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Hard feelings emerge over USF’s efforts to address racism, diversity

All six members of a diversity committee for the College of Arts and Sciences submit their resignations.
A view of Russell M. Cooper Hall, home to USF's College of Arts and Sciences, where the diversity committee resigned this week.
A view of Russell M. Cooper Hall, home to USF's College of Arts and Sciences, where the diversity committee resigned this week. [ DIVYA KUMAR | Times ]
Published Sep. 10, 2020

A panel of educators advising the University of South Florida’s College of Arts and Sciences on diversity issues has resigned in frustration, saying the school’s top leaders have not addressed their ideas with enough urgency.

All six members of the college’s diversity committee resigned this week in a letter to USF president Steve Currall over what they described as months of unfruitful efforts to engage with top leaders. At one point, they said, they asked for a meeting with the president and were told to work through existing channels instead.

“Those were the same structural channels that failed to do anything on diversity for the last 15 years,” committee chairman Pablo Brescia, a professor in the Department of World Languages, said in an interview. He said members felt as if they were being scolded for reaching out to Currall and Provost Ralph Wilcox, and charged that USF has a “hush culture,” making it difficult to hold conversations that effect change.

Pablo Brescia. [Courtesy of USF]
Pablo Brescia. [Courtesy of USF]

The resignations come as the university has been rolling out plans to address concerns raised during recent protests after the death of George Floyd. Earlier this week, USF announced 23 research projects that over the next year will explore racism and societal disparities. Last month, school officials unveiled plans to boost Black enrollment, diversify purchasing practices and place two Black educators in top decision-making roles.

Tensions between the diversity committee and administration began over the summer after the panel called on the College of Arts and Sciences to take a stand against racism. The college’s dean, Eric Eisenberg, asked the committee to come up with recommendations for action.

On June 16, the committee emailed a 10-point action plan to the dean, and to Currall and Wilcox.

Members asked for a variety of steps, including a commitment of support for Africana Studies and the Institute for Latin American and Caribbean Studies — two USF departments that, according to Brescia, have seen “virtual erasure” over the last decade.

The committee also wanted the college to initiate efforts to require that students pass a course on anti-racism and discrimination issues. In addition, they requested data on the number of minority faculty members who are part of the leadership teams in the offices of the president, provost and the College of Arts and Sciences.

Committee members did not receive a response from the president or provost’s office. But they did hear back from Eisenberg. Also, the panel met with senior staff from the dean’s office, along with the university’s chief diversity officer, Dr. Haywood Brown, and USF’s newly appointed senior advisor on diversity and inclusion, Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman. Committee member Michelle Hughes Miller called the interactions “positive, but not productive.”

Committee members again asked to meet with Currall and re-sent their letter to him and Wilcox.

In an interview, Eisenberg said Currall had met with him and Wilcox and told him he did not want a fragmented response to the protests. He said the president told him to work with the committee and to come back to him.

Eric Eisenberg. [Courtesy of USF]
Eric Eisenberg. [Courtesy of USF]

Eisenberg told the group in an email they should work within “existing structures,” to achieve a more “coordinated, meaningful and sustainable” strategy instead of “multiple one-off meetings” with executive leadership.

Brescia said he found that approach ineffective.

“I’ve taught Latin American literature and culture for more than 15 years, so I understand diversity will not be ‘solved’ this semester,” he said. "But the disconnect between upper administration and faculty is great and doesn’t allow for dialogue. And I think administrators sometimes forget they were faculty once.”

Brescia said that, while he was pleased to hear the university’s recent announcements on race and diversity, it appeared the school lacked an organic plan to address those issues.

“And if maybe if there is, if they would meet us to explain it, we would understand," Brescia said.

Hughes Miller, an associate professor in USF’s Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, said that, while the committee believed administrators were acting with good intentions, its members felt they could not effectively do their job if they had to be filtered through the dean’s office.

"It was a stark reminder we’re beholden to the university’s administration, but they’re not beholden to us,” she said.

Eisenberg said the committee’s resignation surprised him. He also said he believes Currall and Wilcox are committed to “not missing this moment.”

“I think what happened is when George Floyd was killed, everybody got very passionate but very impatient,” he said. “There was this pent up idea that this might be a moment where we could really change things in our country and our university."

However, he added, "I think you have to balance the sense of urgency that’s connected to not wanting to miss this moment to actually make a difference with making sure you’re going to come up with a solution that will work.”

Brescia said committee work can often be deflating, and faculty often “retreat to their own island of teaching and research” after being unable to accomplish meaningful change.

“I love this institution,” he said. “I love my students. I see how tough these times are on them. This is why it’s important, and why we need to move the needle forward.”

Eisenberg said he will meet with the faculty council on Friday to decide next steps. He said he appreciates the committee’s work over the past year in setting up liaisons in each department and will be committed to continuing to take action steps, including diversifying the college’s curriculum.

“People are mistrustful of people who have authority sometimes,” the dean said. “It is not going to happen in a day or a week, but it’s got to be more thoughtful than that. ...We’re going to pursue this. We have our eyes focused on the big picture.”