On being black at Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Race and IUP: an opinion

Septima Simpkins at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex, Indiana University of Pennsylvania commencement ceremony, Dec. 16, 2017.

By Septima Simpkins

INDIANA — Growing up in multicultural neighborhoods of Queens and Brooklyn, I never paid much attention to racism. That was a gift and a curse. I often was oblivious.

Even when I moved to Tobyhanna, Pa., in 2009, I had yet to understand what it felt like to be discriminated against. That first feeling occurred while I was at college.

I arrived at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 2014. I was swept away. It was like something out of a story book.

But the beautiful façade soon faded under an uglier appearance.

I began to feel the weight of my race as I became active on campus. I attended diversity events and NAACP meetings, only to find that these organizations were underfunded and undermined by school officials.

I began to feel the racial disparity and prejudices personally. For the first time in my life it sunk in that I was the only black person in my classes. Hearing about acts of racism on campus made my stomach turn. To think that peers harbored hatred toward people because of the color of their skin was eye-opening.

And the administration played a role in spurring these divisions, as I witnessed.


 

IN SPRING 2016, I started working at the former African-American Cultural Center (AACC). The center had opened in September 2008 to foster a multicultural environment and to preserve African-American culture.

Then, in August 2016, IUP President Michael A. Driscoll consolidated the center and several other offices into a larger bureaucracy with a longer name – the Center for Multicultural Student Leadership and Engagement – MCSLE, or “muscle,” for short.

The center’s formal name is ironic. A large majority of the people who work in the multicultural center are white.

Melvin A. Jenkins, chairman of the IUP Department of Developmental Studies. Photo from the IUP website.

Professor Melvin A. Jenkins, current chairman of the Department of Developmental Studies, worked in the AACC as a graduate assistant in 1991-92. He said the consolidation of various offices providing services for black students was a good idea, but the university could do better.

“It was an inevitable thing,” Jenkins said in a Nov. 13 interview in his Pratt Hall office. “The idea of separate groups would not work any longer.”

But the lack of diversity among multicultural center staff is a problem, Jenkins added.

“It’s best to have a multicultural center, as long as there’s representation of the African-American students,” Jenkins said. “The university could do better to get staff of color.”

Rhonda H. Luckey, IUP vice president for student affairs, did not respond to a Nov. 8 email requesting an interview.  Instead, Fryling, the university spokeswoman, responded by arranging a Nov. 14 meeting in her Sutton Hall office with Theodore G. Turner, director of the IUP Center for Multicultural Student Leadership and Engagement, and with Kathleen R. “Kate” Linder, associate vice president for student affairs for university and community engagement.

Fryling monitored the meeting.

 “I am a white woman,” Fryling said, as if her whiteness were an excuse for not understanding ethnic-group struggles.

Theodore G. Turner, director of the IUP Center for Multicultural Student Leadership and Engagement, at the Hadley Union Building, Dec. 1, 2017. Photo by Septima Simpkins.

She directed questions about black people or multiculturalism to Turner. When asked her opinion on such issues, she gestured to Turner, as though he was the designated spokesman for the black community.

Turner said the consolidation of offices allowed unified administrative messaging.

“We have the opportunity to centralize information,” said Turner.

On staff diversity:

“My goal is to diversify the office,” Turner said.

Linder said the consolidation of offices was in response to survey data gathered during a recent re-accreditation of the university, which included surveys about campus services.

“One of the many services was the AACC,” Linder said. “Many students said they don’t use the office.”

 

Justin G. Cobb, 22, senior communications media and religion major at IUP. Photo by Justin G. Cobb.

STUDENT JUSTIN G. COBB, 22, a communications media senior, did use the African American Cultural Center. He started there as a student worker in the spring 2015. He stopped working for the office shortly after the center’s consolidation with the three other offices.

“The center was what brought the community together, and now it has been incapacitated,” Cobb said in a Dec. 13 email.  “Right at a time when IUP’s student body needs it. I see that the center has been but all disbanded and silenced.”

Professor Jenkins said the consolidation is the best that campus administrators can manage. But he expressed reservations.

“I feel they are doing the best they can with the following limitations,” Jenkins said in his Nov. 13 Pratt Hall interview. “One, there are no people of color in administrative positions; two, there is no budget for this kind of work; three, the current structure and climate won’t allow for anything radical to occur, and, four, there is no serious thought how to proceed.”

 

IUP ADMINISTRATORS should be ashamed that an office to foster multiculturalism is not multicultural. And what will MCSLE do that differs from what the African American Cultural Center was already doing for students?

I have concluded that the only difference is a bigger bureaucracy in a renovated Elkin Hall.

The ribbon-cutting is scheduled for Jan. 26. It remains to be seen whether the new facility will be multicultural in name only.

Septima D. Simpkins, of Brooklyn, graduated this month from Indiana University of Pennsylvania with degrees in journalism and public relations and in communications media. She worked for the former IUP African-American Cultural Center.

 

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