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USF launches a new research project: explore systemic racism

The university sets aside $500,000 for its researchers to dig into the problem and look for solutions. They'll have a year to finish.

The University of South Florida on Monday announced the creation of a task force that will launch and oversee a year-long series of research projects aimed at exploring systemic racism and finding solutions to the problem.

The university has created a $500,000 fund from the provost’s office and the research and innovation office to support the first round of research projects.

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

In a message calling for proposals from USF researchers, the university encouraged projects across multiple disciplines on its three campuses. Preference will be given to research teams that meet certain criteria, including those with established research in Africana studies or engagement with Black communities.

“The University of South Florida community grieves the confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately affects Black people in America, and the perpetuation of systemic racism that has resulted in inequities and violence in Black communities,” the message said.

“In no uncertain terms, this is a time of fundamental and enduring change and we must unite in our commitment to end anti-Black racism and focus on fostering an actively anti-racist culture across our nation and at USF.”

Project proposals are due Aug. 17 and projects are expected to be awarded by the end of the month.

“The University of South Florida community is embarking on new conversations about addressing systemic racism and the role faculty, students and staff can play in creating greater understanding in our society,” USF president Steve Currall said in a statement released by the university. “Our researchers are well-positioned to help USF serve as a force for positive change and to lead transformation in our communities.”

Maya Trotz. [Courtesy of USF]
Maya Trotz. [Courtesy of USF]

Maya Trotz, an engineering professor and member of the task force, said she was encouraged by the creation of the panel, to be known as the USF Research Task Force on Understanding and Addressing Blackness and Anti-Black Racism in our Local, National and International Communities.

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

In June, Trotz was one of 88 Black faculty and staff members at USF who signed a letter to Currall calling for a greater commitment to anti-racism. The request was one of several that came amid local and national demonstrations protesting the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

“I think it’s been pretty encouraging that the university is committing dollars to have people do this work,” she said. “I think USF has a very important role to play in the Tampa Bay community.”

Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman, an associate professor in sociology who penned the letter and a member of the task force, said she too was encouraged by the university’s commitment to this work. She noted the recommendation that projects include community involvement so that research is not divorced from actual need.

“Universities in general are really powerful social institutions,” associate professor Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman said of USF's research initiative. “This has the potential to be transformative." [Courtesy of USF]
“Universities in general are really powerful social institutions,” associate professor Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman said of USF's research initiative. “This has the potential to be transformative." [Courtesy of USF]

“Universities in general are really powerful social institutions,” Hordge-Freeman said. “This has the potential to be transformative. Faculty across all three campuses have been researching the impact of systemic racism for decades. ... I think this can lead to concrete solutions in the community.”

She said it’s important to note that the aim of the task force is to address racism’s impact on Black communities in particular.

Trotz, who has been involved in research projects focused in East Tampa, said that kind of work in Black and brown communities is often done without funding. She said she is encouraged by trends across higher education like the USF effort, and the hiring of climate equity and environmental justice faculty at UC Berkeley.

Trotz said the topic has not always been a high priority for the Association of American Universities, an elite group of 63 research universities in the U.S. and Canada that USF seeks to join.

“Now they’re sort of getting a grip on how do we serve what communities look like,” she said. “Hopefully we see a sweeping change across universities.”