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Filled with stories of discrimination, ‘Black at’ Philly college pages get mixed results

Villanova’s president made immediate changes, while Penn says little.

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Joining a nationwide trend, Black students and alumni at Villanova have been contributing to an Instagram page set up to share stories of discrimination during their time at the suburban Philadelphia college.

Unlike many of the “Black at” social media accounts that have appeared recently, this one sparked immediate, lasting, institutional change.

The 181st post on @BlackVillanova recounts yet another harrowing story. “My first day in engineering school,” the post reads, “a classmate told me the only reason I was there was because of affirmative action.” The 182nd post document’s the school’s response.

In an email to students, faculty, staff and alumni sent Monday morning, Villanova President Rev. Peter M. Donohue announced the creation of a race and diversity task force, as well as a reorganization of the school’s administration so the diversity office reports directly to him.

He also encouraged all to read the stories highlighted on the Instagram page, nova’s page has garnered more than 8,150 followers since it was launched on June 17.

“They reveal a different side of life at Villanova,” Donohue wrote. “I have read the posts and many of the experiences shared are heartbreaking.”

Encouraged by the renewed vigor surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, organizers at many Philly-area institutions have joined the nationwide call-out of racist cultures on Instagram through the creation of pages titled “Black at [your institution here].” Since the accounts aren’t officially affiliated, they provide a safe, anonymous space to retell racist, microaggressive or otherwise frustrating experiences.

Among Philly area colleges and universities, Billy Penn did not find “Black at” accounts for the CCP or Jefferson. However, students and alum of several schools have linked up to collaborate on social and racial justice initiatives regionwide, according to one organizer.

The official response to these pages has varied.

Some institutions told Billy Penn students should refer to anti-bias reporting systems already in place. Others had instituted changes before the pages were created, in light of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. A few, like Villanova, are taking tangible action in direct response to the “Black at” page.

Real change or a ‘pawn for progress’ at Villanova?

Student body: 75% white; 5% Black; <1% Indigenous; 7% Latinx; 7% Asian

The response to university president Donohue’s outreach was mixed. One provision of enhancing the diversity and inclusion office means that provost Dr. Terry Nance, a Black woman, will be promoted to VP.

“I believe in Dr. Nance,” commented one person in response to the news. “Hopefully good will come from this.”

Directly beneath that, however was a comment reading: “I’m so tired of Dr. Nance being used as a pawn for progress. What will they do when she retires?!”

Even before Donahue’s announcement, various departments across the Villanova system had posted messages of support and solidarity on the Black at Instagram page. There were notes from the graduate theater program and the campus ministry team, among several others.

And when, on June 22, an anonymous screenshot showed a transfer graduate soccer athlete participating in a racist chat, the athletic director responded within a day. That student will no longer be attending Villanova.

Lasallians organize, administration to review policies

Student body: 53% white; 17% Black; 15% Latinx; 5% Asian; 0.1% Indigenous

“A lot of this is a facade because underneath all of it is covert racism.” That’s the message the organizer behind @blackatlasalle wants to send to the university.

La Salle’s “Black at” initiatives have expanded beyond an Instagram account. Started at the end of June, the organizers, who wish to remain anonymous, have already established committees and are actively recruiting Germantown and Belfield neighbors, students, faculty and staff to join their community-wide activism.

The page has caught the attention of the university, the organizer told Billy Penn, but they haven’t received any direct feedback.

Brother Ernest J. Miller, the school’s vice president for mission, diversity and inclusion, said the university is “aware of the account,” and “eager to listen to and engage members of our community.” Throughout this year, he said, the university will examine its policies and culture through a diversity and inclusion lens.

Miller encouraged students to report bias-related incidents — something the Instagram page’s organizer said they’ve tried in the past.

“It’s always radio silence or slap on the wrist, mediocre accountability and complete disregard,” they said.

To Black students at Drexel, ‘not much has changed’

First year students: 49.9% white; 5.2% Black; 0% Indigenous; 6.3% Latinx; 22.3% Asian

The organizer behind @blackatdrexel, a graduate student who asked to remain anonymous, got emotional during a phone interview referencing one submission from a 2008 alum where the post’s author mentioned, among other things, being called a “token Black friend.”

“It just shows that when it comes to the experience of Black students,” the organizer said, “not much has changed.”

The organizer expressed frustration at having not heard from the university or university officials.

“It’s infuriating because you’re basically showing me what I already thought about you,” they told Billy Penn. “A lot of these Black at Drexel stories are reinforcing what I already knew, but now you’re proving me right.”

Drexel President John Fry did announce the creation of an anti-racism task force in mid-June, before the “Black at” page was created. Fry also pledged to review the school’s relationship with police, establish a new “Center for Black Culture,” and support local businesses.

Through a spokesperson, Drexel said the university is still looking “for ways to foster productive dialogue with its community,” but that anonymous posting on the Instagram page presents a challenge in addressing specific incidents.

Temple recognizes demand for diversity training

Student body: 54% white; 11.8% Black; 0.1% Indigenous; 6.9% Latinx; 11.5% Asian

The cherry-and-white-themed @blackattemple profile highlights issues with unnamed professors, peer conflict and an incident where university police investigated racist vandalism with no follow up.

“My professor would ask me to speak in front of the class to demonstrate African American Vernacular,” one class of 2019 alum wrote. “She told me to speak how I would at home, and I did, but it wasn’t to her liking.”

Another student recalled when a professor was astonished at their writing ability. “You don’t look like someone who would write this well,” the professor said.

Temple spokesperson Raymond Betzner said there has been increased faculty and staff demand for racial awareness training, in light of the Black at Temple page and the general social climate.

The school is also reviewing its student conduct code, Betzner added, in a step that was announced when current and prospective Temple students were exposed online for racist and insensitive social media posts.

New racial justice fund at Swarthmore

Student body: 42% white; 6% Black; <1% Indigenous; 13% Latinx; 17% Asian

Black students at Swarthmore College, considered a bastion of liberal progressiveness, are detailing interactions with peers, faculty and various departments on both @blackatswat and @bipocatswat.

“I had a lab instructor IMMEDIATELY tell me that I should think about K-12 teaching instead of going into academia when I told her that I wanted to get a PhD,” wrote one poster.

Soon after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, Swarthmore President Valerie Smith, who is a Black woman, announced the creation of the President’s Fund for Racial Justice. Money from the fund will focus on “improving the lives of Black and Brown people,” and addressing systemic racism, spokesperson Andy Hirsch said in an email.

“At the same time, we recognize that we must do better,” Hirsch continued. “The stories shared on [Instagram] and elsewhere are painful reminders of that fact.”

Bryn Mawr and Haverford colleges did not respond to a request for comment.

UPenn responds to incidents individually, spox says

Student body: 38.7% white; 7.8% Black; 0.1% Indigenous; 10.2% Latinx; 22.3% Asian

With just over 1,300 followers and nine personal stories, @blackatupenn is one of the smaller local pages.

“I came in with very long twists and the entire class, starting with the professor began to touch my hair,” one anonymous poster recalled.

In response to an email from Billy Penn, Penn spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy said the university leadership responds on a case-by-case basis as incidents come to their attention.

“Campuses are not immune from the bias and discrimination that occurs in broader society,” MacCarthy said.