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University Beat

After 100 Days, Slow Start On Race Reforms At University of Florida

Reitz Union at the University of Florida
LAUREN WITTE/FRESH TAKE FLORIDA
The Reitz Union at the University of Florida has become the target of activists' calls for renaming, as the former university president after whom it is named is accused of discriminating against Black and LGBTQ+ students. John Wayne Reitz died in 1993.

Amid tumultuous racial protests this summer, the University of Florida promised an ambitious, campus-wide reckoning that included recruiting more Black students and faculty, sensitivity training for students and professors, more money for research about racism and more contracts with minority-owned businesses.

Just over three months later, progress on many of those promises has been mixed, according to a review of the initiatives and interviews with key campus officials.

After just over 100 days – a traditional period to evaluate early efforts by new U.S. presidents and governors – many of the university’s 16 colleges are still developing their own anti-racism initiatives. Task forces announced by President Kent Fuchs – to consider renaming buildings and other structures on campus and document the university’s history on race and ethnicity – are neither formed nor operating.

Florida promised to work closely with community leaders to improve education and economic opportunities in the city’s poorer, majority Black neighborhoods east of campus, but community leader Rodney Long and city commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said they haven’t heard from the university about any new outreach plans.

The university promised in June to end use of jail and prison inmate farm labor, but said earlier this summer that its current labor contracts won’t end until July 2021.

The university’s Office of Procurement did not respond to three emails and two phone messages over 10 days to discuss plans to award more contracts to minority-owned businesses.

The most recently available figures, from fall 2019, showed nearly half as many Black undergraduates seeking degrees as nearly a decade earlier. The number of Black faculty over the same period rose slightly. Florida hired its first chief diversity officer, Antonio Farias, in 2018.

"My efforts over the past two years at UF have focused on building capacity, clarity, and alignment on how to increase momentum already underway," Farias wrote in an email. He declined to be interviewed.

Paul Ortiz, a history professor and president of the United Faculty of Florida labor union, said the university hasn’t followed through on some past reform promises. He said he was cautiously optimistic this time but wondered who will be held responsible if there were failures.

“What are the consequences for not meeting those goals?” he asked. “There’s got to be some consequence. The accountability question has to start from the bottom and the top at the same time.”

So far, from a long list of promised initiatives announced June 18:

  • Florida’s president has ordered the athletics department and band to discontinue the “Gator Bait” chant due to what Fuchs called the “horrific racist imagery” associated with the phrase.

  • The university ordered the removal of a Confederate statue on property it owns in downtown St. Augustine. The statue was moved Aug. 24 to Trout Creek Fish Camp, on the west side of St. Johns County.

  • UF announced new grant money for research for faculty to study race, equity, justice and reconciliation. But amid the state’s dire economic forecast from the pandemic – with expected budget cuts of nearly 10% – it’s offering $400,000 total across the entire university system.

  • A university-wide hiring freeze, also blamed on the budget problems caused by the pandemic, is frustrating efforts to hire more Black faculty and staff.

  • Fuchs said the university would invite more speakers to campus who can reflect on racism. The first this semester was Anita Hill, a Black female lawyer and Brandeis professor who accused during his 1991 nomination hearings Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her. The aunt and uncle of George Floyd, killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May, also spoke virtually this month to a group of students.

  • The university also announced this week its early plans to require training for all students, faculty and staff on racism, inclusion and bias. It said it was launching two online training conferences in upcoming weeks.

In the College of Law, Dean Laura Rosenbury said faculty were deciding whether to make a racial justice course mandatory. Other classes on race have been offered previously.

“You can’t be a law school without focusing on issues of racial justice,” she said.

The hiring freeze will prevent her from hiring any new law school professors – Black or otherwise – at least until next summer, Rosenbury said. She wants to make more immediate progress recruiting Black students.

“We can take race into account when asking students to apply,” she said. “This is a challenge for UF in general.”

The College of Business also identified as a significant problem the low numbers of Black students there, said Robert Thomas, the assistant dean for diversity, equity and inclusion. The college is still identifying other areas for improvement, he said.

Professors in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences were considering how to modify existing courses to include material focused on diversity and equity, associate dean Mary Watt said.

“It's the way you can take an existing course and look at it from the perspective of all sorts of folks,” she said.

The president of the Association of Black Faculty and Staff, Katrice Graham, said the organization sent Fuchs recommendations for faculty to be appointed to the new task forces but never received a response.

“Everyone’s being very polite and careful,” Graham said. “That’s fine for those who are making more than the average. But it’s an insult to those who continue to be victims of systematic failures.”

Graham said when she applied for a promotion on campus nearly a decade ago, a member of the search committee whom she declined to identify by name told her she wasn’t selected because her natural hair prevented her from being a public face of the organization and that her work is best behind the scenes. The source recommended that she wear her hair straight. She was working at the College of Business at the time and never reported the incident.

Graham works in the College of Journalism and Communications as director of the Knight Division for Scholarships, career services and multicultural affairs. She said she wore a wig to work for two years afterward then decided to wear her hair naturally again.

The college’s associate director for administrative services, Laura Braden, said she was mortified when asked this week about the incident. She said in roughly nine years working there, the college had no racial incidents reported by employees.

“I’m embarrassed for the college,” Braden said. “Our supervisors are business professionals and should know better than to say something like that to anybody.”

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at emcavoy@freshtakeflorida.com