An open letter to the Penn State Community

To the Penn State Community:

In recent weeks and particularly in the past few days, it has become clear that some Penn State students celebrated Halloween in costumes and in a manner that offended others and was contrary to many of the most important values our University seeks to advance among its constituents and in the world. These disturbing behaviors involved expressive rights protected under various federal and state laws — rights which we strongly support, and which we honor by not vainly pursuing unlawful disciplinary action against the students involved. But we also cannot refrain from expressing our own feelings of deep disappointment and dismay.

How any constituent groups or individuals in the University could behave with such insensitivity or unawareness is a question we must both ask and answer. Our University is a place of learning and discovery, and there certainly are lessons to be relearned, or even discovered for the first time, from these incidents.

The simplest of those lessons is that costumes that include blackface, or that parody or imitate a person or groups of people, are always offensive to someone. They convey either a lack of awareness about the human condition and human sensitivities or, worse yet, disdain for the thoughts, feelings, histories and experiences of others. They suggest a failure to empathize or even a failure to think. They make all of us small.

Equally concerning is the psychological injury this does to individuals and damage such acts do to our sense of community. By emphasizing the superficial or stereotyped differences among us, these actions tend to stifle the sharing, collaboration, and common aspirations we require. Neither a university, nor a nation, nor civilization itself may long succeed if individuals or groups are encouraged to believe that they are neither welcomed nor appreciated.

We believe deeply in the power of reflection and learning. We believe that individuals can change by learning, and that a university community, such as ours, exists to change and improve both individuals and the world. It is that belief that calls upon all Penn Staters, wherever they may be, to reflect for a moment on the value of diversity in the University and the broader communities we inhabit. We must both celebrate our differences and embrace our common humanity. If we can do so, on our campuses and beyond, we will be better, our university will be better, and the world will be better.

How could we not?

Rodney A. Erickson, President
Paula R. Ammerman, Director, Office of the Board of Trustees
Susan M. Basso, Associate Vice President for Human Resources
Blannie E. Bowen, Vice Provost for Academic Affairs
Michael J. DiRaimo, Special Assistant to the President for Governmental Affairs
Henry C. Foley, Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School
Yvonne M. Gaudelius, Assistant Vice President and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education
David J. Gray, Senior Vice President for Finance and Business/Treasurer
Cynthia B. Hall, Acting Chief Marketing and Communications Officer; Associate Vice President for University Relations
Madlyn L. Hanes, Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses
W. Terrell Jones, Vice President for Educational Equity
David M. Joyner, Acting Director of Intercollegiate Athletics
Rodney P. Kirsch, Senior Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations
Robert N. Pangborn, Interim Executive Vice President and Provost
Harold L. Paz, Chief Executive Officer, Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center; Senior Vice President for Health Affairs, Penn State University; and Dean, Penn State College of Medicine
Thomas G. Poole, Vice President for Administration
Damon Sims, Vice President for Student Affairs
Craig D. Weidemann, Vice President for Outreach

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