By DONOVAN HARRELL
Pitt–Bradford President Catherine Koverola was expecting her inaugural year to be challenging, but she didn’t expect to lead the campus through the “dual pandemics” of systemic racism and COVID-19.
“They all say your first freshman year as president can be intense,” Koverola said. “Well, this one was off the charts.”
“It's been a really intense year and I don't think the intensity is going to stop,” Koverola said. “But right now, it's been a beautiful couple of weeks with welcoming students back and they're so glad to be back.”
The pandemic and summer of protests following the death of George Floyd “galvanized” Pitt–Bradford’s commitment to student safety and fostering an inclusive environment, Koverola said.
She said Pitt–Bradford is fortunate that 20 percent of its student body is Black, much higher than the 5 percent on Pitt’s Oakland campus, but it still has a way to go in addressing the racism that Black students, faculty and staff are facing.
When Koverola first assumed her role last year, improving diversity, equity and inclusion was at the top of her list of priorities.
Koverola said the institution had to have some tough conversations after Floyd's death and the ensuing protests.
“Our effort was really to begin to look at ourselves and how were we participating and not standing up against systemic racism,” Koverola said.
She issued a call to action to students, faculty and staff to dismantle systemic racism at Pitt–Bradford. And so far, the campus has “intentionally begun” that process with new initiatives and events.
The campus hosted a vigil to honor Floyd and other Black men and women who were killed by police and established a Social Justice Impact Scholarship that had a preference for Black students.
Pitt-Bradford also plans to elevate the scholarship of Black faculty and is moving toward creating a major in Africana studies. Additionally, the school is examining its curriculum to make sure the elimination of systemic racism is “baked in,” Koverola said.
The student and athletic codes of conduct also have been revised to be consistent with these goals, she said, and the hiring process for faculty and staff is being re-examined.
Pitt–Bradford launched the Hate Has No Home Here campaign in collaboration with the Bradford community earlier in August to help inspire dialogue around issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.
As a part of this program, a banner declaring “Hate Has No Home Here” has been displayed across the city’s Main Street, and roughly 200 signs and posters with similar messaging have appeared in yards across the community.
Leaders throughout Pitt–Bradford and the surrounding community have begun a process of self-examination and reflection, Koverola said, and are looking at policies and procedures that need to be created or dismantled.
This reflection is being viewed through critical race theory and anti-racism lenses on campus, she said, as academic units work to address systems of oppression. Later this semester, the campus will host a speaker series and some on-campus events to address these topics.
Koverola said she wants to move away from only doing trainings and having conversations in favor of concrete action.
“We want people to have a change of heart and understanding and then take action and do things differently so that every single student, faculty and staff know that they belong and that they have a place at Pitt-Bradford where they're valued, they’re respected and are treated with dignity,” Koverola said.
As a part of this effort, Koverola has encouraged her white colleagues to examine their biases through reading “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo.
After reading the book, her colleagues have reflected on interactions they’ve had with Black students and colleagues to help notice behavior that may have been offensive. She encouraged her colleagues to learn from these interactions and change their behavior instead of being paralyzed by guilt.
Koverola said these difficult conversations have been “humbling” and eye-opening.
“I think that many members of Pitt-Bradford are beginning to understand the level of frustration and exhaustion that Black students and faculty have been experiencing and how tired they are of trying to explain it.”
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-383-9905.
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