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USF undertaking initiatives to address societal racism: ‘I don’t want us to be satisfied with the status quo’

Jaymi Butler

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USF
The University of South Florida is rolling out new initiatives on all campuses in an effort to end racism in society.

With issues surrounding racial inequity at the forefront of the national conversation, the University of South Florida recently announced a series of initiatives aimed at reinforcing its commitment to diversity and inclusion and supporting efforts to end racism in society. 

The St. Pete Catalyst sat down, virtually, with Dr. Haywood Brown, USF’s vice president for Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity to discuss these initiatives, why they’re so important right now and how he’ll measure their success. 

The Catalyst: How did this recruitment initiative begin and what are some of the things USF is doing for outreach?

Haywood BrownDr. Brown: Each year we have to produce an equity report that looks at our overall diversity in terms of gender and race. Now we have a consolidated report across all the campuses. What we’ve done is we’ve looked at where we are with regards to students in general. Our focus over the last several years is for us to increase and improve our diversity numbers and not be sustainable with regard to those numbers. There’s clearly a lot of competition when it comes to students in our area so many of the programs we’re rolling out are focused on the school systems in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Sarasota. We’re trying to be a little more proactive in getting to know students in their communities, because that will make it more likely they’ll choose those campuses when they decide where to go for college. That’s particularly important on the St. Pete campus because one of the things we know there is that we probably have a less diverse student body than we want to have in that community. 

The Catalyst: What else?

We’re trying to work with the alumni in our communities, particularly with the Black and Latinx alumni that are part of our USF family. If we partner with them, they can help us in the specific recruitment efforts in their communities.  The other thing we’re doing is strongly maintaining a relationship with our community colleges. Many of our students of color come from a community college background. That really is important to have those communications, because those students also have options when it comes to where they’ll do their third and fourth years. 

The Catalyst: What happens once these students get to campus? Are there resources for them?

Dr. Brown: Other work that we have to do a lot more of is with first-generation students, particularly those underrepresented minorities. This is where we’re trying to have more programs on campus geared toward student success. It’s going to be interesting in the post-Covid world with the way learning is going to be done, for us to be able to maintain these types of programs since students may or may not be on campus. 

The Catalyst: What about efforts on the St. Pete campus specifically?

Dr. Brown: We’ve been in contact with regional chancellor Martin Tadlock. He understands our mission is to do the same things. We’ve had a lot of success working with Michelle Madden, who is our campus diversity officer there. She works directly with the community in a lot of different ways and we’re engaging in a similar fashion with regard to the school systems. These things are up and running more and more. Our recruiters do a great job there, but we do need more activity in that community. It’s been sustained, but now we’re being a lot more deliberate about it. 

The Catalyst: Why now? 

Dr. Brown: It’s not just now. Keep in mind we have a new president and a lot of new visions. We recognize students have choices and we have to compete for them. We need to be more deliberate in our communities to make sure students see us as an option. We’re not happy to stay at 10 percent Black students. We know we want to be better, and that’s basically “why now.” Even though people have challenged us that Black enrollment has gone down, the actual numbers are sustained, but that’s not good enough. It’s not good enough now just to say we’re better than Florida or Florida State. We’re a preeminent university. We know what we are; we want students to know what we are. When we look at our graduation rates, there is no racial difference, and that’s a big deal. Those are the stories we haven’t told very well. 

The Catalyst: How have these efforts been impacted by Covid-19?

Dr. Brown: It’s a work in progress. Everything we did last year will have to be modified this year. The other thing that’s a reality is all SAT scores are delayed. We really are talking about targeting 9th and 10th grade recruits for the 2022-2023 season because Covid has changed so much. Another challenge is that the last three months of school have been virtual. Resources are not the same. Households are not the same. We are concerned to some degree about Black and Latinx and first-generation white students who want to go to college but may have gotten a little behind in these last three months, maybe a little more challenged with internet learning going into this year. There’s not a lot we can do about that except have virtual sessions in schools we’re working with. That’s where we can benefit from our alumni, and current students from those schools would be very helpful. 

The Catalyst: What have the enrollment trends been for Black students at St. Pete?

Dr. Brown: Our percentages have not increased. We had been lower than we probably should be for that community. Maybe because students choose to come to Tampa. Maybe we haven’t worked as aggressively with the schools there. We do have a more vigorous initiative in St. Pete. Some people like to suggest it may be because in the consolidation we changed our admission criteria and that those students in St. Pete may have been disadvantaged. I really don’t think that’s the case at all. I do think we have to do a better job of being more deliberate for the students. Part of it is also I don’t think we’re telling the story of the St. Pete campus very well. Another thing that we do recognize that really impacts that is that we also don’t have a very diverse faculty in St. Pete. Students of color want to feel comfortable and welcome on campus. You need more faculty to attract more students. We need advisors to attract more students. We need support programs to support these students. We have to grow more to be able to attract students who want to be at St. Pete.

The Catalyst: What experience do you think Black students are having at St. Pete? What is being done to improve it?

Dr. Brown: We’ve always felt we had one of the most diverse campuses in the country from the perspective of race and religion, but we also recognize we are dealing with a society where people say and do things to make other people uncomfortable. This year we have instituted the president’s principles of community. The principles of community are really about respect, diversity, inclusion but we put pledges with each one of them. We recognize the fact that students are very vulnerable in terms of what someone says to them. We now have put together what we call a principles of community affirmation response team. If you feel someone has made you feel uncomfortable, or you feel they’ve been biased against you. Maybe they said something about you on the sidewalk or wrote something on social media – it may not rise to a level of discrimination or sexual harassment complaints. It really is about it’s not what you said or what you did, it’s how you made me feel.

So this new thing is a place where that person can call the intake center – faculty, staff or students – and they can have a conversation with someone about what was said to them. If there was another person involved that they want to have a conversation with about what was said, that person would be contacted. That’s part of what we’re rolling out from an environmental perspective. We also did a student climate survey last year to find out what concerned them about their environment. We had a large number of students respond, and thankfully, only a small number of people said they’d had a negative experience. What I say to that, though, is that if you have one student who feels they have been mistreated in any way that might have affected their learning, that’s one student too many. What we want is to make sure the environment for learning is as safe, comfortable and respectful as possible. 

The Catalyst: USF’s St. Petersburg campus started having discussion groups on dismantling racism last year. What are the plans for the future of these groups? 

Dr. Brown: St. Pete had it first. They began having them even before George Floyd. They weren’t as structured as they’re going to be at the Tampa campus. The new programs are going to be a six-week series of conversations in these groups, and our goal is to do them on every campus. We want the groups to be diverse – we don’t want everyone in a session from the same department. The objective really is to try and better understand each other in terms of dismantling racism, anti-Blackness and anti-Brownness. We need it more than ever in terms of the climate we’re living in. 

The Catalyst: How will you measure success? 

Dr. Brown: I haven’t got a true benchmark, but here’s an example. Students and new employees will take a module on the principles of community. Then we look at how many violations of the principles there are. How many violations of the community code of conduct? How many people visit our affirmation response team? Those things will tell us about whether our efforts are being successful.

Also, having ongoing communications is crucial. We’re not trying to make these conversations a one-time wonder – we’re planning to give people booster shots, not just a one-time dose. If people feel more comfortable about having these conversations – that’s going to tell us whether we’re being successful or not. 

The Catalyst: What is your ultimate goal? 

Dr. Brown: My ultimate goal is the same as my personal goal – to be better. I don’t need to be the best – I just need to be better. It’s not good enough to just sustain our current numbers. We have to be able to see an upward trajectory on all three of our campuses when it comes to diversity. I don’t want us to be satisfied with the status quo.

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1 Comment
here we go

1 Comment

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    Carl Lavender

    August 7, 2020 at 3:35 pm

    Excellent. Michelle is doing a great job!!

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