The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education is putting its money where its mouth is.

During an event Wednesday at Kutztown University, one of the 14 state-owned schools that make up the system, PASSHE and state government officials announced that the system will spend $2.5 million in the upcoming school year to launch diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

The move is in large part the result of student activism.

In August, an article appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer that featured a handful of PASSHE students of color talking about harassment and unfair treatment they experienced at PASSHE schools.

Other students rallied behind those in the article, organizing and calling for systemwide changes.

By October, the End Campus Racism Coalition had formed, a group which would craft a list of student demands the system's new diversity, equity and inclusion effort is based on.

That list goes by the acronym ENOUGH:

  • End racial harassment and speech.
  • Nurture and retain students of color.
  • Organize an incident reporting system.
  • Unveil mandatory diversity training.
  • Generate more mental health resources.
  • Hire more faculty and staff of color.

Officials from PASSHE and the system's schools were on board. In April the PASSHE Board of Governors approved a diversity, equity and inclusion strategy that built off the coalition's work.

But to turn that strategy into a reality, state Sen. Art Haywood said, it would take money.

"Freedom isn't free," said the Democrat who represents parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery counties.

Haywood has played a critical role in the efforts to address racial and social injustice on PASSHE campuses, working with the coalition, PASSHE and his colleagues in Harrisburg. On Wednesday he was pleased to make a big announcement.

"I don't have a check from the general assembly," he joked.

But he did come to Kutztown bearing news of the state's additional financial investment in PASSHE, and PASSHE's decision to spend $2.5 million of that funding for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

The money being dedicated to that purpose is part of $50 million in COVID relief funds that the state has given the system for the 2021-22 fiscal year. The plan is for PASSHE to spend $2.5 million for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives each of the next three years.

Overall, the state has pledged $200 million in COVID relief dollars to the system of the next four years.

Details about how, exactly, the diversity, equity and inclusion funding will be appropriated is expected to be unveiled by PASSHE in October.

"We are engaged in deep conversations about what the next steps look like, and we're linking arms across the state system with university leadership, faculty, staff, and students to achieve these goals," PASSHE Vice Chancellor Dr. Denise Pearson said. "We're collecting data. We're studying it closely. We're putting together the means necessary to carry out our goals."

Haywood said the investment is proof that the entire PASSHE system is dedicated to creating an environment conducive to learning for all students, adding that the job has not yet been completed.

"I recognize that what’s won can be lost, therefore, much work remains to ensure that the changes are made, monitored and reported," he said. "Nevertheless, I am pleased and proud that we helped contribute to this historic victory."

State Sen. Judy Schwank, who sits on the PASSHE Board of Governors, shared a similar sentiment.

"If we truly mean it when we say our mission is to provide a great education at an affordable price, it's paramount that we create an environment that is welcoming to all students," the Ruscombmanor Township Democrat said. "Feedback directly from students revealed the need to do more to address inequities at state system schools.

"Funding made available in the latest budget gives us a chance to build diversity, equity and inclusion programs and ensure all students are treated with respect and put in a position to succeed."

Schwank said that now is the perfect time to kick of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives because PASSHE is in the midst of a transition, including an integration plan that will merge some of the system's schools.

"This is exactly the time we should be talking about diversity, equity and inclusion," she said. "So as we change and transform into a better time this is embedded in what we do."

Kutztown President Dr. Kenneth S. Hawkinson said that the new funding will allow PASSHE schools like Kutztown to "realize our full potential" and create a safe and enriching environment for every student on campus.

Brandon Teel, a 2021 East Stroudsburg University graduate who in October protested the racist environment at his school, took part in Wednesday's event virtually. He said he is pleased with the path PASSHE is currently taking.

"There is still a lot of work that needs to be done, but at the same time, this financial commitment shows us that PASSHE is dedicated to doing the work to make every campus one in which all students feel supported," he said.

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