A newsmaker you should know: Head of Penn State campus to get YWCA racial justice award
Growing up in the so-called "Bottom" section of Braddock in the 1940s, Curtiss E. Porter was well aware of the "unspoken barriers" about one's place in the neighborhood and, as a teenager, of who one's friends were.
"When we got to the ninth grade, the white kids started hanging out with the white kids, and the black kids with blacks," he recalled.
It was "my friend is no longer my friend because of this crazy thing called race," he said.
Dr. Porter, now chancellor of Penn State Greater Allegheny, also remembers being stationed in Taipei, Taiwan, in the U.S. Air Force, when he heard an airman call the black wife of another airman a racial slur.
"We were all there on the same team, but had racism," recalled Dr. Porter, 70, of White Oak.
Incidents like that are "critical moments" he said, just as was the formation of the Black Action Society, which he worked toward as a student at the University of Pittsburgh; and the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., events that he said "created a lifetime of engagement."
On Nov. 17, Dr. Porter will be honored by the YWCA Greater Pittsburgh with its 2010 Racial Justice Award in the category of Education at its 19th annual Racial Justice Awards Dinner at the Westin Convention Center hotel.
The selection committee stated, in announcing the award, that it was greatly impressed by Dr. Porter's efforts to eliminate racism and promote equality.
"Racial justice defines itself as the negation of racial injustice," Dr. Porter said.
An early example of racial justice, he said, was his mother, Josephine Porter, purchasing a house in Braddock in the mid-1940s with the proceeds from a restaurant that she operated at home.
"I met a lot of people by being in the kitchen of my own house," he said.
A typical southwestern Pennsylvania boy in a close-knit home with parents, five brothers and a sister, he enjoyed the outdoors, including time spent playing in the Monongahela River -- even though he could not swim.
He would have drowned at age 10 if not for a white teenager from Braddock jumping in and saving him when he sunk at "the drop-off."
"We were both aware of barriers, but not at this moment," he said.
When he saw the man about 12 years ago, he thanked him again.
After military service -- "a family and community tradition" -- he enrolled at Penn State McKeesport, now Penn State Greater Allegheny, before transferring to the University of Pittsburgh in 1964.
As a student and community organizer, his efforts at Pitt with others to promote equality resulted in increases in minority students and minority faculty, as well as an increase in the number of policies aimed at achieving a "racially equitable university environment," he said.
After he earned a Ph.D. from Pitt, academic positions at California State University at Long Beach and Pitt followed.
Returning to his academic roots, he established and gained accreditation for the Department of Black Community Education, Research, and Development (now Africana Studies) within the College of Arts and Sciences at Pitt.
From 1985 to 1997, Dr. Porter served as president and CEO of the Urban League of Southwestern Connecticut, and vice president of the National Urban League in New York City.
Before his 1999 appointment at Penn State Greater Allegheny, he served as interim director of the Stamford campus of the University of Connecticut, coordinating and supervising the construction and completion of the campus' $48 million relocation project.
At Greater Allegheny, he introduced additional four-year degrees, and a name change for the campus "so people will get an expanded view of campus and what it is," he said.
He said the campus is also an international community.
To that end, he entered into an academic collaboration agreement earlier this year with Duy Tan University in Da Nang, Vietnam, for the training of its faculty for four summers on the 52-acre Greater Allegheny campus in McKeesport and White Oak.
He hopes to start a student and faculty exchange program with Chile in summer 2011 or 2012.
But the main difference between campus today and when he was a student, he said, is the diversity in faculty as to age, ethnicity, race and citizenship, and which is also reflected in the student body.
About 18 percent or 19 percent is black; 3 percent to 4 percent is international; 5 percent to 10 percent is Hispanic; and the rest is white, but across geographic regions throughout the United States.
"The campus represents a model of what racial justice might look like in an academic context," he said.
But there are also significant challenges today that did not exist in the 1960s, he said, such as an aging state population and dwindling finances, as state support is less than 10 percent and declining.
There is also the interplay between a global economy and curriculum, and technology.
"How will one continue to achieve traditional outcomes with a very new kind of student who has been raised in this technological wonderland?" he asked of a challenge for today and for years to come.
First Published October 28, 2010 5:24 am