village," a multiethnic and multiracial protest over the treatmentof blacks by the university.

The campus sit-in brought out hundreds of students with their books, sleeping bags, and Pooh Bear slippers. Now, in the wake of a resolution of the dispute, the question is whether the upheaval will help foster a deeper sense of diversity on campus.

University officials have agreed to enforce and enhance earlier pledges to increase tolerance at the predominantly white school in the conservative heart of Pennsylvania.

Yet, in many ways, the 10 days of protest here highlight the challenges that remain for minorities in higher education across the country.

"Students of color have to grapple with the issue of race every day, and there's a very pervasive feeling of betrayal and mistrust and of being deceived," says Chris Navia, a student-activism expert at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor."They expect they're coming to a tolerant place, where color doesn't matter. That's what the admissions pictures tell them, but their every day experiences, day in and day out, belie that."

The protest at Penn State was sparked by a series of racially motivated death threats against black student leaders and athletes. But as it grew, prompting support from the national headquarters of the NAACP and the cameras and klieg lights of CNN, it also provided a window into the gaps in racial awareness of American students today - a generation raised watching "The Cosby Show" and "Family Matters," for whom the great civil rights fights of the 1950s and '60s were already textbook material.

"I knew not everything was resolved as far as race was concerned in this country, but I'd never before been face to face with it like I have here, with the hate letters and e-mail. I didn't know it could be this bad," says Rachel, a civil engineering student with a math book on her lap, her blue-toenailed feet draped across a chair.

For Christopher, who was munching on a muffin as he studied an open book, his extra clothes and sandaled feet propped up on the chair across from him, the ongoing protest became a way to acknowledge the slights and discrimination that have always been part of his life.

"For so long it hasn't been addressed, people just take it for granted, let it go along, including me," says the senior from Pittsburgh who's studying animal bioscience. "I've been called a 'nigger' here, seen professors' attitudes change markedly when a black student speaks. Things that blatant shouldn't be tolerated anymore."

The students' demands

The students were demanding the university administration make good on what's called "the Framework for Diversity," a program developed in response to a 1994 federal desegregation mandate. Among other things, the framework requires that each college take positive steps to increase diversity. If it doesn't, the provost can withhold 2 percent of the school's budget, pending compliance.The students contend the framework has never been properly enforced.

After intense negotiations, the administration agreed to enhance the framework, strengthen the African and African-American studies department, and create a research center. They will also give the vice provost for educational equity oversight authority within the university.But officials insist the school has worked over the years to increase diversity. Currently, there are more minority faculty and students, and higher minority graduation rates than at any time in the university's history, according to Bill Asbury, Penn State's vice president for Student Affairs. But African-Americans still make up only 4 percent of the university's 40,000 students.

No easy solutions

"There are no solutions to the issues these students have raised. There are approaches, and we can improve, but who's to say that five years from now someone else sends [a threat] and this whole thing happens again," says Mr. Asbury. "What this has brought up is the relatively fragile nature of racial relations on this campus, and changing that takes time."

While most students interviewed were sympathetic to the protestors, not everyone was. Late Tuesday night, as several hundred protesters filed out of the student union building for a candlelight vigil, a group of young men playing soccer stopped to watch. People in the crowd urged them to join.They refused and left, not wanting to talk about it.

On Wednesday, Mary Carlson searched out a reporter to be sure that people knew that she thought the protest was "too cute" and unproductive.

"This is finals time, this is supposed to be a place that's quiet that all people can come to to study," she says."I think they've gone overboard. I mean, people have brought stereos, I've even seen a VCR. They're just turning it into a big party."

But Rachel Hubbard says she'll never be the same.

"I never thought [race] was a big thing. People were just people, that's how I was raised," she says."I just really haven't understood what happens before now, but I think now I'll be a lot more open to the sufferings of others, more aware because of this."

And Christopher Johnson says in the future he won't just let slights go.

"A lot of people don't see racism, so they don't think it exists anymore, but it does," he says."It would be wonderful if everyone could be like we are here in the Village; we all get along.We have lots of different cultures as well as races.But I'm a realist.The best I can do is hope for progress and evolution."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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