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Challenge One

Understanding Diversity

A Framework to Foster Diversity at Penn State: 1998–2003


GOAL: Develop and communicate clear and consistent descriptions of Penn State’s diversity objectives and initiatives

The first challenge in our efforts to enhance Penn State’s diversity initiatives is the development and collective acceptance of an inclusive understanding of diversity. Much of the history of diversity initiatives at Penn State, as at other colleges and universities, has been shaped by experiences with legal mandates prohibiting discrimination and policies promoting equal opportunity. As a consequence, the groups that most often come to mind when the term "diversity" is used are racial/ethnic minorities and women. While efforts to address inequities experienced by these groups constitute an important foundation for diversity efforts, they by no means delimit the scope of efforts necessary to integrate traditionally underrepresented groups more fully into the life and fabric of the University.

As an example, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) clearly establishes a mandate that equity of access to academic programs and employment opportunities be provided for individuals with disabilities, including appropriate accommodations to facilitate successful program completion and/or perform job responsibilities. In a similar vein, a number of years ago Penn State’s nondiscrimination statement was amended to include sexual orientation as an additional category for which protection against discrimination is mandated. Veterans and returning adult students constitute important populations that contribute richly to diverse classroom experiences, particularly at locations other than University Park. The latter also constitutes a potential source of significant enrollment increases over time as a result of its rapid growth. In cases where underrepresented groups are not easily identifiable in the nondiscrimination statement and/or are not particularly visible or vocal, there is an even greater tendency to exclude them from dialogues about diversity.

Meaningful diversity initiatives MUST encompass initiatives targeted at BOTH domestic and international groups, and success in one arena does not allow units to forego aggressive action in the other. There is a tendency in some areas to assume that it is possible to trade off success in recruiting international graduate students and faculty against limited success in recruiting domestic students, faculty of color, and women. In fact, one of our deficits is the limited number of international undergraduate students, which restricts the opportunities of our domestic students to develop the type of cross-cultural experiences that will make them attractive to future employers.

Paralleling this problem is the challenge of providing more opportunities for Penn State students to participate in study abroad programs. The international council has set an ambitious goal of having 20 percent of our student population participate in such a program during their undergraduate career. The elevation of the status of the chief officer responsible for international programs to the position of dean constitutes an important step toward a more comprehensive approach to the challenge of "internationalizing" Penn State.

Misunderstandings regarding diversity are not limited to the issue of the relationship between domestically and internationally focused efforts. Information from the recent Faculty Staff Survey reveals gross misunderstandings about the thrust of Penn State’s diversity initiatives. Specifically, the results suggest that many employees believe falsely that persons belonging to the categories listed in the nondiscrimination statement are differentially rewarded simply for their demographic characteristics. Such misunderstandings clearly provide potential fuel for hostility and nonacceptance of individuals from nontraditional backgrounds in the workplace.

In contrast, we seek to create an environment characterized by equal access and respected participation for all groups and individuals irrespective of cultural differences and, more importantly, where the multiplicity of characteristics possessed by persons are not simply tolerated but valued. Our community’s understanding of Penn State’s diversity initiatives emerges from a variety of sources and messages. Some of these understandings are generated through informal dialogue among students, faculty, staff, and administrators and information in public media. Such dialogue takes place in classrooms, offices, residence halls, and in out-of-class educational programs. While the content of such informal interactions and information sources will vary widely, it is important that Penn State make every effort to disseminate accurate information through formal channels that will hopefully permeate informal discussions. The dissemination of accurate and consistent messages about diversity must be coordinated and monitored. Currently, "official" messages about the University’s diversity objectives are communicated through a variety of units including Affirmative Action and Diversity Education, Educational Equity, and Human Resources. Several videotapes have been produced in cooperation with WPSX-TV to assist faculty, staff, and students in understanding the University’s diversity objectives. On the other hand, interpretations that vary widely in terms of accuracy and sophistication are also communicated regularly through individuals in a variety of positions including University executives, department heads, supervisors, faculty, and professional staff.

One of the most succinct statements about the University’s diversity objectives is contained in a presentation by Provost John Brighton to the University Board of Trustees in November 1993. Under the topic "What Do We Mean By Diversity," Provost Brighton provided several descriptors:

  • Reasonable representation from different minority groups
  • Representation from different countries and cultures
  • Reasonable balance of gender
  • Diversity in curriculum content
  • Climate supportive of different minority groups and cultures

This conception of diversity provides a viable foundation for official efforts to describe the University’s diversity objectives and can serve as the basis for continuing exploration of the implications of diversity initiatives for Penn State’s efforts to achieve greater excellence. The understandings reflected in the Provost’s statement are sufficiently broad to allow ample opportunity for dialogue and refinement. To illustrate, the conception requires modification to encompass populations other than "minority groups." There is also room for disagreement regarding what constitutes "reasonable representation" and "reasonable balance." While this general conception can introduce more consistency into discussions about Penn State’s diversity objectives, there is a need for a concise operational definition that is used by all units and stakeholders. The actions that will be undertaken to achieve the stated goal by critical units are indicated in the following table.



GOAL: Develop and communicate clear and consistent descriptions of Penn State’s diversity objectives and initiatives


  • Work toward a concise institutional definition of diversity
  • Convert this section of the Diversity Strategic Plan into a stand-alone document for widespread distribution to the University community


  • Undertake a review of material describing diversity initiatives in unit-specific publications including the new Strategic Plan


  • Coordinate the review of the content and scope of existing diversity training efforts with a specific focus on program content


  • Incorporate detailed information about the University’s diversity initiatives in orientation sessions for new department heads


  • Disseminate and discuss detailed information about the University’s diversity initiatives to new and existing faculty and nonacademic personnel


  • Disseminate Faculty Handbook outlining faculty responsibilities under ADA to all academic units


  • Collaborate with Affirmative Action and Diversity Education in examining the content of diversity courses offered through HRDC
  • Ensure that curriculum recommendations from the Leadership and Management Excellence Design Team appropriately incorporate specific information about Penn State’s diversity initiatives


  • Disseminate information on religious diversity and opportunities for student spiritual development


  • Disseminate specific information to incoming students about the University’s diversity initiatives through new student orientation programs and other appropriate venues