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Credit: Gillian Diebold

On the heels of a summer of protests against systemic racial inequality and police brutality, universities nationwide are grappling with how to address racism on campus. While students, faculty, and staff are calling on Penn to join other colleges and institute a mandatory class on ethnic studies and anti-racism, the University maintains it offers enough courses and opportunities for learning in this area.

Emory University, the University of Pittsburgh, and California State University — the largest public university system in the United States — have all recently required students to take a class on ethnic studies and anti-racism. Penn administrators, however, said they will not make such a class mandatory, citing the University's extensive optional programming and available courses in various ethnic studies departments. 

While the Penn Reading Project kicked off the University's Year of Civic Engagement, which required first-year and transfer students to read works by James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Benjamin Franklin, and Martin Luther King Jr. during New Student Orientation, Associate Vice Provost for Education and Academic Planning Gary Purpura said additional requirements could potentially interfere with students' freedom in choosing their course load.

"Penn has a number of courses and opportunities for undergraduates across all of the schools to study and learn about the experiences, history, and struggles of different ethnic populations in the United States," Purpura wrote in an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian. "At this time, there is no discussion of a University-wide requirement of ethnic studies across all of the schools." 

Each undergraduate school has its own set of curricular requirements, with some schools mandating more requirements pertaining to ethnic studies than others. While the College of Arts and Sciences has a 'Cultural Diversity in the U.S.' requirement and the Wharton School has a 'Cross-Cultural Perspectives' requirement, the Nursing School and School of Engineering and Applied Science have "relatively prescribed curricula but encourage their students to use their electives to study more broadly, including about ethnic studies," Purpura wrote.

But students from all four undergraduate schools said the administration could still do more. 

"People rarely choose to be in positions — in this case, classes — that make them uncomfortable, so the current freedom to choose courses in whatever department and fulfill requirements isn't enough," Wharton sophomore Andrew DePass said. "Occasional discomfort with oneself is necessary for anti-racist efforts, and mandatory ethnic studies classes could be dedicated safe spaces for learning about oneself and others and leaning into discomfort."

Nursing first-year Deborah Olatunji, who estimated she was one of five Black nurses in the approximately 100-person Class of 2024, said there were very few nursing requirements having to do with race and ethnicity. She said a mandatory University-wide requirement on ethnic studies and anti-racism would be especially valuable for Nursing students.

"Just like how we have to learn the foundations of Chemistry and Biology, we should also learn foundations of social [and] economic barriers that exist," she said. "I think it's kind of absurd for us to understand how people's bodies work and not focus on the skin, because that's also important when you think about how patients are treated and the areas that they live in that affect the quality of their lives."

DePass and Olatunji said readings for a mandatory course on ethnic studies and anti-racism should feature works by Black, Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American authors, to properly tell the histories of marginalized groups that have historically been misrepresented.  

Engineering junior Niko Simpkins said the Engineering School would also benefit from such a requirement, citing the numerous Black students who have experienced racism from Engineering faculty, staff, and students.

"I've seen a big difference in how people are able to succeed in Engineering based off of their race and also the comfortability that other students have around them," he said. "So starting to break down those barriers earlier on with a mandatory class is going to have a tremendous effect for those students."

Credit: Katiera Sordjan

Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Thought and Professor of History Mary Frances Berry giving a 60-second lecture in September 2012.

Mary Frances Berry, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Thought and professor of history, said many of the first-year students with whom she spoke this summer at the Center for Africana Studies Summer Institute had never been taught the country's history of racism and whiteness.

"They don't have any idea how the United States came to have this regime of white supremacy and inequality," she said. "And so what they asked me is, 'Okay well, how did this happen, [and] why did it happen?' Once we understand how it happened and why it happened, then we'll know and think about how we may get rid of it."

Berry said it is unlikely Penn would make the call to implement such a requirement, as the universities with such a mandatory class are not “peer institutions.” If Penn were to do so, however, she said the class should not just be framed as ethnic studies, but rather be called: “History of Inequality and Racist Capitalism,” and should include the history of immigrants in American society — a frequent question students ask her.

For Daina Richie-Troy, the associate director of Makuu: The Black Cultural Center, a mandatory class would also be beneficial for students to learn their own ethnic history, which she said not all students know about.

"It's something to consider moving forward what type of students you want Penn students to be," Richie-Troy said. "I think having an ethnic studies requirement would actually enhance everyone's education."

College senior Carson Eckhard, external chair of the Student Committee of Undergraduate Education, acknowledged the creation of such a requirement would be no small feat, but said with proper framing it could be achieved, and would be a project SCUE would support.

"I would like to see a more decisive shift to anti-racism in the curriculum that doesn't just broadly seek to educate students about types of cultural diversity, but encourages students to examine their own biases, and think more about what they personally can be doing to make America and Penn an anti-racist space," she said. "I don't know if all the classes that are listed under broader requirements right now encourage students to think in that way to the same degree."

Eckhard commended the University for the work it has done thus far in addressing Penn's and the country's racial climate, but said there is a lot more work that needs to be done beyond just this year.

Berry also said Penn's Year of Civic Engagement programming is just a first step.

"We cannot have civic engagement [for] one year and solve all of the problems, so we have to have, embedded in what we do, something that acknowledges the importance of these issues," she said. "And we’d do a benefit for the students, no matter what they're majoring in, if they have one course where they study all of this.”

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