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What is it like to be Black at USF? The protests have people talking.

Tampa Bay's hometown university has been ranked for serving students of color. But many, including school officials, say USF needs to do much better.

The chart can be found on page 10 of a study that looked at nearly 700 colleges and universities in the United States. “Top-Performing Institutions for Black Students,” the heading says.

In 2017, the University of South Florida came in at No. 6 on that list, one of few schools that had narrowed the gap between Black and white students to almost zero when it came to graduation rates. In a category where Black college students typically trail their white peers by 20 percentage points, it was a stunning moment that USF still wears as a badge of honor.

Other “points of pride” are the university’s No. 4 ranking last year among public institutions for reducing inequalities, and this year’s U.S. News and World Report ranking that puts USF at No. 9 for promoting social mobility among lower-income students.

Yet as protests against racial inequality enter their eighth week, with many USF students joining daily marches, national rankings that portray the school as a great place for Black people are not matching the mood.

The Black Student Union and at least three faculty groups have sent letters to USF president Steve Currall with urgent calls to rid campuses of systemic racism. They’ve put forth lists of recommendations — from fairer hiring practices and more culturally diverse courses, to examining the role of university police and working harder to attract Black students and faculty.

Currall and Haywood Brown, the university’s chief diversity officer, have sent their own message, touching on many of the same issues and pointing to USF’s strengths, while promising action.

The theme of these early exchanges has been that USF can do better.

The university could start by increasing Black enrollment, said Gareth Dawkins, an organizer with Tampa Bay Students for a Democratic Society, which last year held rallies and launched email campaigns in favor of such a push.

Ten percent of USF’s student population was Black last school year — down from 2008-09, when Black enrollment hit its apex at 12 percent.

Dawkins said the university has a responsibility to do a better job of engaging with the neighborhoods around its Tampa campus, which are low-income and nearly 28 percent Black, acco

rding to U.S. Census data. Those areas also are lacking in educational opportunities.

“They have been a gentrifier,” Dawkins said of USF.

“The university operates as a classist bubble.”

In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Currall said he is listening.

“We want Black students and prospective Black students to have a sense of community and belongingness,” he said.

USF president Steve Currall has proposed changes at the school and says he's listening as others put forth their ideas in the wake of the recent protests. But he's also eager for the next phase, he said. “We really need to be focused on actions.” [Times (2019)]

In his statement to the university community, he outlined plans to develop programs on cultural awareness of attitudes and behaviors toward race, analyze pay equity and hire a more diverse array of suppliers doing business with USF.

He said he wants increased creativity in recruiting efforts for students and more scholarships. He also hopes to leverage the alumni network to create more mentorship opportunities for Black students that could lead to jobs and internships.

Another way the university could act is by dropping testing requirements such as the ACT or SAT, Dawkins said. She and others argue that those exams do not reflect the talents and abilities of students across the socioeconomic spectrum.

But not all agree.

Emmanuel Harvey, president of the Black Student Union at USF, said there are better ways to boost Black enrollment.

The university should be recruiting more local high school students and creating a more inclusive environment for Black students on campus.

“It’s diverse, but it’s not a welcoming place,” Harvey said. “It’s not anti-racist.”

He said he’s heard students called the n-word outside the library. He’s seen people spit on the campus bust of Martin Luther King Jr. He saw a sign saying “It’s OK to be white,” a phrase co-opted by white supremacists, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

Being one of the few Black students in non-Black settings is “draining,” Harvey said. “It leaves Black students feeling like they have to do the work of educating everyone around them.”

Dawkins agreed. From offensive comments that go unaddressed in classes to memes describing the nearby Fletcher Avenue area as “sketchy Fletcher,” Black students are often presented with a dilemma, she said.

Should it always be her role to respond when someone denigrates an impoverished area that many Black people call home? Not speaking up leaves you feeling guilty, Dawkins said, while feeling the need to speak up all the time leaves you tired.

Nicholas Stewart, who graduated this summer, started a petition along with Valentina Morales to require all USF students to take a course on racial and ethnic studies or gender and sexuality. Stewart said the lack of Black people on campus creates a troubling feeling.

"Seeing (Black) people in positions of faculty and leadership shows me ... they care about getting me to a place where I can pursue what I want and be myself,” said Nicholas Stewart, a recent USF graduate. [Courtesy of Che Davis]

“There’s power in community,” he said. “People need people like them to have that ‘ahh’ moment, like taking off your shoes after a long day.”

Stewart said many times he was the only Black student in class.

“I have the pressure of being the model minority, which is problematic,” he said. “You can’t be yourself. Because your interactions then become representative of the whole community. You don’t want to say something and then people will be like, ‘Oh there goes the Black guy.’”

Having more Black faculty members is also important, he said.

“When you find a Black faculty member it’s like ‘Oh my God! I found one!’” Stewart said. “Seeing students is one thing. But seeing people in positions of faculty and leadership shows me they don’t care about me as a statistic but that they care about getting me to a place where I can pursue what I want and be myself.”

A June 8 letter to Currall from 88 Black faculty and staff members called for a greater focus on faculty recruitment and retention.

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

According to the 2019 annual report from USF’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion & Equal Opportunity, 4 percent of tenured faculty were Black in 2018. Black employees made up 7 percent of tenure-track faculty, 5 percent of the non-tenure track faculty and 9 percent of adjunct faculty.

A recent faculty union newsletter pointed out that USF this year had a 57 percent retention rate for Black professors who had been at the school since 2008, compared to 64 percent for white peers. The rates for instructors were more even — 48 percent for white instructors compared to 47 percent for those who are Black.

“Retention at USF is generally problematic, so perhaps retention itself is something USF should focus on — while keeping a sharp eye on how female and minority faculty are doing,” the newsletter said.

Kris Newsome, president of the Black Faculty and Staff Association, said he’s heard about faculty members at USF who went up for tenure multiple times and were denied, but got it after leaving the university.

“If you go to the USF website and look at who’s in charge, a lot of the pictures look alike,” said Kris Newsome, president of the Black Faculty and Staff Association. [University of South Florida]

He said he knows of instances where colleagues have questioned a Black faculty member’s promotion by asking if the reason was their race.

“We want to be creating a culture where people are not terrorized for being promoted,” Newsome said.

Brown, the diversity officer, said he wants to know if someone feels like they can’t grow at USF before they leave. He said the university wants to focus on retention, including conducting exit interviews with people leaving.

“I’m all for people leaving for upward mobility,” he said. “But I don’t want them to move if it’s lateral because they’re not comfortable with the environment here. ... If you’re going to a place for less money and to be cold, you really must not be feeling very supported.”

The issues are not unique to USF, he said, but opportunities for faculty development and creating a culture of mentorship for women and minorities is something he and Currall will be focused on, Brown said.

”It’s also important to see who’s doing the mentoring, who’s doing the advising, who’s interested in retaining them here.”

Since protests following the death of George Floyd, the university has been hosting virtual listening sessions across each campus with Black faculty, staff and students.

But getting change to take hold can be a challenge at a university with nearly 52,000 students and more than 16,000 faculty and staff.

Haywood L. Brown [ University of South Florida ]

“Not everybody gets the message that having diversity is important,” said Brown, who is Black. “The president and I can say ‘It’s important, it’s important, it’s important.’ But when it comes down to it, how important is it to department chairs and college deans to diversify their core team if they think, ‘Well, we’re doing pretty well?‘”

Newsome said he hopes USF will consider diversifying top leadership positions as a message to all students, who will make up the next generation’s workforce and leaders.

“If you go to the USF website and look at who’s in charge, a lot of the pictures look alike,” he said.

Newsome said most Black faculty and staff on campus mentor several Black students. But more formally, the Black Faculty and Staff Association runs a mentoring program that has been around since the 1970s. That’s how Newsome came to mentor Stewart, who graduated with a degree in geology.

Stewart said he initially wondered what Newsome, who worked in Campus Recreation, could teach him. But he found in him a mentor who guided him through his junior year.

Stewart said he enjoyed his experience at USF but sometimes wondered if he should have attended a historically Black college or university.

“That community and that energy, I think it would be like Black heaven,” he said. “But that sense of being free to be yourself should be here at USF. I don’t want to be wondering ‘How much Blackness can I bring today?’ ‘Did I say something that was too Black?’”

While it’s important for the university to listen, Currall, who is white, said he’s eager to move to the next phase. “We really need to be focused on actions,” he said.

Growing up in the early 1960s, he said his father was a mental health social worker with diverse colleagues. Black families were among friends in their social circle, he said, and his parents took him to marches as a 10-year-old after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

“It was a valuable part of my upbringing,” said Currall, who is 61. “I’m not claiming it gave me any expertise, but I did benefit from those relationships very early on. Those are experiences that at least help me listen.”

Matthew Wheat chants on a megaphone in front of USF's Lifsey House, where president Steve Currall resides. The July 2 protest by Tampa Bay Students for a Democratic Society and USF students called on the university to increase Black enrollment. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Brown said the conversations and listening sessions are designed to move USF beyond a posture of reacting.

He said he understands the frustrations of Black faculty and staff wanting to see action sooner. He’s had the same conversations with his sons.

“In the environment we live, you have to give 120 percent compared to maybe your white friend who gives 90 percent,” Brown said. “It may not be fair, but you have to mentally adapt.”

Harvey, the Black Student Union president, said many leaders of the protests taking place this summer are USF students and graduates. It’s important, he said, that they return to a university that is actively anti-racist.

“We’re Gen Z; this is the generation of social change,” Harvey said. “We’ve never known an America that’s been stable. ... Our generation, we don’t want to grow up and become adults in this society. We don’t want to get comfortable.”

Related: USF launches a new research project: explore systemic racism