Recent alum wants Pitt to require black studies course


A recent Pitt graduate is leading the charge to make it mandatory for Pitt students to take a black studies course as a graduation requirement.

Sydney Massenberg, who graduated this year with degrees in political science and psychology, created a petition on June 5 calling for this change. As of June 11, the petition has gathered nearly 6,000 signatures.

She also sent a letter to Chancellor Patrick Gallagher, Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner, Provost Ann Cudd and Faculty Senate President Bonneau explaining the importance.

This comes as the country grapples with a series of protests following the death of George Floyd after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for more than 8 minutes. 

Massenberg told members of Faculty Assembly on June 5 that Pitt students could benefit from learning about issues affecting black communities, including police brutality.

During her time as a student, Massenberg took courses that examined black history, racism, discrimination and segregation. Those courses were optional for Pitt undergraduates, she said, and were mainly filled with black and other students of color.

“And while I did decide to take all these classes, thousands of my classmates have graduated without having done so,” Massenberg said. “It's very noticeable when a class is made up primarily of racial minorities, but also the lack of knowledge of some of our white classmates is very obvious when we hear offensive or misinformed or sometimes ignorant comments, and that's both in and out of the classroom. I just think it's really important to acknowledge the very real effects of students just not having historical and cultural competency.”

If Pitt made black studies courses mandatory for graduation, she said, it could help inform students on how to “be a better ally both on campus and once they leave.”

Ideally, she said, first-year Pitt students would take the course since many of them may have had limited exposure to black history or people. These students would benefit greatly from difficult conversations about race and history, she said.

“As the future of this country and of the world we all do hold the responsibility of improving things as we go along,” Massenberg said. “But with regards to racism and specifics, if we don't all know and understand this complicated history, the complicated task of addressing the issue can be very poorly approached.” 

In her research, she found a study at the University of California that revealed that students of color often feel a decreased sense of belonging at predominantly white institutions when compared to white students.

This, in turn, correlated to retention and graduation rates, which were lower for students of color, she said. Another study showed that when white students learned about white privilege, they re-evaluated their own beliefs and behaviors.

Massenberg said many Pitt alumni and students have reached out to her in support of the measure. In particular, students in Pitt’s law and medical schools told her that black studies courses could help them do their jobs better in the future.

These students said the knowledge other students, especially in these fields, would gain from these could make them more “aware of their own biases as they go off to work in a field where discrimination is real and common and can have detrimental effects on other people's well-being.

Bonneau and other members of the Faculty Assembly said they approved of the idea. In the future, the Educational Policies and Equity, Inclusion and Anti-Discrimination Advocacy committees will look into the proposal, Bonneau said.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.


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