I am truly honored to speak here tonight.
In the past, I have spoken from personal experience, as a person who, as a teenager, grew up in the time of Martin Luther King Jr. I had the great honor to have Coretta Scott King teach my Sunday school class; to worship at Ebenezer Baptist Church, to see the power of massive marches against injustice, and to be in King’s funeral procession in Atlanta. This honor does not stem from being there, but rather from being witness to and inspired by profound greatness.
Dr. King was truly inspirational — and so many of his powerful words are immortalized. Three quotes in particular resonate with me.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”
More than five decades after speaking these words, Dr. King is still the standard bearer of our human morality in this nation. But the profound greatness of this man is not the staying power of his words, or how we still marvel at his eloquence and commitment, but that he spoke and acted in the face of great conflict, extraordinary ignorance, and unbelievably dangerous hatred, all bottled into the toxicity of segregation. And, he inspired so many to walk with him, with history-changing effect.
And that is what I want to talk about.
We celebrate the history-changing effect of Dr. King, but sadly I believe that the vocalization of ignorance, the signs of dangerous hatred, and the potential for conflict have returned to a level that we have not seen in many decades.
We feel it everywhere, even on campuses that work to change the world through education and transformative experiences. My belief is that you and I have seen it building for multiple years, but somehow today it seems deafening in its volume.
In context of this rising tension, it is perhaps not surprising that a group of our students came to me last year and asked that we send a stronger message of inclusion from the very first day of classes. That meeting was actually the birth of “All In.” We wanted to accomplish three things.
First, create a message that we could rally around — one we built on Wally Triplett and the refusal of Penn State football to acquiesce to the demand from southern schools to only bring white players — our response was “we play all or we play none — we are Penn State.” We play all or we play none — that is a message that resonates throughout Penn State’s history.
Second, try to rewire our thinking — to recognize that every person you see at Penn State, regardless of what you think you see, has earned the right to be here through brains and hard work. When you see someone, your first reaction should be — this person must be interesting and worth knowing or they wouldn’t be here at Penn State.
And three, perhaps more than anything, we wanted specific ideas on how we could move from a focus on diversity to one of inclusion. We all know that the difference between our reality and our aspirations requires action.
I am sure you have heard Verna Myers description that Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.
If we invite a disabled person to Pegula Ice Rink, but allow donors to take the closest parking places, we haven’t asked them to dance.
If we welcome Jewish and Muslim students to Penn State, but don’t provide food that satisfies the needs of their religion, we haven’t asked these students to dance.
If our recruiting process has bias, we haven’t even issued an invitation much less asked anyone to dance.
And if we do not make the effort required for retention and success, we can hardly claim to have asked these faculty and staff to dance.
Today, Pegula has a different parking plan, we have a new food service that allows students to practice their faith, we have recruited our first Senior Director of Talent, Diversity and Inclusion to focus on recruitment and retention, and we have opened a new matching funds program for postdoctoral fellows to attract young PhDs from underrepresented groups to Penn State. These are just a few examples of action resulting from specific proposals offered as a part of All In. There are many more.
I want to be proud of the successes so far, but truthfully I cannot be. Why, because there is a very great difference between where this institution wants to be in terms of diversity and inclusion and reality. Why, because we are incapable of expelling hatred, easing the tension of a nation, or ensuring that the person sitting next to us is not posting racist posters in the middle of the night. We are incapable of ensuring that everyone is All In. In fact, sadly, we will never have everyone All In.
And importantly, despite our intent, people tell me All In is a program focused on our image, not on the reality we strive for. Perhaps that is a failure on my part to communicate or a failure to entrain new students in our ever-changing population. After all the successful ideas are most likely to come from within. Perhaps it is an issue of whether we can really trust any administration not to have shallow motives? Do you know the African proverb that Maya Angelou used to quote — “be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.”
Well, I don’t want to be the naked person that offers anyone a shirt. I don’t want to run away from our reality. We need to be the place where we play all or we play none; we need to be the place where your first reaction to someone who is different than you is to say they must be of value because I know they earned the right to be here. We need to be the place where tangible ideas can be put into action. All In, or whatever words are used, is a request for specific actionable ideas. We need it to be successful, and it won’t without our collective efforts and it won’t if we don’t believe we can make progress.
I can say it plainly — if we can’t make progress in this community, for which so many abhor injustice, how can we hope to be successful nationally acting in the face of growing conflict, great ignorance, and increasingly dangerous hatred in society at large. We cannot afford to fail.
In closing, I like Dr. King’s words “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” I also like Theodore Richards’ interpretation of those words. We find salvation not in adjusting to our society but in using our maladjustment as a creative, not a destructive, force to transform it.
We cannot celebrate a legacy if we do not have the will to live it.
Thank you for listening.