While USF has been vocal about assigning and empowering personnel to actively address institutional racial equity at the university over the past few months, it will now have to re-staff a group that has been in place to ensure diversity at the university’s biggest college — the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS).
All six members of the College of Arts and Sciences Diversity Committee (CASDC) addressed President Steven Currall, Dean Eric Eisenberg and Provost Ralph Wilcox in an email Wednesday announcing their resignation from the committee, noting that “transparency and accountability” were lacking in the administration’s action regarding racial equity at USF.
“I was very surprised to receive the [resignation] letter, I didn’t see that coming,” said Eisenberg. “I completely support the faculty if they feel like they don’t want to serve in that capacity or if they’re frustrated — they certainly have the right to resign like they did, but I was surprised because I thought we were having a good back and forth conversation about how to move things forward.”
The resignation came after the administration did not respond to a request by the committee for a wide range of information, including USF’s institutional equity report throughout Wilcox and Eisenberg’s tenures as well as statistics regarding the policies and practices of the University Police over the past three years.
“Our idea was to gather the information to create a report, put it out there for everybody to see and then start moving towards a diversity initiative at the college level, and then hopefully at the university level,” said Pablo Brescia, former chair of the CASDC.
This request for information was part of a 10-point plan CASDC created, consisting of specific actions to address systemic racism within CAS. It included: requiring students to pass courses on anti-racism and discrimination issues prior to graduation, multicultural competence and sensitivity training for faculty, staff and administration, as well as creating “sanctuary spaces” for minority students at the college and across all three campuses — Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee — following the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department in Minnesota.
“[The CASDC] asked [Eisenberg] and the college to take a stand, and he asked us to make an action plan, a more concrete action plan, instead of just a statement of solidarity,” said Brescia.
Members of CASDC include three nine-month faculty members, an instructor and staff member from CAS who were all working on the committee on a voluntary basis.
A letter was sent on June 16 detailing the plan as well as requesting information from USF’s administration, including CAS officials, Currall and Wilcox.
“Our task is to advise the dean — that’s the task of this committee, which is a small committee within the college,” said Brescia. “We were asking for some information in order to put together a report to best advise the dean and we did not get it.”
In July, USF’s Vice President of Institutional Equity Haywood Brown and Senior Advisor on Diversity and Inclusion Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman met with CASDC’s members to discuss the points highlighted in the June 16 letter.
“I was asked to meet with them to discuss the deliberation of the committee’s work that they had submitted through Dr. Eisenberg to the President and Provost,” said Brown in email correspondence with The Oracle.
However, there was no response from the university to their inquiry for information mentioned in the letter as part of their 10-point plan, according to Brescia.
“The main problem for us is that we never got an answer to the [letter’s request],” said Brescia. “The only one that responded was [Eisenberg], he followed the hierarchy for the university structure, and we had a meeting with him — but neither he, nor the Provost’s Office or the President’s Office responded to our request for information.”
“They could have responded ‘No,’ they could’ve said ‘No, we don’t have it,’” said Brescia.
The data remained a point of discord between administration and the CASDC, and Eisenberg was also unsure on why the requested records were never given to the committee.
“I’m not sure, I don’t know why they didn’t get the data they wanted, some of the data they asked for probably doesn’t exist, some of it definitely does exist,” said Eisenberg. “My feeling is that now that there’s a special adviser to the president on race issues, that she can now pull that all together under one big umbrella and we can get all of the data and create a dashboard and create goals.”
After no correspondence regarding their request for data about USF’s past equity reports, Brescia requested a meeting with Currall directly to discuss their plans following the first week of classes in the fall semester.
“When [Currall] got this request from the [CASDC], he and the provost and I sat down and said ‘Should we respond to each college individually, because there’s 13 colleges at USF, or should we try to take a more coordinated approach where all of the deans kind of funnel things up to the president and provost so we can be sure to stay coordinated?’” said Eisenberg.
It was decided that USF administration would take the latter approach, and Eisenberg reached out to Brescia to communicate the decision.
“While all of the issues your committee raises are critical — and institutional responses to many of them are currently being considered and developed — we feel that the institutional strategy will be more coordinated, meaningful and sustainable if we work through existing structures [like the] Dean’s Office [and] Faculty Senate and universitywide mechanisms then pursue multiple one-off meetings, unit-by-unit, with executive leadership,” said Eisenberg in his email to Brescia on Aug. 30 regarding his request for a meeting with Currall.
Eisenberg also expressed a desire to meet with CASDC again to review their concerns and identify areas that had seen progress or still needed improvement so that he could relay them on behalf of CAS to USF administration.
“In the message, he mentioned meeting with us again to see where the college was at and where we could improve, but never — again, going back to the document — never getting to ‘Where is the data for us to do this?’” said Brescia regarding Eisenberg’s email response.
The decision regarding channeling communication through college deans to executive university leadership was an attempt to make each college’s route of action more cohesive as a university, according to Eisenberg.
“I understand that the things that have happened in this country in the last few months everyone is feeling such a burning desire to not miss the moment and to make real change,” said Eisenberg. “We have to do that — but I think, as someone who studies organizational change, I think the way you do that is by really being focused and coordinated and making sure it’s not like 20 different projects, but actually you know we’re all sort of marching the same way.
“That’s what the President and the Provost are trying to do – it wasn’t that they didn’t want to respond to them, it’s that they wanted to respond to them in coordination with everything else that’s going on.”
The committee felt that the lack of resources provided to it inhibited its ability to fully engage with the tasks it was set forth to do.
“[Our resignation] was not an act of capriciousness because we were not getting what we wanted — it was more of not being able to follow through with the request we got from our dean — no information, we didn’t have anywhere else to go,” said Brescia.
“So clearly, we were not being effective in the fulfillment of the task. So we felt that it was time to step down and maybe that way other members of the college can come be a part of the committee and advance the diversity cause at USF, because clearly we have not been able to do it.”
For the committee, receiving the requested data was instrumental for moving forward in their duty of advising Eisenberg on matters regarding diversity and inclusion, and promoting substantive change within CAS.
“I think administration has their hands full — we have a new president, we have consolidation, and when we were working through consolidation, COVID-19 hit, and then the killing of George Floyd and others, and the racial tensions in the country. So it’s too many fronts — I understand that, the committee totally understood this — on the other hand, being diverse and inclusive as a university and making USF a better place — that is not the least of our concerns,” said Brescia.