Pennsylvania Panel to Probe Racial Incidents On College CampusesAction prompted by recent incidents at Penn State, University of PennsylvaniaBy Eleanor Lee Yates
HARRISBURG, Pa.A resolution authorizing the Pennsylvania House of Representatives’ Committee on Education to investigate racial incidents on college campuses recently passed unanimously. Rep. James R. Roebuck Jr., the sponsor of the resolution, hopes the legislation will draw attention to what he believes are lingering, fundamental racial problems on college campuses. “I think this (resolution) is a general recognition that there are problems,” he says, adding that the unanimous vote was evidence that the issue cut across different political opinions.“I hope this will force us as legislators to look at ways we can try to come to terms with racism, to look at ways in which colleges and universities fail to address this,” says Roebuck, a Democrat who has served in the state House for more than 15 years. Roebuck says recent problems on the campuses of Pennsylvania State University and the University of Pennsylvania served as a catalyst for the resolution.“But it also goes back to a continuing concern of how the state addresses equal opportunity on college campuses,” he says. On April 3, a Black graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania alleged a racially motivated assault by the owner and employees of a campus copy center. The student, Gregory Seaton, says he was denied service at the copy center and then was beaten by store employees.The university police have classified the incident as a simple assault. The owner of the copy center, Stan Shapiro, recently apologized for providing “poor service” to Seaton but denies the incident was motivated by race.Seaton says he was waiting for service when Shapiro ignored him and waited on a White professor who came in after he did. Seaton admits exchanging harsh words and leaving the copy center for several minutes. But he decided to return because he had to pick up a copy order for work. When Seaton returned, he allegedly asked Shapiro if being White would get him faster service. The verbal exchange became physical before university police arrived. The incident created a flurry of protests from more than two dozen student groups. The groups are demanding that the University of Pennsylvania withdraw its financial support of the copy center, which is not owned by the university, until a thorough investigation is complete.A campus investigator’s report recommended that Seaton and Shapiro seek resolution through private criminal complaints filed with the Philadelphia district attorney’s office.For more than a year, Black students at Penn State have complained of receiving hate e-mail, hearing racial epithets spoken on campus and even experiencing some assaults. State Rep. LeAnna Washington, D-Philadelphia, recently led a delegation of the Legislative Black Caucus to the campus to hear racial concerns. Penn State’s low number of tenured Black faculty and administrators has been an ongoing issue. The percentage of Black students is approximately 4 percent. The caucus met with the university’s president Graham Spanier who said attention would be given to the students’ concerns.
Tip of the icebergRoebuck worries that the situation at Penn State “is only the tip of the iceberg.”The recent problems remind him of the ones he called attention to in the state House in the mid-1980s.“They’re not going away. I look at enrollment numbers and the numbers of minority staff and faculty. There needs to be change,” says Roebuck, who taught history at Drexel University for 14 years and holds a doctorate from the University of Virginia. “I know universities are adept at putting their best images forward. But pronouncements on intent and policy don’t always transfer into reality.”Roebuck emphasized that college years are a critical point for all students to understand the importance of diversity. Empathy and sensitivity during the college years affect students’ attitudes as employees, employers and citizens. Without diversity on college campuses, students may never learn empathy for racial differences, Roebuck says.He believes action on his resolution will take place this summer — the legislative body is currently focused on the state budget. Committee on Education members plan several hearings across the state and will visit college campuses to learn more about racial problems. Roebuck acknowledges that there have been many gains in civil rights but he does not want interest to wane. He added that many students seem to have no sense of civil rights struggles.
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