USF tackles systemic racism with resources, dialogue, programs

Initiatives like a two-hour, six-week study circle on Microsoft Teams coming this fall will open up dialogue among students and faculty about race and racial injustices to teach anti-racist behaviors on and off campus. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

From launching a half-million dollar research fund to engaging the community in thought-provoking group discussions, the university is working toward addressing systemic and societal racism at its roots through the investment of educational resources within and beyond the campus’ borders.

Over the summer, USF President Steven Currall announced a series of actions inspired by USF’s Principles of Community, a set of principles to reinforce a “campus climate of mutual support among faculty, staff and students” in order to address systemic racism as well as cultivate a more inclusive and diverse campus environment.

Haywood Brown, USF vice president of institutional equity, was appointed to serve on USF’s Executive Leadership Council and, since then, has been at the forefront of the university’s initiatives to dismantle systemic racism while investing in educational resources for students, faculty and staff on the matter.

Starting in September, the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Equal Opportunity (DIEO) will launch study circles focused on dismantling racism, prejudice, bias and discrimination. This six-week program will consist of discussions in which participants can express their views in a “candid and safe environment,” according to Brown.

“[Participants] will have the opportunity to explore the assumptions and values that underlie long-held beliefs on race, starting from the top all the way down,” Brown said.

Students who register to participate in the study circle will have to attend weekly two-hour meetings on Microsoft Teams during a six-week period. With about 12-15 spots available, students interested in registering will need to email Patsy Sanchez, director of diversity and inclusion.

“This [study circle] is unique in that we’re pairing individuals, we do not want a group of individuals who are coming from the same unit or the same department or the same college, in fact, we want to diversify each cohort on a number of demographics and a number of factors that are going to come into play, to create these groups,” Sanchez said. “The idea is that we want individuals to be as different in their views and in their identities so they can have a good dialogue with each other.”

The dates and times for the study circle meetings are not yet finalized, according to Sanchez. At the end of the six-week period, the participants will develop a project based on the meeting’s takeaways.

“The next step will be to … match individuals, to bring individuals to this small circle, based on a number of factors so that they can work together in a safe environment that allows for a very candid discussion,” Sanchez said. “And ultimately, results in enough, you know, trust that they can together work on a project that they’ll bring to fruition.”

Besides the study circles, DIEO will continue to offer implicit bias training throughout the fall semester. The training, which is one of DIEO’s most requested and offered training across campus, will allow participants to look into the thought process involved with implicit bias as well as challenge stereotypes and behaviors.

As a way to provide an additional resource to the USF community, the Office of Student Success and DIEO will be partnering to create the Principles of Community Affirmation Team (PCAT), a forum for students, faculty and staff to address behaviors or actions that appear to violate the university’s Principles of Community.

“Occasionally things are said or done online or in person that some people of our community may feel are inconsistent with our values. And we would like to be able to not just respond to that particular incident, but in the process, try to affirm what we believe in and educate our community about those principles,” Vice President of Student Success Paul Dosal said.

“The last thing we want to do is create a team that is going to monitor speech and behavior,” Dosal said. “We’re not going to do that. Instead what we want to do is educate the community, and be able to promote in an affirmative way the principles that we hold dear.”

Brown said the PCAT will be launched sometime in the fall semester.

For instance, over the summer, Dosal said a staff member made a post on social media that some considered to be offensive and were concerned about their safety. While they weren’t sure how to address it, they brought it to Dosal and Brown’s attention, who referred the incident to University Police (UP), general counsel and Student Conduct and Ethical Development.

When evaluating possible actions, Dosal said they addressed the concerns directly with the staff.

“We took steps to affirm what we believe in, we took steps to address concerns expressed by staff in a way that I hope can serve as perhaps a model for the kind of practice we want this team to do once it’s set up,” Dosal said.

Dosal said the team will sort the cases as they come in and, depending on each case, they might be referred to other departments, including Student Conduct and Ethical Development, or even UP.

“So first, they have to triage it and determine if it’s an incident or case that the team should take a look at rather than refer out,” Dosal said.

The PCAT for the Tampa campus will consist of about 12-15 members. Dosal said the St. Pete and Sarasota-Manatee campuses will also have their own, but smaller in size.

The idea to create a similar team was first proposed in 2016 under the name of the Bias Response Team. However, due to concerns regarding freedom of speech and the team’s name, the idea was never implemented.

“Rather than a response team, where we are reacting, we’re creating a Principles of Community Affirmation Team,” Dosal said. “We want to take a positive role and it’s very much an educational role. And I think that the educational role is a key difference. We want to help the community understand the values that we’re promoting and what that means in practice.”

As part of USF’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, Associate Professor in the Sociology Department Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman was appointed Aug. 4 as the Senior Adviser to the President and Provost on Diversity and Inclusion. She will advise university leadership on new initiatives related to anti-racism and cultural inclusivity as it relates to students, staff and faculty.

While working as a liaison between deans, USF Senate and diversity councils, Hordge-Freeman will help set priorities, objectives as well as performance metrics for the university.

Less than a month into the role, Hordge-Freeman said she has spent most of her time “listening, learning and identifying opportunities for growth at USF.”

“My goal is to work with leaders around campus to institutionalize the type of anti-racist initiatives that lead to long-term institutional change, and that, ultimately, eliminate the stark racial differences that are caused by systemic racism,” Hordge-Freeman wrote in an email to The Oracle.

Back in June, Hordge-Freeman was among 81 Black faculty members and staff who wrote a letter to Currall urging the university to develop concrete anti-racist practices as well as take action toward addressing systemic racism within the community. The letter also advocated for the review of university police policies and procedures, evaluation of pay disparities and the recruitment of more Black employees.

As a direct response to the letter, the Offices of the Provost and USF Research and Innovation launched a $500,000 research grant program to support 12-month interdisciplinary projects focused on understanding and addressing the effects of systemic racism at the local, national and international levels.

Applications for the research grant program were open to tenured/tenure-track, full-time research faculty members and instructors or administrators with research assignments at USF. The deadline to submit proposals was Aug. 17.

To support and guide the initiative, the university formed a 41-member task force composed of faculty and staff from all three campuses — Tampa, St. Pete and Sarasota-Manatee — who have done extensive research around the topic of race, inequality, Blackness and anti-Black racism within the community.

Co-Chair of the task force Pritish Mukherjee said the research grant program will serve as seed grants to encourage and support researchers to seek additional funding in the future to further develop their studies.

“We hope that these research grants will see future contributions from private and corporate donors, as well as from external funding agencies … We want to get the seed grants out as soon as possible, so that faculty can start working on it and address these issues because the issues are very timely, and we have to find solutions,” Mukherjee said.

“The sustained solutions to this will of course depend on the success through the seed grants. But the external funding will be more than the initial investment that the university is making.”

Antoinette Jackson, professor and chair of the anthropology department, is among the members of the task force. From participating in drafting the research’s proposal to engaging in meaningful conversations on issues of systemic racism and how they play out, Jackson said that having a diverse task force was essential for its success.

“It was very fulfilling for me in the sense that I got a chance to be part of such a large team across all the university, all invested in this question of anti-Black racism and how to address that,” Jackson said. “Having the combination of all people from engineering, social sciences, medicine and everywhere around the university really made this a really wonderful experience and it improved the proposal.”

For Hordge-Freeman, who is also a member of the task force, the research fund will have a multidimensional impact across different communities.

“What I believe is the most exciting outcome is that the community will benefit directly from our research, and this will pave the way for future collaborations that can lead to additional practical solutions that address the structural problems facing Black communities and families,” Hordge-Freeman said.

The number and total amount of grants awarded are based on the proposal’s scope and scalability, degree of impact and potential to secure external funding in the future. There are three different tiers to apply for, each with a cap on the total amount of funding received for each proposal.

Tier I will fund proposals up to $30,000 while Tiers II and III will fund proposals up to $15,000 and $10,000, respectively. A total of 43 proposals have been submitted and the awards will most likely be distributed by the end of August, according to Mukherjee.

Jackson said USF’s investment in the research fund is only the beginning.

“It’s one thing to say you’re going to do it. It’s another thing if you’re actually invested in it, and the university has shown that they’re willing to invest,” Jackson said. “Showing to the community that you are really ready to put resources toward something that you feel are important is a good initial step, and it puts us in line with other major universities and institutions that are addressing these kinds of concerns.”

Despite the initiatives being new, Brown said the university has always been committed to addressing such issues, but now, under the leadership of Currall, it is doing so with a stronger sense of urgency.

“The murder of George Floyd put a lot of emphasis on the issues that we wanted to address,” Brown said. “It gave them a new sense of urgency, particularly when it comes to recognizing racism and how racism impacts our students, our faculty and our community.

“It fits right into our principles, but it goes at the root of the issue of racism so we can begin to lay out anti-racism strategies and anti-racism messages with a sense of urgency.”