USF hears from black faculty, staff: Do more to end systemic racism

President Steve Currall calls for change, and a letter from 88 black faculty and staff says there is plenty he can do.
The University of South Florida can take many concrete steps to address systemic racism, a group of 88 USF faculty and staff said in a letter this week to president Steve Currall.
The University of South Florida can take many concrete steps to address systemic racism, a group of 88 USF faculty and staff said in a letter this week to president Steve Currall. [ CHRIS URSO | Times (2019) ]
Published June 10, 2020|Updated June 10, 2020

Recent protests following the death of George Floyd have prompted calls from top leaders and faculty at the University of South Florida for significant changes in how the school operates.

In a letter this week to USF president Steve Currall, nearly 90 black faculty members and staff urge the university to take a number of steps, including training top administrators in sensitivity and multicultural competence, evaluating pay disparities, stepping up efforts to recruit more black employees, expanding funding for Africana and Latin American studies, and examining policies and procedures at the university’s police department.

The letter echoes some of the themes in a statement released Monday by Currall and USF chief diversity officer Haywood Brown, but goes further in calling for change.

The president’s letter highlighted some of USF’s initiatives to help students of color succeed and the work of faculty studying racism and poverty. But it also pledged that the university would “redouble (its) efforts to be a force for positive change.”

It said USF would commit to further strengthening its supplier diversity program, supporting black-owned businesses in the community.

It also said USF would develop programs on cultural awareness of attitudes and behaviors toward race, analyze pay equity for faculty and staff based on race and gender and “consider innovative avenues to enhance faculty and management diversity in recruitment, development, retention and rewards.”

The Department of Anthropology also issued a statement late last week calling for the review of University Police procedures and pointing out an increased need to “overcome long-standing structural barriers to access in higher education.”

Antoinette Jackson, incoming chair of the department, said in an email that the letter “is in line with the mission and direction of the department, which will become an increasingly greater voice in the dialog on systemic racism and black oppression.”

Since 2017, the number of black students enrolled each fall at USF has dipped slightly from 4,765 to 4,609.

According to the 2019 annual report from the office of diversity and equal opportunity, 4 percent of tenured faculty were black in 2018. Black employees also made up 7 percent of tenure-track faculty, 5 of the non-tenure track faculty and 9 percent of adjunct faculty.

Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman. [University of South Florida]
Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman. [University of South Florida]

Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman, a sociology professor who penned the letter from 88 USF employees after compiling the group’s thoughts, said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times that the lack of tenured and full professors is the product of systemic racism, though not an issue unique to USF.

Maya Trotz [University of South Florida]
Maya Trotz [University of South Florida]

Maya Trotz, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who signed the letter to Currall, said that in 2018 she became the first black full professor in her department at USF. Throughout her undergraduate and graduate school experience, she said, she never had a black engineering professor.

“I do think it’s important for black students to see black faculty and leadership,” Trotz said. “Hopefully there’s some impact in seeing someone who looks like them.”

Cheryl Rodriguez, a professor in the school of interdisciplinary global studies, said while academia often produces excellent research on racism it often doesn’t adequately address its own issues.

Cheryl Rodriguez. [University of South Florida]
Cheryl Rodriguez. [University of South Florida]

“People tend to have beliefs about who is truly qualified and who is truly deserving to be in academia,” she said. “That really is difficult for people when they have prejudices about what academia looks like and those kinds of things permeate classrooms, because they don’t believe certain students belong there. It’s that kind of unconscious racism. ... Those of us who walk around in black and brown skin know it exists, but it’s difficult to point it out.”

Rodriguez, who is black, said she has felt supported at USF but thinks it’s important for the university to hone in on the issue further in a way she said could be life-saving.

“Students want to have a sense of belonging and feel that they can pursue their dreams,” she said. “Often students don’t feel they belong on a campus when they don’t have people who look like them. ... The university is still such a white world, it still sometimes feels like it doesn’t belong to them.”

Recruiting and retention efforts of faculty are particularly important, Trotz said. “People always say there’s no one in the pipeline or it’s hard to find folks."

That’s why transparent recruiting processes are important and helping black colleagues feel supported in their roles is important, she said.

After glancing through the list of people who signed the letter, she said, she grew curious about how long many of the associate professors on the list had been in their current positions. Many times, she said, minority faculty hesitate to put together packages to be promoted to the next level.

In her email, Hordge-Freeman said that department cultures can sometimes lead to this. “A hostile or unsupportive climate, being overburdened with service work, or not having their research valued are all issues that can undermine successful efforts at retaining black faculty,” she wrote.

After seeing several posts about ways people can educate themselves, Trotz said some of her colleagues began talking about putting together a video of some of their own experiences.

“All of us have probably been hurt by someone at USF at some point," she said, "but how do we tell that without creating strife but share what happened so it doesn’t happen again?”

Hordge-Freeman said she was encouraged by Currall’s statement.

“What is evident to me is that the administration has taken an increasingly proactive stance on the importance of promoting diversity and inclusion on campus,” she said. “I am looking forward to learning more about the concrete actions that will be taken and I, like many of the 88 undersigned black faculty and staff to the letter, will be closely following the implementation and evaluation of new initiatives."

(EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this story contained inaccurate information about USF professor Maya Trotz. This story has been edited to say that Trotz in 2018 became the first black full professor in her department at USF.)