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USF’s plan to address racism: New leaders, better recruiting, campus forums and more

President Steve Currall announced a series of actions aimed at “a civil, humane and compassionate society in which racism is not tolerated.”

The University of South Florida will take a series of actions to address systemic racism on campus, president Steve Currall announced on Tuesday, responding to recent protests and calls for the university to step up its efforts on the issue.

The steps include elevating two Black educators to top decision-making roles at USF, boosting efforts to recruit Black students, holding decision-makers on purchases accountable for choosing a more diverse array of suppliers, and hosting a series of forums on all three campuses to discuss race.

The announcement follows USF’s pledge last month to spend $500,000 on research projects exploring systemic racism, its causes and solutions to the problem.

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

“In June, I shared a message with you denouncing the deeply troubling events occurring across the country that reflected the systemic racism that continues to plague our nation,” Currall wrote in a message to the USF community. “Today, I’m writing to provide you with an update on important actions USF is taking as we work to become an even greater force for positive change.”

At the top of his list were two key personnel moves.

Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman. [Courtesy of USF]

Associate sociology professor Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman will become a senior advisor to Currall and USF provost Ralph Wilcox, a new role that will focus her on issues of diversity and inclusion. It was Hordge-Freeman who penned a letter to Currall earlier this summer on behalf of 88 Black faculty and staff members, calling on USF to take stronger action against racism. She had been leading a steering committee since Currall and other top officials met with her and Black faculty members following the letter.

Hordge-Freeman will work across the university, the president’s message said, delving into matters like curriculum, faculty and staff training and “helping to ensure that hiring practices for administrators and faculty are free from bias and reflect USF’s commitment to diversity.”

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

In addition, USF’s Vice President for Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity, Dr. Haywood Brown, will work closely with Hordge-Freeman and join the Executive Leadership Council, the university’s top leadership team. The change will put Brown in position to “be involved in all major decisions made at USF,” Currall’s message said.

Dr. Haywood Brown [ Courtesy of USF ]

The president also announced plans to attract more Black students to all three USF campuses. That effort will include expanded marketing efforts to prospective high school students in the seven-county area surrounding the university and strengthening ties with certain high schools to create a “pipeline.”

“We plan on expanding our partnerships with local Title I programs by adding key high schools to our Guaranteed Admission Partnership Program, and conducting virtual high school events for application and FAFSA completion,” Currall’s message said, referring to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid that students must complete to receive financial help for college.

The university said it has also been holding meetings with the Black Leadership Network, a group of alumni, donors and USF staff formed in 2016 to recruit more Black students and raise additional scholarship funds. Since its inception, the group has raised almost $2.3 million.

Currall also said the university has updated language in its employee code of conduct to encourage increased supplier contracts for Black businesses and other diverse supplier categories.

The school will also require a senior member of its Office of Supplier Diversity to hold a voting role on the decision-making team for purchases of $75,000 and above. In a letter to the assistant vice president of supplier diversity sent Monday, Currall said USF will require monthly reports from colleges and departments on their diversity spending. He also said he would personally review membership on the university’s Supplier Diversity Council.

“The University of South Florida is one of the largest economic drivers in the Tampa Bay region and we have a responsibility to support the diverse business community,” Currall wrote. “I wish to ensure our approach across USF addresses the numerous factors that may impede diverse businesses’ access to USF contracting opportunities.”

The university will also hosting conversations across campuses “to candidly discuss matters of race,” the message said. The series started on USF’s St. Petersburg campus last year and brought together diverse groups of 10 to 14 individuals to discuss race, racism and their experiences with two trained facilitators of “opposite gender and race.” The conversations will take place over a six-week period and participants will prioritize action plans and possibly proposals to USF leadership.

Martin Tadlock, regional chancellor of the St. Petersburg campus, said it’s important to have a space where people feel they can be heard.

“We’re a public university and we belong to the public,” he said. “One of our pillars is inclusivity. We pride ourselves on that.”

Through weekly listening sessions with faculty and staff, and two with students, he said he hopes they can create a bridge between the campus and the rest of the community.

As a result of recent conversations, Tadlock said, the university is exploring a Center for Social Justice in partnership with the Kellogg Foundation.

Currall said in his message he plans to remain committed to all of the initiatives announced Tuesday and would give updates on any progress made.

Related: RELATED: Steve Currall has been USF president for a year. He’s very busy.

He called on others to help the university create “a civil, humane and compassionate society in which racism is not tolerated.”

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