With a focus on bringing truth to light and giving a voice to the community, the University of South Florida held its third and final Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity (DEIO) town hall meeting Friday.
In March, USF President Steve Currall announced changes to the DIEO office, appointing Dr. Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman to spearhead the process. The goal was for campus leaders and staff to openly collaborate with community stakeholders and lead the office in a new and improved direction.
Held virtually, the town hall featured speakers from all three university campuses in an open and spirited discussion. Dr. Michelle Madden, Campus Diversity Officer at USFSP, said that it is important to highlight the uniqueness and challenges that are specific to each campus moving forward.
More than 130 community stakeholders attended Friday’s virtual event, offering recommendations and concerns regarding gender, age and race for students, faculty and the surrounding communities.
It was also a time to submit qualities that stakeholders would like to see in the next Vice President of Institutional Equity. The DIEO was also tasked with defining the role, responsibilities and goals of the position and assist Currall in the nationwide search for the best candidate
One challenge the St. Petersburg campus has faced in recent years is declining enrollment – especially among Black students. This summer and fall’s numbers have increased exponentially on the USFSP campus due to faculty actively recruiting these students, and Hordge-Freeman knows that the university will have to continue to come up with creative strategies to keep the momentum moving forward.
“The reason we were able to increase the number of students that are depositing is in part because of a campaign where Black faculty and staff called almost 500 students who were admitted to talk to them about USF,” said Hordge-Freeman. “Again, the result of a very concrete plan, strategy, and engagement.”
Hordge-Freeman said that the Helios grant USF recently received will help them outline and identify where gaps remain, and when that report is produced towards the end of summer they can continue to implement the various strategies they have developed, and build off of that.
“What we see already is that some of the strategies that have been developed for Black student recruitment will also be relevant for the LatinX community, although there is going to be some additional personalized, group-specific initiatives that also need to be developed,” she said. “Those types of collaborations and recommendations are precisely what’s going to be needed to sustain those types of numbers.”
Dr. Denise Davis-Cotton, Director of the Florida Center for PAInT (Partnerships in Arts-Integrated Teaching), emphatically addressed what she referred to as “the elephant in the room,” which is that many in the community believe USF is a racist institution and that she has a hard time finding the words to counter the argument.
“We need to acknowledge and recognize that systemic racial and gender disparities exist both historically and in its current form,” said Davis-Cotton.
She also believes that budgetary funding could be better spent.
“Unfortunately, the public’s perception is reality,” Davis-Cotton said. “They believe that USF has standardized equity, they have followed the money and spoke about funding feel-good research programs, and are finding ways not to award suppliers of opportunities for minoritized populations.”
Corey Posey, Diversity Officer at the Sarasota-Manatee campus, echoed Davis-Cotton’s sentiment that there is a disconnect between what the university thinks it is doing and what the community’s perception and response to that is. He called some of the feedback he received during a recent radio broadcast “disturbing.”
“I know for some of us our reality is that we don’t understand where this feedback is coming from, we’re this great place,” said Posey. “I can speak with confidence that every day we see people that experience these challenges and struggle to find ways to articulate it. That is why we wanted to come to you and talk to you directly, and then have the ability to share in this forum. So you know your voices are being heard.”
Another attendee remarked that in order to build credibility within the community, the university needs to acknowledge its past and current mistakes and continue with an open dialogue on constructive ways to move forward.
Much of this mission will be led by the incoming VP of Institutional Equity. Hordge-Freeman says the hope is to have the position filled and publicized by the end of the summer. She adds that not only does DIEO have a role in who that will be, but those in attendance do as well.
“Quite frankly, you all and your suggestions, and the suggestion from folks online, heavily shape what we’re going to be looking for both in terms of the structure of the office and the qualities we are looking for in that new vice president position,” said Hordge-Freeman.